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Offering A Healing Hand; Religious groups can bolster the health of their surrounding communities

By Jimmy Carter

This article appeared in the Oct. 21, 1996, issue of Time magazine.

Medical science is increasingly documenting the link between spirituality and physical health. A TIME article this past June reported a new study showing that one of the strongest predictors of survival after open-heart surgery is the degree to which patients draw strength and comfort from religion, and that people who regularly attend religious services usually have lower blood pressure, less heart disease, lower rates of depression, and better health overall than those who do not. Yet this effect of spirituality on the health of individuals ignores the much greater potential benefits from links between organized faith groups and the surrounding communities.

Traditionally, religious communities have considered the primary fruits of their community outreach to be justice and charity, which focus on one's relationships with others. But religious groups also have a central role to play in improving the health of those in the neighborhood.

This does not require medical skills. The 20th century's biggest gains in life expectancy have come from broadbased public health initiatives such as immunization, sanitation, food inspection, and mandated safety measures. After decades of hard work in these areas, most people in this country no longer fear dying from communicable diseases, bad water, or job-related injuries.

Studies at The Carter Center have shown that two-thirds of premature deaths (those before age 65) are due to smoking, excessive drinking, improper diet, lack of exercise, violence, environmental abuse, or dangerous sexual practices; in other words, behavior choices that are preventable and which, in many cases, are influenced by marketing ploys of major, profit-driven companies.

Stopping people from making these unhealthy choices is not easy because of the complexity of emotions, intelligence, and societal influences that shape decisions of individuals and populations at large.

A few years ago, we assembled leaders at our Center from about 20 Christian denominations, plus groups of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahais, and other faiths. Despite the differences among us, there was one issue on which we could all agree: the prevention and alleviation of suffering. From this has grown a national interfaith health program, within which many congregations now share ideas and experiences through regional meetings, periodicals, and the Internet.

Since no profit-driven system is likely to serve or finance all basic needs of the sick and elderly, we are finding more and more that religious groups can fill the gap between those things for which a healthcare system can pay and the many services it will never provide. Thousands of congregations have found that this is an exciting and gratifying way to practice what we profess to accept from our holy scriptures.

Currently, more than 7,000 congregations in the United States have some kind of trained health personnel engaged in neighborhood work. Some are placed by local hospitals, a few are paid, but most volunteer their time. The number of these health workers, or parish nurses as they often are called, is rapidly growing, as are the number of volunteers who join them and the variety of programs they initiate.

Although most of these workers have medical training, few provide clinical services. Most assist sick neighbors in practical ways, by arranging rides to doctors, advising caregivers with dependent family members, or helping elderly and illiterate persons wade through complex paper work to receive Medicare or social security benefits. Others might warn about addiction to smoking or other drugs, or organize congregation members to phone homebound neighbors and to drop by if the call isn't answered. These services are within the capability of every church, synagogue, or mosque in America.

Most religious groups are not equipped to identify and examine root causes of health risks, while public health initiatives alone do not motivate people to come together in a caring, spiritual way. But when combined, change is possible, and lives are saved.

We encounter some special cases. In many neighborhoods, the most fearsome suffering is among children - from firearms. But how can we move beyond the tears? Working together, community groups including clergy, public health workers, and police officers can effectively apply public health strategies and conduct research - as would happen with a case of polio, cholera, or tuberculosis - to help determine contributing factors in the death or injury of any child by a gun, groundwork that can help prevent such tragedies in the future. These efforts combine scientific process with religious commitment to stop the violence.

Faith is a powerful force that moves millions of people beyond their own self interest to help others. In light of this power, we should remember that, beyond the beneficial impact of personal faith upon the health of an individual, its potential impact upon the health of communities is even more astounding.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is chairman of The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, which promotes peace, democracy, and health worldwide. The Center's Interfaith Health Program helps faith communities nationwide prevent disease and promote health, and its "Not Even One" program works to prevent the death of children by guns.

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