Yet the effect of spirituality on the health of individuals ignores the much greater potential benefits from links between organized faith groups and their surrounding communities.
Traditionally, religious groups 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 broad-based 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 prior to 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 that 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 at our center leaders from about 20 Christian denominations, plus groups of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahais and other faiths. Despite our differences, there was one goal on which we could all agree: the prevention and alleviation of suffering. From this has grown the center's 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 the 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 health-care 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 Scripture.
Currently more than 7,000 congregations in the U.S. 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 are often called--is rapidly growing, as is 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 ailing neighbors in practical ways: by arranging rides to doctors, advising caregivers with dependent family members, or helping elderly or illiterate persons wade through complex paperwork to receive Medicare or Social Security benefits. Some may warn about addiction to tobacco or other drugs, or organize congregation members to phone homebound neighbors and drop by if the call isn't answered. Performing these services is within the capability of every church, synagogue and mosque in America.
Most religious groups are not equipped to identify and examine root causes of health risks; at the same time, public health initiatives alone do not motivate people to come together in a caring, spiritual way. But when they are 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, health workers and police officers, can effectively apply public health strategies and conduct research, as in the case of polio, cholera or tuberculosis, to help determine contributing factors in the death or injury of any child by a gun. This is groundwork that can help prevent such tragedies in the future. These efforts combine scientific process with religious commitment to stop the violence.
The effect of faith on the health of individuals is significant, but its potential impact on the health of communities is astounding.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is chairman of the Carter Center in Atlanta, which promotes peace, democracy and health around the world.
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