Special Issue: Religion, Healing, and Public Health

You can't hide from religion in Georgia. If you don't go after it with a positive agenda, it will come after you.

—Gary Gunderson, Director, Interfaith Health Program

What Do You Believe In?
Special, Guest-Edited Issue on Religion, Healing, ad Public Health

"You can't hide from religion in Georgia. If you don't go after it with a positive agenda, it will come after you."
Gary Gunderson, Director, Interfaith Health Program

"To understand our patients fully, we need to understand their beliefs, or we will not be effective as their healers."
Lori Arviso Alvord, Assistant Professor of Surgery and Associate Dean for Student Affairs, Dartmouth Medical School

New Perspectives on Health and Healing
Can Science and Religion Work Together?

An integrated exploration
A three-pronged approach to health, healing, and spirituality

A cross-cultural perspective
P. Venugopala Rao, Associate Professor of Physics

Mrs. Bradley's body
Carla Gober, Registered Nurse and Doctoral Candidate, Graduate Division of Religion

Spirituality and Modern Medicine
Science on a wing and prayer?

Between Patient and Healer
Four anthropological observations

Return to Contents

The Interfaith Health Program of the Rollins School of Public Health works to advance the health of communities by building collaborations between faith and health groups.

Academic Exchange: Where are you finding common ground between public health and religion?

Gary Gunderson: A lot of those places are becoming visible right now. At a recent meeting at the Georgia Department of Public Health, I was there with folks from a number of the divisions—of mental health, adolescent health, and other programs around family systems. The specific subject was suicide prevention, which just shatters the boundaries between all sorts of disciplines. Who’s in charge of suicide? Well, nobody is and everybody is. And when you look at a phenomenon like that, you find that there are a number of relevant partners who have to really work hard in order to find a common language, and that we have different ways of describing the same phenomena. The further down the track towards prevention we move,
it turns out there are more and more opportunities to do things. But most of us are professionals at cleaning up messes, not preventing them.

AE: What about territories where public health and religion might simply conflict?

GG: We have a history of working with the state public health department. They first came to us four or five years or so ago, after a major syphilis outbreak among teens in Rockdale County. When they went out and tried to do their thing there, they came under severe attack from conservative Christian leaders over teen pregnancy programs, because they included condoms and things like that. It turns out that would have been really helpful in the syphilis outbreak. To try to engage such a dramatic and obvious public health problem brought everyone, from the director to very front-line public health workers, to extremely hostile territory with the religious groups. Our advice was you can’t hide from religion in Georgia. If you don’t go after it with a positive agenda, it will come after you. So we have been bringing together religious and public health leaders with the intent of identifying the positive history of collaboration that exists in every community in Georgia, at the very same time there is also a negative history. Our only point is to have an adult conversation about how the community organizes, whether it is around pregnancy and sexuality issues or mental health and aging. You have to get both the positive and negative history onto the screen, so that you’re dealing with the full history. And then you can begin in a similar way to deal with the full future, which includes both conflict and obvious points of collaboration.

AE: Faith and health has become a pretty hot topic these days. What accounts for the sudden interest?

GG: Within three days of taking office, President George Bush created a formal Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. And that has accelerated the willingness of all the governmental structures to do more collaboration with faith communities, and in my experience, it’s turned into a much more bipartisan thing. We actually have two cooperative agreements with the federal government right now. One is a cdc contract under which we have created what is called the Institute for Public Health and Faith Collabora-tions, a three-year agreement that creates a leadership institute focused on community-scale transformation. It’s very much about systems thinking, and very interdisciplinary, and the focus is on leadership capacity for collaboration to engage disparities in health. The other cooperative agreement is with the Department of Health and Human Services, and we are one of twenty-one “intermediaries” that are flowing federal funding to build a similar capacity in faith organizations. The politics are tricky. You can’t replace billions with millions, so we don’t want to contribute to the decimation of funding of important domestic programs. The capacity we are building is the capacity to partner with, not replace, government strategies.

AE: How does your idea of being a “fully human” citizen function in faith and public health?

GG: Whether it’s policy level discussion about how to fund faith initiatives or dealing with suicide, all decision makers should at least pause before the mystery of the fact that we are engaging fully human citizens. We in universities find this especially hard, ironically. We are still at the primitive stage of even understanding the mysteries of what it would mean to talk about full humanity. It means dealing with the challenges of this diverse demo-cracy in a way that appreciates the complexity of humanity, from our most basic physical needs to the extraordinary ways our health is shaped over time by social processes. Increasingly, it means finding language to deal with the mysteries of spirituality and religious experience. In some ways, the integrative actions emerging in communities are ahead of our attempts to describe them. Humility and hope are constants in this line of work.