Emory Report

February 2, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 19

Gunderson's new book gets
to roots of community health

The recurring theme of roots in Gary Gunderson's writing stems from his belief that pushing to the root of issues ensures the greatest revelation.

Gunderson, director of the Interfaith Health Program at The Carter Center, has written the book Deeply Woven Roots: Improving the Quality of Life in Your Community, which is not-so-coincidentally similar in name to his 1978 master's thesis at the Candler School, "The Roots of Hunger: Implications for the Church." "I've always been interested in holding people of faith accountable to their full capacities to respond to the clearest understanding of the problems of the world," he said.

Deeply Woven Roots explores the role of religious groups in strengthening the roots of community. It draws on models discovered in the Interfaith Health Program, which works closely with religious groups, hospitals and public health organizations throughout the United States. "What we're trying to do in our program is move beyond cheerleading to get churches, synagogues and mosques to do more and push to the root of issues," Gunderson said.

"New patterns of collaboration emerging among social institutions-including government, religious, private, voluntary and for-profit organizations-reflect deep and enduring shifts in social currents. But you can't just run out a wish list of [government and industry] services for congregations to take care of. We begin with what the enduring strengths of congregations are and build from there."

Eight of the book's nine chapter titles begin with the word "strength," which Gunderson hopes to provide readers through real, sometimes personal, experience and insight. These strengths-the power to accompany or connect, for example-are channeled through immediate programs of caregiving or service but may adapt over time to many other community needs. The underlying strengths endure, but the programs stemming from them can change quite radically, Gunderson explained. "The smarter we are about the root strengths [of congregations], the more likely it is that our programs will be effective and sustainable.

"It's obvious I speak from a Christian tone of voice," he added. "But the congregational strengths are common to all faiths." His work with the Interfaith Health Program helped Gunderson learn that "on the streets it's clear the real contest is not between different faiths, but between those with faith and those in despair."

Gunderson didn't always find it easy to sandwich writing between his administrative duties and a heavy lecture schedule, but the latter often worked to his advantage. Gunderson used his lectures to audiences and congregations of vastly different socioeconomic levels and racial and ethnic backgrounds to test the book's hypotheses. "I found this framework helped [congregation] leaders recognize their own strengths-often when they only saw problems and weakness. So it seemed important to get it out in book form."

About 10 percent of congregations repeatedly do what Gunderson calls the "heavy lifting" of community work. Nationally, this means about 30,000 religious communities form the core of what Gunderson calls the "faith and health movement."

"Deeply Woven Roots is not spun out of imaginary thread," he noted, "but grew out of my attempt to describe and understand the enormous strength this key minority of congregations demonstrates decade after decade."

Early sales of the book are encouraging. It will be used in courses around the country, Gunderson reported, including two at Emory this spring. He hopes the book also will expand the reach of the Interfaith Health Program. "I've heard that if you want to make a short-term impact, you sell an answer. If you want to make an enduring contribution, sell your question. There are signs everywhere that people of faith are asking the right questions and finding their strengths."

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