November 15, 1999
Volume 52, No. 12
Carter Center Update:
Interfaith Health Program reaching out in Atlanta
The Lost Children of Rockdale County," a shocking 90-minute documentary produced by public television's "Frontline," brought the Interfaith Health Program's Gary Gunderson into the limelight in Georgia. The film portrayed a group of teenagers in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers and described how their loneliness, lack of parental supervision and longing to belong led to drugs, alcohol, group sex and violence.
On GPTV's follow-up discussion panel, Gunderson said, "It is not about stopping this behavior but about starting something positive. Our kids are left at home. They are humans. They need to have some images about what it means to be a grown-up. All the grown-ups they saw focused on accumulating big houses and on their own pleasures, and the teens already live in big houses, so they focused on pleasures."
Gunderson and his staff grapple with such issues daily at the Interfaith Heath Program (IHP). Created in 1992 at The Carter Center to link the faith and health communities, IHP is now preparing to move to the School of Public Health and closer to the Atlanta community.
"We are moving to the resources that we have always worked with," said Gunderson. IHP has formed a Faith and Health Consortium of public health schools, theology schools or seminaries in five U.S. cities. Capetown, South Africa, was added as the first international partner, and Bangelore in India may be the next.
To facilitate its extensive local involvement, IHP will be physically located off campus at the Chamber of Commerce building in downtown Decatur.
"We are delighted that Rev. Dr. Gunderson and the Interfaith Health Program will be becoming part of the Rollins School of Public Health," said public health Dean Jim Curran.
Although a part of public health, IHP will be tightly linked to the School of Theology, the religion department and the School of Nursing. Both Gunderson and Fred Smith, director of the "whole communities" project at IHP, teach in theology. And Fran Warner, coordinator of the Faith and Health Consortium, was on the nursing faculty prior to joining IHP. Public health graduate Mimi Kiser coordinated IHP's dissemination of best practices, an accumulation of models from around the country.
IHP staff has been directly involved in major networks of congregations in Atlanta. For instance, Smith directs Atlanta Heath Ministries, a group of two dozen congregations largely in African-American neighborhoods teaching youth ministers about adolescent heath issues such as teenage pregnancy, drugs, alcohol and youth violence. "They do more than Bible study," Gunderson said. "They really engage the critical adolescent health issues their children deal with, so it integrates knowledge from the heath discipline directly into community service role of congregations."
"The faith and health movement is not a temporary, two-or four-year project," said Gunderson. "It reflects a fundamental change in the understanding of what it takes to be a leader in this culture at this time. The faith and health movement is a very important way of understanding the challenge of leadership formation not only within religious leadership, but also within health leadership. We are seeing more and more leaders in both fields wanting to get credentials in the other field. So in that sense, interfaith health stands at the boundary between two disciplines."
IHP finds itself on other important boundaries, including that between religious and government organizations. The crisis in Rockdale county highlighted the challenge of "getting all hands on deck," as Gunderson phrased it on the TV panel.
"The big gain," Gunderson said, "is found in what faith groups do with, not apart from, the other community structures that can protect our kids and create healthy cities for all of us."
Natasha Singh is communications coordinator at The Carter Center.