Health Promotion and Communities of Faith: A match made in Heaven?

Or maybe a match made on earth, I am actually not sure, but I know that this is indeed a good match. In recent years, the work of many communities of faith in promoting HIV testing and prevention has been labeled by the media as a “ground breaking” tool in the fight against AIDS. There are two reasons we say “groundbreaking” here: first, communities of faith provide a captive audience; and second religious leaders are perceived as influential in the individual’s decision making process.  This synergy makes the faith environment an opportune space to build health literacy. As of late, media has framed this as a new key to fighting HIV/AIDS.  Yet, communities of faith have been promoting healthy practices, advocating on behalf of those who lack access to care, and providing a range of health services like nutrition, mental health counseling and HIV testing for years. Most faith traditions promote a social wellbeing and justice environment, which responds to their mandate of caring for those most in need, including the poor and the sick.

While many faith communities have been providing health ministry for years, this mission is sometimes drowned out by more controversial beliefs.  We can see this in strong focus of the mass media on the most controversial points of view, such as those regarding contraception and reproductive health. But there is much more to holistic health than those two issues! In our work with communities of faith, through the Latino Religious Leadership Program (LRLP), we have Roman Catholic Churches, for example, that promote HIV and Hepatitis C testing among couples getting ready for marriage. Also, historical churches, like the Episcopal (Anglican), Methodist, Lutheran and many Pentecostal churches actively promote health awareness through health fairs, health ministries that include health education workshops and referrals to services, while actively participating in coalitions to promote healthy habits, like proper nutrition, diabetes awareness, tobacco cessation, and drug & alcohol counseling. It is important to remember that not all “churches” (a common way to refer to communities of faith) believe the same; we have variations in doctrine regarding social issues, like abortion and same sex relationships. But there is one important common denominator among them: all communities of faith seek to promote wholeness (the capacity of the individual to achieve her/his best potential) through health, and that includes physical, mental, and spiritual health. Also, communities of faith value health as a way to preserve and honor what God has created.

One of the main challenges I see from other health organizations, especially AIDS Service Organizations, is that they have doubts and fears about approaching communities of faith.  The fact is there are a few key strategies we have learned over the 17 years in our work that may help you get started.

FIRST, do some homework and learn all you can about the local community in which the particular community of faith is located. Take a walk in the neighborhood during the day and, if it is safe, in the evening. This gives you a chance to learn about services available already in the area, like homeless shelters, recovery meetings, and health clinics. It also helps you understand the characteristics of the area and particularities about this community of faith, as well as learning whether the support you want to offer is an innovative idea or if it will complement services already existing.  Also, pay attention to other aspects of daily life, like business activity and transportation; these give you an idea how the needs, opportunities and infrastructure of the community influence the quality of life of the residents. When possible, attend a religious service in the community of faith you are interested in engaging.

SECOND, reach out and establish a relationship with the leadership of the community of faith that you are interested in approaching. The leadership of a community of faith usually has the Pastor, Priest, Deacon, Reverend, Rabi, Imam, etc; but there are also lay leaders (leaders that are not clergy, but play an active role in the life of the community).  Think about these lay leaders as gatekeepers, and approach them with a conciliatory tone. Remember all you have learned through your observations, but acknowledge that the leadership of the community of faith might have specific experiences and points of view that could be different from yours. At this point, you might be more interested in them than they may be in you. Cultivating this relationship takes time and effort. If you find skepticism from the leadership in the beginning, don’t be discouraged and visit them from time to time; this will allow both parties to get to know each other better.

THIRD, once the relationship is established with the leadership of the community of faith, remember that your primary role is to promote your services in the community, and not to challenge the beliefs and traditions in place. In our experience, some service providers come with a second agenda to challenge doctrine or theologies, which often closes doors for the health service organization.  A few tips that will help maintain a good relationship with the faith leaders:

  • Always ask what is appropriate to offer and what topics are out of boundaries.
  • Avoid confrontations at all cost, particularly those regarding theological and pastoral issues, because confrontations will undermine your initial efforts.
  • Respect all the traditions of the place, and, when appropriate, participate with the community in their activities.

Occasionally, after the work of building the relationship, you may decide that this particular partnership does not fit your goals as a health promoter. This is ok!  Remember to be polite about the changes that you would like in the partnership and thank the leadership for opening the doors to you.  Often it helps to explain that you might not be coming as frequently, but leave the door open for future collaborations. If possible, come back once in awhile to say hi.

These are just some basic ideas that can help you navigate a new territory. During your free time, read online about different faith traditions, and learn what they believe and how their approaches change from region to region. Feel free to download the 2011-2012 LRLP Evaluation Report and learn more about the scope of our work. So, as you can see, health education and communities of faith can be “match made in heaven”, and the community is there, ready to work with you!

By: Daniel Leyva, Program Director Latino Religious Leadership Project

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