This multi-day gathering brought together leaders from across the health ecosystem (academic medicine, theological education, health system leadership, faith-based organizations, foundations, etc.) around one shared question: How can we work systemically to unlock our religiously diverse identities and communities for our mutual flourishing?
The gathering focused on three key topics — whole person care, workforce resilience, and health equity — and featured public lectures and rich small group discussion. We paid tribute to an incredible leader who passed away earlier last month and addressed topics including mental health, spiritual caregiving, and integrative medicine, with an incredible panel of speakers who explored the positive potential that our diverse religious identities and communities offer.
Here are four things we learned from our convening:
#1: We need to tell more stories.
Over our few days together, many attendees shared stories of faith, hope, and resilience within their work and local communities. Each narrative emphasized the potential of our diverse faith traditions to promote health equity and whole person care, and to do that, health providers, clergy, and patients must acknowledge that they are ‘human first.’ And that comes from telling more stories. As one attendee put it, “A movement is inspired by story, not just data.”
We heard from David Tillman and Amy Hinkleman about their work in Combatting Vaccine Hesitancy with Faith: in the first year of the global pandemic, COVID deaths among Native Americans were significantly higher than any other ethnic or racial group in America due to exceedingly poor public health infrastructure coupled with deep-seated mistrust. In response, a group of public health students in North Carolina led by Dr. Tillman, supported by a grant from Interfaith America, worked to foster trusting relationships to tackle vaccine hesitancy and combat misinformation with the Coharie tribe in Sampson County.
We also heard about the power of storytelling to highlight patient stories, including lessons learned while acknowledging the role of religion in health. As convening participant Ulysses Burley writes, “Treating people versus treating disease means considering everything that people bring with them when assessing their well-being, including their faith, because faith is a social determinant of health.”. Tish Harrison Warren’s recent New York Times interview with Eboo Patel, “Why We Shouldn’t Lose Faith in Organized Religion,” elevates the legacy and positive potential of faith communities.
#2: Meaningful work is already happening, and we need to capture it through asset mapping.
Leading with the end in mind, we began our convening by acknowledging the rich work that is already happening at grassroots and grass tops level. As we concluded our gathering, attendee Gary Gunderson shared that, “We need more artists and storytellers and locals on the ground. We need to systematically map out our assets and social relationships and review that overlap.” As Interfaith America continues this work, we will continue plotting the institutions, organizations, and networks leading the way in this work. An asset map includes network building, and we invite you and your colleagues to join our growing circle of faith and health leaders.
#3: “Healthcare doesn’t need to be right; it just needs to be true.”
As Jonathan Walton shared at the opening dinner, “Disease is physical, but illness is social, and can tear oneself and community apart. If we are talking about the physical; then we are also talking about the mental, spiritual, and social.” We explored barriers to equitable healthcare, and how to combat the growing pandemic of loneliness and isolation.
We also heard from attendees who shared that part of building leadership in the faith and health spaces requires uplifting local best practices and centering on communities of color that have been historically overlooked. Naila Ansari urged us to think about how we can get our communities to tell their truths. We heard multiple stories about the “Hospitality Problem,” in which patients or partners often say what they think to be the “polite” or the “right” answer when asked their opinion, rather than what is actually true (and may be seen as inhospitable). The only way to design equitable health solutions is through building relationships, which takes time and trust. We explored questions around whether this work is scalable. How do we center our healthcare systems on community-based practices?
#4: We need to continue codifying best practices and increase training to equip students, practitioners, and leaders with the capacity to engage diverse religious identities and communities meaningfully.
As we concluded each session, we emphasized capturing best practices and resources of work happening at the intersection of faith and health. We spoke about the need for continued learning opportunities for practitioners and students to better serve patients and community members. As Interfaith America looks ahead, we are eager to continue building resources for health field educators and leaders. As a starting point, our growing library of case studies supplies resources for training in academic and professional settings.
At Interfaith America, we recognize that our nation’s religious diversity is a key asset as we build healthier communities where everyone belongs. We are committed to building communities of practice to achieve that vision – from college students to faith-based organizations to health systems. We invite you to be part of this meaningful work – whether it’s sharing a story of impact, partnering with us, or exploring our resources.