American Civic Life

What Next? Faith & Health in This “Post-Pandemic” Moment

SEVERN, MARYLAND - MARCH 23: Maryland residents receive the COVID-19 vaccine through the community COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Metropolitan United Methodist Church March 23, 2021 in Severn, Maryland.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

SEVERN, MARYLAND - MARCH 23: Maryland residents receive the COVID-19 vaccine through the community COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Metropolitan United Methodist Church March 23, 2021 in Severn, Maryland. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

This week brought the end of the federal COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, and with it, the end of extraordinary measures used to track and treat the virus. Already, most of us have lowered our masks, shoving them in drawers or glove compartments, not quite sure when we’ll need them next. We are, it seems, ready to move on.

But far from a “return to normalcy,” we at Interfaith America have turned the corner from the pandemic more eager than ever to build a stronger, healthier social fabric informed by what the last three years have brought to light. We’ve lost loved ones and neighbors, with the weakest communities suffering the most; we’re less connected to one another, especially across lines of difference; and our fragile mental health is wreaking havoc in both quiet and catastrophic ways.

In fact, just last week, the Surgeon General’s office sounded a wakeup call on this matter of growing concern. Its Advisory on “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” lays out not just the physical and emotional perils of this crisis but also the healing effects of social connection. Outcomes on a range of conditions from high blood pressure to heart disease to diabetes to depression can all be measurably improved by connecting to community.

At IA, we believe that our diverse religious traditions and worldviews at their best both bind us to a community of meaning, belonging, and purpose and inspire us to reach out, across difference, to promote the wellbeing of all people. When it comes to our personal and collective health — both physical and emotional — we’re working to integrate faith and health in ways that foster human flourishing and improve health outcomes. In the wake of the pandemic, we’re building a national community of practice among educators teaching the next generation of health workers, as well as industry leaders working to engage religious diversity to strengthen whole person care, health equity, and the vitality of healthcare providers.

Over the last year, three campus-based grant programs have engaged faculty and staff from across the country in a range of projects designed to integrate faith and health in courses and curricula, across campus, in their academic fields, and in the community. From Vanderbilt to Roanoke College, from Fayetteville State to LaVerne, educators are positioning religion as a social determinant of health for students in nursing, athletic training, public health, and more. They’re also connecting with diverse faith communities to address such issues as the ongoing plague of HIV and AIDS among communities of color in the South and hosting hard campus conversations around sexuality through a lens of spirituality.

Beyond our campus efforts, IA is expanding our network to engage leaders and institutions working to unlock the positive potential of religion across the health ecosystem. In July, we’ll join the Chautauqua Institution to host a Faith & Health Convening for nearly 30 leaders from a range of health-related settings. Those attending come from health systems such as AdventHealth and Advocate Health; organizations from Catholic Health Association to Partners in Health; academic institutions including Harvard, Yale, Wake Forest, Campbell, Duke, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, GWU, and Brandeis; nonprofits addressing HIV and AIDS, addiction, and environmental impacts; and theological institutions from Princeton to Graduate Theological Union/Berkeley. Together, this powerhouse gathering will take up such questions as these:

  • How can we institutionalize productive engagement of diverse religious identities (patient and provider) in health-related organizations and institutions to promote positive health outcomes?
  • How can we strengthen community partnerships that engage our nation’s religious diversity to promote health equity and access?
  • How can we elevate public narrative about the promise of our diverse religious identities and communities for our mutual wellbeing?

Put simply, we plan to catalyze a movement that bridges the perceived faith and health divide in ways that we know promote human flourishing.

In their Atlantic article, “American Religion Is Not Dead Yet,” Wendy Cadge (one of our Chautauqua speakers) and Elan Babchuck say that those pronouncing last rites over religion are overlooking a groundswell of creative revisions to its traditional trappings. Put simply, we humans crave meaning and belonging, we need ways to mark time, and we long to help make the world a better place. And even if the percentage of those unaffiliated with a religious tradition is growing, it’s still the case that most Americans identify as either religious or spiritual. And nowhere is that deeper connection to the sacred more important than around questions of life and death, of body and breath.

Both the post-pandemic fallout and the opportunities that lie ahead call to mind the Japanese practice of kintsugi (“golden joining”) — the use of gold to repair broken pottery. Kintsugi doesn’t mask the seams; it beautifies them, restoring the vessel to a new form of wholeness. Might this “post-pandemic” moment be our nation’s kintsugi season? Might we infuse our broken places — both personal and communal — with the kind of gold that binds us? Might we both acknowledge our gaps and fissures, with all their pain, while repurposing them as sites deserving of our most precious care? I hope so. Will you join us?