Interfaith Inspiration

My Grandmother’s Advice to Tending to the Body, Mind, and Spirit

Suzanne Watts Henderson (left) with her grandmother (second from right) at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, 1980s. Courtesy photo

Suzanne Watts Henderson (left) with her grandmother (second from right) at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, 1980s. Courtesy photo

“Fresh air and sunshine!” These four words capture my maternal grandmother’s prescription for just about any ailment, from an upset stomach to a sibling squabble to a skinned knee.  

Born in Chicago in 1895, Nanny lived most of her 103 years in the city, working night shifts at Fannie May through the Great Depression so she could provide both financially and relationally for her four kids. Nanny never had a driver’s license, which meant she walked to the Jewel through Chicago blizzards and, in her later years, a mile each day to visit my grandfather in a nursing home on Lake Shore Drive. 

At my aunt’s cottage on a small Wisconsin lake, she’d float in the channel for hours on end before sitting on the dock at sunset, a small glass of Almaden Chablis in hand. Weather permitting, she’d rise early each morning to sit outside, listen to the birds, work her puzzles, and read her Daily Word devotional. 

Nanny wasn’t opposed to conventional medicine, but she treated it as a last recourse. In fact, when she entered the hospital for cataract surgery in her early 90s, it shocked the nurse to learn that she hadn’t seen a doctor in thirty years or been in the hospital since the birth of her last child (my mom) half a century earlier. Looking back, I see now that it was under Nanny’s “fresh air and sunshine” influence that I have always placed a premium on exercising outside and on quiet spiritual practices rooted in a reverence for nature. I’ve carried forward, too, her reticence toward both prescription drugs (Vicks VapoRub was Nanny’s drug of choice) and “big medicine” (ask my kids how often I took them to the doctor!). 

I often wonder what Nanny would think of what I’m up to now, as I lead Interfaith America’s growing Faith & Health sector, where I spend my days lifting up the positive potential our diverse religious landscape as we seek to improve health outcomes — from vaccine uptake to HIV and AIDS treatment to building interfaith skills among current and future health providers. My conversation partners include leaders in health systems, pre-health programs, medical education, and yes, even the pharma industry. In some ways, it seems a far cry from my “fresh air and sunshine” upbringing. 

Yet earlier this year, the common thread emerged. Largely through coincidence, I’d gotten to know AdventHealth’s CEO Terry Shaw, first on a Zoom call and then when he graciously invited me to their corporate headquarters in Orlando. As leader of a health system rooted in Seventh Day Adventist teachings, Terry is committed to inclusive, faith-based health care that carries forward the “healing ministry of Christ.” He takes seriously the integration of this mission throughout the system’s 51 hospitals and countless outpatient centers.  

Terry and his team are convinced that the very best in evidence-based health care only grows more effective when we treat people, not problems, and when we find ways to tap into the healing power of such intangibles as love, hope, and joy. That’s why AdventHealth stepped up to sponsor our recent Faith & Health convening at the Chautauqua Institution, where thirty-three leaders from across our health ecosystem gathered around the question, “How can we work together to unlock the positive potential of our nation’s religious diversity in health settings?” It was a catalyzing moment for a movement that’s decades in the making. 

Fresh air and sunshine

“Fresh air and sunshine”? Only recently did my new friends at AdventHealth trace the phrase back to the core teachings of Ellen G. White, co-founder of Adventist thought and practice. 

In Adventist circles, “whole person care” has always been about tending to the body, mind, and spirit, and doing so in ways that elevate the healing power of nature through diet, activity, and our environment. I’m pretty sure Nanny is cheering us on as we do our part to unlock the inspiration, social capital, and indeed healing power of our variegated spiritual landscape. Stay tuned for our next steps as we walk this path with gratitude and joy.