What is the role of churches on health and wellness, healing and healthcare in the world? Is this role restricted to church members for whom the churches have an obvious responsibility, or does it extend beyond the Christian community? How is that role different from the burden of duty for healthcare that governments have?
Churches and other faith-based organisations have been involved in healthcare and healing ministries for centuries. Values of love, compassion, solidarity and justice have motivated people of faith all over the world into positive action. The question is therefore how churches can deploy their health assets amid today’s challenges of pandemics, climate change and unequal distribution of resources not least health-related ones.
These are not new questions or considerations. The WCC itself has been wrestling with these concerns since its foundation in 1948.
During its first two decades, the WCC helped churches in developing countries, especially those emerging from colonialism, to re-organise their health work and create mechanisms for joint planning and cooperation among themselves and with the national governments. Several national and regional Christian health networks were thus established in that period, most of which are still operational today, in several African countries, and in India, Pakistan and other countries, where they contribute significantly to national health care coverage..
For over 200 years, medical missionaries provided much-needed healthcare in almost all parts of the world. In 1968, the WCC Assembly in Uppsala, Sweden established the Christian Medical Commission (CMC), to champion coordination and theological reflection on the health work of the churches. The CMC engaged in participatory reflections across the world on the wholistic understanding of health and healing in the context of faith and community realities. One such reflection was that over 95% of church-related health activities and infrastructure were curative and based on the so-called Western model, and that even in areas served by mission hospitals for over 100 years the health status and statistics around the hospitals were no better than outside their catchment areas. A sustained search for a solution to this challenge led to the Alma-Ata Declaration of 1978 on primary healthcare, to which the WCC contributed substantively, with a slogan of “Health for All by the Year 2000”.
Primary Health Care principles of wholistic healthcare, multi-sectoral collaboration, addressing root causes of ill health, community participation and self-reliance, quest for partnership and freeing economic resources by disarmament, remain relevant and needed.
The CMC also contributed the concepts of essential drug lists, the guidelines for donations of medical supplies, principles of pooled procurement and other important public health models.
When HIV and AIDS hit, the WHO reached out to the WCC to help mobilise the Christian community towards a solution. From fighting stigma and discrimination, addressing socio-cultural barriers, campaigning for equitable access to treatment and care resources, delivering compassionate healthcare, to mitigating socio-economic impact - churches have been part of the solution, and the WCC in particular has not looked back, in some cases leading from the front, in others from the back.
When the Ebola outbreak was reported in West Africa in 2015, the Christian Health Associations in Liberia and Sierra Leone mobilised local communities and strengthened health services in an approach called “keep safe, keep serving”. The WCC got involved, and together with other faith actors, adapted the WHO burial guidelines, which were purely medical and not resonant with the society, into the “Guidelines for Safe and Dignified Burial” which were culturally sensitive and credited for turning the tide then.
Now again, as we are at a juncture with challenges such as the COVID pandemic, climate emergency with many health consequences, weak and non-resilient health systems, we must ask the right questions and together seek answers. More so, we need closer collaboration and renewed commitment to health to achieve the health goal and the other Sustainable Development Goals.
It seems there is an overt agreement globally that we should not simply work towards a post-COVID reset to the status quo ante bellum, to borrow a more political jargon. COVID did not create, but rather exposed the world’s inequities and fragilities - inequitable distribution of health resources within and among countries, gross health disparities along racial and socio-economic lines, pernicious brain drain of health workforce from poor countries. A majority of countries do not meet the internationally agreed threshold of annual budgetary allocation to health, worse still, the majority of national health budgets are spent on curative services, with health promotion often unprioritised.
Now, what would be the role of churches and faith communities in “building back better”?
To begin with, there is now ample evidence that religion matters in development and that international development agencies are well advised to create frameworks of engaging with faith actors. Religious ideas give people conviction, legitimacy, and willpower to engage in personal and community transformation. Religious practices and experiences inspire people to care for each other and to be active participants and agents of change in their communities and beyond. Religious organisations serve as midwives of social movements by providing leadership and decision-making structures, financial resources, collective identity and purpose.
Churches can help energise a return to a wholistic approach to health that was earlier espoused in the Primary Health Care declaration. The number-one determinant of diseases in the world is poverty, which is the result of oppression, exploitation, marginalization, leadership failures and wars. The current world climate of heightening militarism and struggle for supremacy, dozens of proxy wars and perennial low-intensity conflicts, is preventing millions from experiencing health and wellbeing. Increased military expenditure is suffocating resources for wholistic human development. The WCC understands that health is wholistic: an issue of justice, peace, integrity of creation, personal and communal responsibility, and is systemic.
Building back better also calls for reforming what I call a triad of over-medicalisation, over-specialisation and over-commercialisation of health. Health is not primarily medical; the medical fraternity must therefore stop monopolizing health and start proactively facilitating so that all sectors of societies should contribute to health. The health sector must be more people-centred and change the current fragmentation and a configuration where limited resources are deployed to provide sophisticated treatment for only a few while others are denied even basic healthcare. Our communities will have more trust when it is clear that health policies are made free from commercial interests.
We need to collaborate towards a health system that is wholistic by embracing a healthy balance between promotive, preventive, curative, rehabilitative and palliative care, especially “keeping people healthy” and not treating diseases, a health system that integrates all other sectors of the economy, and a health system that allows itself to be instrumentalised by using health as an entry point to address socioeconomic, cultural, climate and environmental challenges. We also need to build trust between science, politics, spirituality and communities.
Churches and faith communities must be invited and challenged to use their religious health assets: ideas, practices and experiences, and organisations and structures – to creatively address over-medicalisation, over-specialisation and over-commercialisation of health to foster health and well-being for all.
Let me close with a short reflection of Jesus’ healing of a woman on the Sabbath, recorded in the Gospel according to Luke 13:10 – 17. Jesus was in a synagogue teaching on the Sabbath, and there was a woman with an infirmity for 18 years with a bent back and could in no way raise herself up. Jesus touched her and healed her. Perhaps the woman had lost hope of ever experiencing good health again. Perhaps the community had gotten used to seeing her suffer. But finally, the Healer was in town. However, there was an obstacle: it was a Sabbath. One of the hallmarks of the saving nature of the Lord Jesus Christ was his unwillingness to accept delay in the alleviation of suffering. He healed the woman on the Sabbath, arguing that even though the woman had had her disease for many years, it was intolerable to let her suffer one more day to await healing after the Sabbath was over.
Our backs are bent over by the burden of the pandemic. Lives have been lost; jobs and livelihoods lost, low-income economies are collapsing. The climate is at crisis level. We can’t wait to come out of this shadow of darkness. COVID-19 vaccines are expected to provide a solution. But there are obstacles. There are many obstacles. Our plea is that we embrace the impatience of Jesus, do all that is within our power to overcome the obstacles to relieve the suffering of many and accelerate attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.