The current pandemic has shaken us all to our core and created division within the church like I have never seen. As a public health professional and someone who has grown up in the church, this has been a difficult season to process. Health strategies have become politicized and discord has become our biggest weakness in our attempts to promote health and to reopen our country. My heart has been breaking not just from the pandemic, but because like never before, the American church has opportunities to be unified and to be a light for our country and we can do better.
Regardless of your political standpoint and whether or not you agree with your local health guidelines, I implore you to read the following plea to obtain a better understanding of public health and how I believe the church has a window of opportunity to be the most vital piece in turning the pandemic around. The next six months are crucial for this pandemic and we (the church) can set our country on a path of disease containment, healing, unity, and restoration.
What is Public Health?
Public health is a field dedicated to protecting and promoting the health of a population to improve the quality of life. This can include health education, disease prevention, access to care, research, data analysis, disease outbreak response, health policy, well-being, and more. The field of public health has specific degree programs and looks at populations (communities, cities, states, countries, global) and not just a single person at a time. Public Health Specialists are often confused with but different from traditional medical doctors or nurses. Medical doctors and nurses are part of public health systems but are more focused on individual patient care. I chose the path of public health when an epidemiologist explained to me, “A public health professional is to a community like a doctor is to a single patient.” I knew I had a heart to serve people in other countries on a large scale and improve health outcomes, and thus my love for public health began.
Believing the Best
I have worked in the field of public health for the last 13 years. I have held various roles from City to State Health Departments, the CDC, and I currently run a global health organization and teach public health at a university. In all of my years of experience and in all of the varying levels, I have never met a public health professional who did not have the public’s best interest at heart. That does not mean I agreed with every single person I ever worked with, but professionals get into the field of public health to help others. It is not a money-making profession, and in fact, public health programs have been largely underfunded, as 95% of American health funding goes into treatment and medicine instead of prevention and public health.
Somewhere in this messy pandemic we seem to have lost the ability to love and trust one another. Anger and suspicion have become replacements. I beg you to search deep down and see if you can truly believe the best in others. Health regulations are created for protection, not control. It is common to not like change, to question it, and to feel uncomfortable in the process. Believe it or not, seat belt regulations (a public health intervention for injury prevention) took a long time to accept. There was pushback from people who wanted to make their own decisions, and it took years to fully adopt seat belts as a prevention method, but we now see the benefits of lives saved from them. I have not agreed with every policy that has been put in place during this season, but I do believe and know firsthand that public health professionals are working tirelessly, analyzing data, and studying this new disease in order to implement measures to protect us all.
When public health interventions are created, we use statistical analyses to identify which option has the highest likelihood of benefiting the most people in their health. This is one area that is unique to public health compared to one-on-one care at a hospital (population vs. individual health). It is easy for our brains to connect with heartfelt stories of a single anomaly or to get carried away with one patient’s experience, which can create bias. It is not bad to hear and consider those, but biostatistics helps remove personal bias and looks at what is best for large groups of people. In our culture, especially with news and media (making money by getting you hooked and riled up on personal stories), the loudest voices are often a single experience instead of the sound statistical process that’s best for everyone.
This can get complicated, but my point is not to overwhelm you with the inner workings of public health or the theoretical and statistical foundations. I want you to hear from a public health professional that the field was created to help and promote the health of a population, that we don’t get in this field for any other reason, and we have scientific and mathematical methodologies behind our work so we can save as many lives as possible!
Need for Unity
More than anything in this season the church needs to be unified, and I would also add that we need to be adaptable as well. The church needs to be unified in love and not anger or discord or fighting those who are trying to help (Jn 15:17, 1 John 4:7-21, Lev 19:18, Mt 22:39, Mt 5:44). It is easy to let fear of the unknown, unrest from disagreements, or anxiety from other perspectives get the best of us. We have never walked through a global pandemic before or had our norms and habits shaken like they are right now. It is not wrong to feel a flood of emotions with significant and unexpected changes, but we should be careful to not let those emotions be louder than our love and unity. I’ve heard a lot of language lately in the church around battle, war, take back, and may I humbly suggest that this could be a time for humility, peace, and care.
From a public health professional perspective, I want to ask you for your grace. We are not perfect and we have never encountered a global pandemic on this scale before. We also did not have the funding, systems, or infrastructure in place to be prepared for a pandemic like this. Mistakes are inevitable, but our hearts are in the right place and we are trying our best to help with underfunded and understaffed public health programs. As a field studying a new disease, we are learning new information daily, and because of that, there will be changes in regulations and policies. Through this pandemic we should expect and adopt change with grace, because we need change to improve. I’m asking for the church to work with public health professionals and value their input on how to best protect the health of the people they serve. We don’t have to compete with or fight each other. I want people to understand that I feel I’m doing what God created me to do as I analyze data and create policy to protect people’s health the same way someone who preaches or leads people in worship.
Public Health Around the World
In many countries outside of the US, the church is the center of the community. I often work with other governments, health departments, local health officials, universities, tribal leaders, and churches, which are in the mix of public health systems abroad. It is fascinating to me to watch how the church takes on a holistic essential role in other places. The church in these countries is often the central point where communities gather and where health care, food, shelter, and basic needs are provided. In our individualistic U.S. society, we have very much separated the church from core community functions and health care. That is not to say American churches do not help in some of those areas, because there are many great programs here. But the church in general is not the common central point for health care in the U.S., and it is currently not helping our country succeed in fighting this pandemic. What if we could slightly shift the American church to be the practical hands and feet of Jesus in this season through promoting health, improving access to care, assisting public health systems, and providing basic needs in a unified way?
History of the Church and Health
Historically, the church has been pivotal in caring for the sick and fighting diseases. The Greek word “xenodocheia,” was used for hospitals started by churches in the fourth and fifth centuries, and that word literally means “houses for strangers”. During the Roman Empire when plagues struck and people fled, Christians were the ones who stayed to care for the sick. In the ninth century, the Roman Emperor ordered every church to have a hospital attached, as it was the church’s role to watch over the sick. Through many plagues in history, church leaders were the ones to speak with patients, pray for them, and also enforce quarantine orders as they wore PPE. Many of our current hospital systems in the U.S. and around the world were founded by churches in order to care for the sick. During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 churches became temporary hospital facilities when there were no beds left. I could go on and on about significant moments in history where norms were shaken, disease went rampant, and the church stood up to help. The Bible makes it so clear (Matthew 25:34-40) when Jesus talks about how to live, and one example specifically speaks to our role in caring for others, “when I was sick you looked after me.” In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus shares the parable of the Samaritan and outlines how he cared for the sick. What I am having trouble understanding is how there are many in the American church that are so focused on their rights to gather and worship that they become distracted and miss their opportunity to care for the sick and protect the vulnerable. I long to see the church rise up, partner with our health systems, and help end this pandemic.
CALL TO ACTION
The United States has never needed the church like it does right now. Did you know that over 65% of the U.S. population (over 200 million people) claimed to be Christians in 2019? When I see that number, my statistical mind starts to analyze and calculate avenues for success. What if two thirds of our country was unified? What if two thirds of our country was walking out their faith and producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? What if instead of complaining about masks or regulations, two thirds of our country worked together to get rid of the disease so that there weren’t frustrating regulations?
I want to take this a step further. What if in our faith and love we didn’t just have unity among the church, but we also worked hand-in-hand building bridges with public health professionals like other countries do? What if in this season the church could actually stand up to protect and promote the health of the U.S.? What if the church was the key to turn this pandemic around? What if the church was sending people to get trained in contact tracing, testing, linking people to care, providing PPE and resources? What if our church buildings were open to assist our communities in ways that helped our local officials? What if the church was so active in helping with the pandemic that we were given a voice in shaping regulations that could help our country reopen safely?
I truly believe that right now, in the midst of the biggest political divide and in the midst of disease, that the church has the power to change the trajectory of this pandemic! I want to call the church into action, because the church is filled with incredible people, gifted in so many ways, and we can use our gifts in collaboration with our nation to unify instead of divide. We can be love and peace in action.
Here are some of the public health topics where I can see church members rising up, getting trained, and helping change this pandemic for our nation:
1. Health education
2. Contact tracing
4. Access to care
5. Checking in on the sick
6. Resources for those in quarantine or isolation
8. Groceries/food services
9. Collecting and distributing PPE
10. Notes of encouragement for health care and public health workers
12. Mental health counseling
13. Connection/friendships with the lonely
14. Educational support (tutors, homeschool, encourage teachers)
15. Pastoral care
16. Financial support for those who miss work from being ill
17. Assistance for single parents (when sick/working/with school/etc.)
18. Utilize church buildings for testing, care, or resources
And the list could go on! There are basic concepts to disease outbreaks and mitigation. If we know where the disease is (testing) and we can stop it from spreading (quarantine/isolation), then the disease goes away. It seems so simple, but because of how widespread this is and how divided our country has been in strategies, we truly need an army of support, which is you!
I am personally willing to give all I have to help train, equip, and mobilize any church willing to stand and fight this pandemic in unity. Our global health organization is willing to volunteer our time and resources to train in health education, disease prevention, contact tracing, help create policies, and link churches to other public health resources to support in their local areas. We can even hold sessions to answer questions about what public health is, misinformation, and provide clarity since there are many voices and new terms most people have never heard before. We are “all in” to lift up the church, see love rise, and to watch this pandemic fall by unifying Christians across the country!
Believing the best in you,
Danielle Walker, PhD, MA, BS, CHES
Public Health Specialist, CEO