It’s not just your spiritual health that concerns today’s churches. A majority of congregations surveyed are actively involved in ministering to the physical and mental health of their communities, whether or not you’re a churchgoer.
As the number of Americans without health insurance hits 47 million and climbs, a new study shows more than two-thirds of churches are providing direct health care services, from blood pressure screenings to full-service medical clinics.
The survey of more than 6,000 congregations by the National Council of Churches of Christ offers the first look at how the much-heralded “faith-based” community is mobilizing on the front lines of the country’s crippled health care system.
About 70 percent of congregations offered some kind of health care program, according to the report, with most churches welcoming not only their members but the whole community.
“The church had moved away from caring for people in a holistic manner,” said the Rev. Dave Engel, who, with his physician wife, opened a Chandler health care clinic for the uninsured earlier this month.
“I think now there’s a reawakening,” Engel said. “This a real need that we, as followers of Christ, need to be involved with.”
Churches have long been active in a multitude of missions, in all corners of the globe and at home. They are quick to meet the emergency needs of parishioners or hurricane victims.
Faith-based organizations, from Catholic Social Services to Jewish Family and Children’s Service, have been operating broad-based programs for children, families and the aged for decades.
But more and more, the study shows, individual churches are supporting their neighbors when the health care system fails them.
“The results of this survey confirm a higher energy for health care than we might have thought,” said Rev. Eileen W. Lindner, who supervised the project for the National Council of Churches. “(They) show that effective health care ministries are being developed by congregations of all sizes to meet the urgent needs of their communities.”
Not surprisingly, larger congregations in urban and suburban areas are the most active, according to the survey, with preventive care — like health screenings — atop the list of services.
At Tempe’s King of Glory Lutheran Church, parish nurse Karen Hernandez runs monthly blood pressure, glucose and skin cancer screenings. You can attend a strength class twice a week or hear guest speakers talk about nutrition, diabetes and mental health.
Hernandez also makes referrals, goes along to doctor’s appointments and counsels those who have a new diagnosis, taking the time physicians’ may lack to answer questions or just listen. And she prays with them.
“I do house calls, nursing home calls, hospital calls,” she said. “I meet people where they’re at.”
Hernandez is among 123 parish nurses in the Valley, according to Barbara Sage, director of the Beatitudes Nurse and Health Ministries Network. That’s 14 more than there were six months ago. About half, like Hernandez, are paid staff.
Through the Beatitudes network, local nurses get training at conferences and workshops, share information and stay abreast of job opportunities and community resources.
“There’s a gap in the health care system,” Sage said. “Having this ministry in church, with a nurse leading it, helps fill in some of those gaps.”
Public health experts say the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative, which provides federal funding for social service work, hasn’t provided significant money but may have opened some doors. Though many churches rejected the federal money because of the requirement against proselytizing, the debate educated policymakers and others who may not have considered reaching out to churches for help with social problems, said Jane Pearson, associate director for programs at St. Luke’s Health Initiatives.
“What evolved was some technical assistance activities for both community and faith-based organizations,” Pearson said. “And I think that has raised the awareness among faith communities about what they could do ... and started connecting them with secular organizations.”
Pearson said the biggest growth in health ministries has been among evangelical groups, like Victory Outreach and Teen Outreach Academy in Phoenix, which provide residential drug treatment.
“They’re very clear. They proselytize. There’s no doubt what they’re about,” she said. “But the fact is, they’re recovering these men and women. They’re getting them sober.”
The Engels, members and missionaries at Grace Community Church, spent more than three years searching the East Valley for the right spot to open Hope Community Health Center, near Alma School Road and Chandler Boulevard in Chandler.
With a grant from Chandler Regional Medical Center, as well as corporate and private donations, they opened the clinic Sept. 5 and already have a full schedule.
The clinic is open on Wednesday and Saturdays by appointment, and charges $15 per office visit. Dr. Ann Engel, a family practice physician, and Rev. Dave Engel supervise an all-volunteer staff that includes seven nurses. Most of their patients are working one or two jobs, but their companies either don’t offer insurance or they can’t afford it.
“These are hard-working people who are trying to make ends meet for their families,” Ann Engel said.
As part of its mission, the clinic dispenses religion along with medications, but only to those willing to listen. After all, as the national study points out, there are more references in the Bible to Jesus healing people than to him teaching or preaching.
“That really is the message of Christ — hope,” Engel said. “That there is more to me than what I’m experiencing right now. Without hope, you’ll just give up and be crushed under the system. And that’s where a lot of the impoverished are.”