Grassroots Health Care

An elderly woman—I'll call her Laura—needed medical attention for a mysterious lump in her breast. But she was frightened by the thought of seeing a strange doctor and going to the hospital. So she kept putting it off. Laura might never have received the treatment she needed. But she was lucky: Her church had just hired a congregational nurse, who was able to examine her in the familiar setting of her own home and give her medical advice. Laura's church is part of a new movement called Congregation-Based Health Ministry. It's a fast-growing movement challenging the common notion that the government should take over health care. Of course, churches have always regarded health care as part of their mission. That's why so many hospitals bear names like Presbyterian General Hospital or Sisters of Mercy. According to Lewis Andrews, writing in the Wall Street Journal, many hospitals were founded in the nineteenth century by churches. They were a way to provide poor and middle-class Americans with the advanced health care that wealthier citizens received back then in the privacy of their homes. But today churches are looking for new ways to follow the biblical command to care for the sick and suffering. As so-called "hard" medicine becomes more high-tech, churches are picking up the "softer" aspects, such as mental health, long-term care, and home nursing. These things have traditionally been included in pastoral care. So perhaps it's no surprise that churches are spearheading the most innovative developments. In geriatric medicine, Roman Catholics and Lutherans have led the way in social-service programs that enable older folks to live independently. Episcopalians, Baptists, and Presbyterians have pioneered the design of humane and technically sophisticated retirement facilities. Today many churches are focusing on mental health as well, and even constructing their own counseling centers. In Alabama, Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church has established a free-standing mental-health clinic to offer professional care at a reasonable price. One of the most creative innovations is the parish nursing movement. Started by a Lutheran pastor, it bases nurses in individual churches. Since these programs can call upon an enthusiastic corps of volunteers, they're able to offer services such as emotional support and follow-up care relatively cheaply. A hundred years ago, churches felt called to care for the sick and needy, and they founded hospitals. Today churches are reviving that heritage in new ways. Yet many politicians continue to insist that only the government can solve the problem of health-care coverage. Congress and the president are engaged in a fierce battle over the issue. Perhaps it's time to rethink whether government programs are really the best way to reform health care—or whether they will actually block the innovative health movement blossoming in churches. You and I ought to work within our own congregations for programs to care for the sick and suffering. When church members fulfill their calling, they minister not only to the body but also to the spirit. And that's more than any government bureaucrat can do.


Chuck Colson


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