When I first began volunteering, I wanted to help people, but I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know how to get involved beyond raising money, which felt removed, or raising awareness, which seemed to do little. I wanted to be directly involved in meaningful work to help others. This is one of the reasons why I chose to pursue public health.
Public health professionals strive to bridge the gap between good intentions and good outcomes. Public health professionals and Christians should, in theory, be natural collaborators. Both are interested in creating a better world, in helping the sick, and feeding the hungry. However, churches and public health professionals rarely collaborate to make the strongest programs possible. Currently, each group operates in a silo to the detriment of the larger community.
Much of the church’s current interventions or programs, in a sense, aim to be domestic public health programs. Food banks aim to alleviate malnutrition, child care programs recognize the need for parents to have a safe place to send their children while they work, and clothing distribution recognizes the importance of looking professional at a job interview. But Christians can be doing so much more. As a Christian public health professional, my desire is to bring Christianity and public health into greater harmony and collaboration for the good of those we are all hoping to serve. I want to lovingly goad us towards the higher calling of having our liberation bound up in one another. As Lilla Watson said, “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Learning about public health will equip Christians to think on a systems level, to have evidence-based programs, champion accountability, and partner with people most affected to accomplish systemic change.
I want to see the church humbly and systematically ask themselves if their programs are causing more harm than good. At first glance, the answer appears simple, but if we zoom out to follow the cycle, we may become dismayed.
By providing food to someone, you may be keeping a person from starving; but what if the food you are providing is low in nutritional content and high in sodium? Were they already predisposed to hypertension? Will this make it worse? Will this cause a medical visit, which they may not have insurance to cover? Will that cause them to go further in debt, perpetuating their need for the food aid?
In order to love our neighbor, we must see the forces and systems which are impacting our neighbor. And we have to love our neighbor enough to want to change the system.
Changing the system also includes changing the way Christians participate in mission work. People within churches are often told they can make a positive difference no matter how much training they have. People pay thousands for plane tickets to foreign countries where they build latrines without any formal training. I have participated in this type of work and realizing my mistake was a slow process. I realized, while overseas, that I was pretty terrible at building a latrine — so were all the other college students on the trip with me. The local contractors doubled their work, coming behind to fix our mistakes and staying later than they would have had they been able to just do it themselves. I felt uneasy with the realization that I may have actually made things worse. It was a stark realization that if you do not have the skills to build a latrine in America, you do not have the skills to build one in another country
I came to understand what a lot of people already knew — the aid work I participated in was not effective.
The justification often given for these trips is that they influence the mission trip volunteer towards compassion or toward a life of greater generosity; meanwhile, low-income people do not receive adequate or well-trained support.
Low-income people are too often used by richer people for spiritual enlightenment and gratitude training — the harmful and simplistic practice that centers the richer person and reduces lower-income people to a lesson in how the richer person much be thankful for what they have. When a rich person realizes that a person with less money can still experience joy (just like they can experience every emotion) the major takeaway for the rich person from this interaction tends to be an admonishment to themselves to be more grateful. This narrative reduces the humanity of the low-income person to a one-dimensional, joyful human. The narrative also does nothing to change the system which creates the imbalance —it only encourages an internal shift towards more acceptance and happiness for the rich person’s circumstances. We need to shift away from this and turn to systemic change — how can we work together to ensure the system is more just? Or how can local knowledge, expertise, and resources be combined with the visitor’s knowledge, expertise, and resources to increase the positive impact that the local community desires?
The instinct to help is not a bad one. But the instinct must be informed by an understanding of what the local community actually desires and based on evidence of what will actually help the community.
Public health matters because it helps us understand, through research and evidence, how to love our literal neighbor, in our literal neighborhood. I often see churches search for “mission” outside of their communities, outside of the United States when there is so much we could be collaborating on within our own neighborhoods. Churches should seek to engage in system transformation, side by side those who are most impacted by the current system. I encourage churches that raise money for clean drinking water overseas to also rally for clean drinking water in their local public schools. I encourage churches who care about children to also rally to the defense of the women who deliver them. I encourage churches who help provide vaccinations overseas to also encourage flu vaccinations locally as a tangible way to love your elderly or immunosuppressed neighbor.
Churches have a unique role to play. Churches are multigenerational community hubs and places people seek for solace and truth. Churches are meant to fulfill the two greatest commandments, as Jesus saw them — to love God and to love your neighbor. Public health could help churches to radically love their neighbor, effectively.
You can read more about how to do this work more effectively here.