At 17, AS I SAT in a comprehensive health center in Namibia, a health care worker told my visiting religious group what the center really needed from outsiders to improve the care they offered. As a peer health educator at my high school, I entered the facility thinking I knew the universal cure for preventing HIV infection—education—and feeling sad that so many places in the world did not yet have access to the life-saving drugs because they could not afford them. I was naïve and incorrect on many fronts.
They had the drugs, the health worker told us, and they had a well-developed education plan both for prevention and antiretroviral therapy. What they really needed right then was baby formula, to prevent HIV-positive mothers from passing the virus on to their newborns. So the next time we wanted to donate to the organization, he said, please send formula or the money to purchase some, instead of knitted newborn hats or volunteers ready to paint the facility walls.
Susan R. Holman, in her book Beholden: Religion, Global Health, and Human Rights, provides valuable narrative, analysis, and information that can similarly open the eyes of religious leaders about helpful, sustainable, and respectful ways to approach health-related needs throughout the world. Unlike many global-health academics and activists, who simply dismiss religious efforts as destructive or limited, Holman asserts that religion must be incorporated into global-health initiatives “because faith matters to the large majority of people who are poor in this world.” Global-health initiatives cannot ignore the influence faith has on health, moral decision-making, and community structures.
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As a seminary graduate and a Masters of Social Work student, I have a passion for social justice and working to improve the wellbeing and health of vulnerable populations. After seminary, during my time as a youth leader, we often turned to Matthew 25:31-46, the familiar passage about “the least of these,” and discussed God’s emphasis on justice and serving the marginalized in our societies.
My time as a social work student, particularly through my current class on international social work, has expanded my concept of the “least of these.” We have learned about some of the most vulnerable populations around the world – child soldiers in Uganda and Colombia, young girls trafficked into the sex trade in Cambodia, HIV/AIDS patients from Haiti, migrants left to die in the desert while trying to cross the Mexican-U.S. border, and the list continues. These concepts were not completely unknown to me and would likely not be new to you either. This past week, however, we studied a different topic, one that has not drawn as much media attention – global mental health.