Star of David, praying handsThis year, National Public Health Week coincides with several major religious holidays: Passover, for people who practice Judaism; and Easter and Holy Week, for those who practice Christianity. 

Both practicing faith and pursuing a career in public health can be seen as responding to a call to serve communities. In this guest post, some APHA members of faith share how they see the two working in tandem.

Fixing what is wrong with the world
“As a social worker and public health professional, my faith is and always has been the driving force behind what I do and why. 

Being raised in the Jewish faith — a faith I continue to practice today — I was brought up with the understanding that it was my sacred duty to do what I could to make the world a better place for all beings. 

One of the foundational principles of the Jewish faith is ‘tikkun olam’ or ‘repair of the world.’ While this phrase, and the intention behind it, has origins in classical rabbinic literature, for many decades it has come to mean social action and the pursuit of social justice. It is our responsibility as Jews and as human beings to fix what is wrong with the world. 

There is no better way to repair the world than through a public health lens. It is through this lens that we are able to tackle many of the world's greatest inequities, including disparate access to safety, food, shelter and health care. These inequities are especially striking at this moment in time when as Jews we celebrate Passover.

It is during this holiday that we celebrate the Jews coming out of our 40-year journey through the desert, a time we commonly refer to as a narrow place, and prepare to enter what we hope to be a better land. 

COVID-19 is the narrow place we are all moving through together, and we must hope that it will bring us to a better place in which health care is recognized as a human right, all people have the food, shelter and safety that they need, and a place in which public health is recognized as essential.”

— Stephanie Shell, MSS, senior director of strategy development at the Public Health Management Corporation and executive director of the Pennsylvania Public Health Association

 Assuring and nurturing the health of society

“As a social worker and Episcopal priest, I believe that faith and public health can work together. 

From my training and experience as a social worker, the theory and concept of person-in-environment, an understanding that a person is heavily influenced by their environment, brings me to its nexus. Thus, I believe that public health would be remiss to ignore the roles of spirituality, religion and faith, and how they play a part in assuring and nurturing the health of individuals, families and communities. 

Faith, like public health and its related policy realm, emphasizes socially redeeming values that help to safeguard various populations — especially those on the fringes and the underserved — to ensure a consistency of health lived and shared by all. 

It is a fact that many of the social and health services we enjoy today sprang out of the church and faith community’s response to sickness, disease and unsanitary environments. From the practice and living of faith, compassionate and ‘close to God’ processes and systems of care became embedded in society over the centuries. 

Public health — from my understanding that ‘health is everyone’s business,’ — cannot ignore how the basic spirituality of all human beings plays a role in assuring and nurturing the overall well-being and health of society. Enlightened public health builds partnerships with people of faith and with faith-based programs, which are willing and able to assist in the building of healthier populations and communities. 

Just like culture, faith can act as a social determinant of health. Compassion, mercy and love are fundamental parts of religious values, tenants and doctrines, adhered to by many persons of faith. Together, public health and faith find compatibility. 

There is, I believe, a growing recognition that faith, religious and spiritual concerns are important for understanding health-related attitudes, beliefs and behaviors and for public health.”

— John "Hau'oli" Tomoso, MSW, Episcopal priest, social worker and member of the Hawai’i Public Health Association Board of Directors.

Promoting healing, encouraging holistic health
“Health and faith are complementary when addressing the needs of people. The church, specifically, the African American church, has been a mainstay in the African American community in addressing the needs of the community. It serves as a nontraditional approach that mitigates African Americans’ mistrust of the traditional health system, especially as it relates to research.

The African American church is a multi-faceted, trusted institution that uses culturally-specific programming and has a unique ability of connecting with hard-to-reach populations, where limited access to health care may exist.

Churches play an important role in health promotion efforts among African Americans because they ‘share a mutual concern with public health institutions about the issues that impact the health knowledge, attitudes, behavior, access and outcomes of racial and ethnic minority, low-income and other underserved populations,’ according to authors writing in the North Carolina Medical Journal in 2004 in support of partnerships to eliminate health disparities.

The unique fabric of the African American church is interwoven to promote healing, support positive living and encourage holistic health through its faith tenets. It is a source of comfort for the African American community as well as a social support network. These tenets are synergistic with the attributes in which public health promotes within communities. 

Overall, the African American church is a significant partner in public health, and a healing station for improving the health and well-being of all those in which it serves.”

— Dorine J. Brand, PhD, MPH, associate professor in the University of Illinois at Springfield’s Department of Public Health and chair of APHA’s Caucus on Public Health and the Faith Community