Compassion at the Intersection of Faith and Health
A conversation with John Blevins, ThD, MDiv
Acting Director and Associate Research Professor
Interfaith Health Program, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University
Julie: The fields of religion and public health have intersected since the early days when medical missionaries were sent to foreign lands. However, weaving theological and global health academic disciplines together in a top-notch university is relatively new. You have been instrumental in advancing this work. Where did your interest begin?
John: In the early 90s after having finished seminary, I learned that as an out gay man, finding a place in congregational ministry wasn’t an option for me. What did open up for me was an opportunity to offer pastoral ministry and care to people living with, and at that time dying from, HIV. I worked as a chaplain with children and adults in Chicago. I learned a lot about God outside of the institutions that purport to proclaim and tell us about God. God can be found inside churches, but God is not limited to those places. I am grateful that I had the experience to talk about spirituality with people, many who had been hurt by religious communities. Discovering new ways to hold on to God was really powerful.
I moved to Atlanta and I worked at Grady Hospital for three years, and then at the Emory Medical School coordinating a training program for HIV program providers. The recipients of the training were providers of clinical and psychosocial care. We focused on how to work more effectively with people who suffer from mental issues and active drug use. I was also engaged in doctoral studies at Emory. When I completed my studies, I took a faculty appointment in Emory’s Candler School of Theology and really loved it. I engaged in global work on HIV and AIDS in Zambia in 2005. This was my first real exposure to global responses to the HIV pandemic. Next I took a faculty appointment with the Interfaith Health Program (IHP), an applied practice program in the Emory School of Public Health.
Julie: IHP works at the intersection of faith and health to generate knowledge and applied practice that transform communities. What have you found at the intersection of faith and health?
John: At best, religious traditions provide us a way of thinking about human thriving and suffering. In religious traditions, you find a way of making meaning and sense of the world as it relates to being well or ill. These spiritual and theological belief systems offer us a way to consider health both in the lives of individuals and in communities. Global health, too, examines what happens in individuals and populations related to health and wellness, or to disease and poor health. The public health framework draws upon the natural sciences, health sciences, and social sciences to examine the context of health. Religion gives us tradition, narratives, and deep motivations to be in community with people in health and illness.
My first experience in global health work was in Zambia. I was asked to offer educational workshops and spiritual retreats for recharging the batteries of people who were part of a project called Circles of Hope. Circles of Hope was started by a woman named Joy Lubinga. Joy is living with HIV. When she told her pastor that she was HIV-positive, Joy’s community rejected her. Her response was to gather together people living with HIV and offer Bible study. The group began to support one another in a variety of ways, such as getting to doctors’ appointments. Anti-retroviral drugs were not available to them at the time, so they cared for each other in dying. When anti-retrovirals became available, they cared for each other in their living.
Today there are hundreds of Circles of Hope comprised of people living with and affected by HIV in Zambia. They have transformed the Protestant and Catholic churches’ response to this epidemic – transformation at the intersection of faith and health. They created a community out of their religious faith, grounded in what they believed about the nature of God – which was that we are to care for each other’s well-being.
Julie: How might religious context assist us with understanding the health of populations?
John: One example is Paul Farmer, a well-known hero in public health work and global context, who has developed a strong set of programs in Haiti. The Christian tradition of Liberation Theology motivates and informs the work that he and his organization carries out. Liberation Theology grew not out of seminaries or cathedrals or congregations, but out of the people who named themselves as Christians. Many were farmworkers who gathered to read scripture and reflect on their faith in light of their lived experience as people who were struggling to provide for their families. In community, they began to articulate the idea that God, who loves all human beings, is particularly interested in human affairs where there is suffering. God has what theologian Gustavo Gutierrez calls, “a preferential option for the poor.” God is active in the place of suffering. It’s a powerful reminder that people who can tell us most about what it means to see God active in the world are not theologians or people who wear fancy vestments, but people who struggle and find ways to testify as to how that struggle is transformed by God.
At IHP, we work in some informal settlements in Kenya and Nairobi, where I see “a preferential option for the poor” played out. In slums in Nairobi, religious communities offer material resources to people in need. In the slums of Mukuru, where we have worked extensively for a long time, religious communities provide a structure for getting essential services to people. Our work is a partnership, and we need to remember that God is already at work in a place like Makuru regardless of whether the IHP, or US government dollars, or NGOs are brought into the community. We are not saving the day. We’re collaborating to establish relationships that, at their best, strive to be mutual and egalitarian. As a person of faith, I believe that we’re all connected to one another. We have to honor and value those connections, which means recognizing the suffering and furthering the compassion that already exists.
Julie: Many students are attracted to global health because they wish to relieve suffering. Churches, hospitals, and nursing schools actively speak about compassion as a core component of their work. Why not the global health educational system?
John: I wonder if it is because the field of public health came into full-flower at a point in time when both the United States and Europe (where many public health training institutions are situated) established very strict walls between the secular and the sacred – between evidence-based practice, quantifiable measures, and evaluation methodologies, and the qualitative ways of human experience. We need to find ways to introduce those less quantifiable elements back into our practice and into the education of future global health leaders. We don’t have a way to talk about what motivates our work such as compassion. Religion, or spirituality, might help us find a shared language to speak about something that’s not going to be reducible to a randomized control trial.
Julie: Who in your life awakened a sense of compassion in you?
John: I grew up in a very religious household in North Carolina. One of my best friends, Joel, had a debilitating physical condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, brittle bone disease. We were raised in the same church and for a long time he was seen as an object that I was supposed to be nice to. We didn’t understand him in the context of what life was like for him because he was the “other.”
When I was in seventh grade we became friends. Joel became the friend who had brittle bone disease and not the kid who had brittle bone disease that I was supposed to be nice to. He became a lot more than just his physical condition, but because of his physical condition I had to pay attention to his body – but he was more than that. This was really formative for me. He died when I was a freshman in college, and I think in a lot of ways both his living and his death gave me the gift of friendship. Compassion breaks down “other-ness” and helps me to see something shared between me and another person.
Julie: What have you found most meaningful about your current work?
John: Much of our work is set in east Africa and addresses HIV. It is funded as part of US efforts to treat and prevent HIV globally. I really enjoy helping our fellow colleagues understand that religion impacts the work that they do, and articulating ideas, theories, and frameworks about this. It helps me understand the complexities of my religious tradition more fully. I don’t think of my Christian faith in the same way that women and men in Kenya and other parts of the world might. So how do we work together and understand one another as Christians? That’s difficult, wonderful, and engaging.
Julie: What is it that sustains you in this work?
John: I’m sustained by the unique context that engages my brain, gets me thinking about the nature of God, theological ideas, and religious and spiritual practices. As a theologian in a school of public health, I sometimes feel very lonely. It’s important for me to build connections with other parts of the university and to balance work with family, my partner, and friends. And, I really enjoy my work with the students.
Students aren’t in my classes to understand their own spiritual practices; they’re invited to understand religion as a social phenomenon. Religion is a powerful social force that impacts global health practice. I teach classes where you can easily see the good and the bad in religion – areas where religion has underwritten absolutely awful and violent actions, and areas where religion has been the motivating spark for true compassion in the face of stigma, discrimination, and outright violence and hatred towards people.
When we intervene in another society’s health issue, we strike the heart of that culture. We tend not to reflect on what a dangerous business it is to intervene in the first place, and to implement our interventions. The capacity for self-critique and self-reflection before taking action is now taught in contemporary theological studies in schools like Emory. This is a skill that public health would do well to pay more attention to, and to integrate more fully into practice. In my work I encourage public health students to interrogate and analyze themselves a little more in the context of the work they intend to do.
John Blevins, ThD, MDiv, brings an interdisciplinary background in practical theology and public health program development to the work of the Interfaith Health Program, where he has worked on a variety of global health initiatives. John has directed IHP’s efforts in community health assets mapping and mobilization in Mukuru, an informal settlement on the eastern edge of Nairobi, Kenya. In addition, he has worked to expand IHP’s teaching and research into religion’s role in public health and development models in international contexts; much of this work is has been possible through extensive collaborations between IHP and St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. His research endeavors to critically reflect on religious or public health practices using contemporary theology, cultural theory, and public health scholarship.