Church-based Health Fair as Caring (and Threatening) Presence

Posted on January 1, 2006

At a church-based community health fair that our congregation recently co-sponsored, it struck me that a $600 monthly insurance premium (and $25 co-payments) could not buy the kind of care that folks were experiencing at no charge that day. Amidst Latin rhythms and colorful balloons, visitors are warmly greeted at the door, given a medical clipboard, and oriented in their native tongue. Sending their children upstairs to the adult-supervised activity room, guests are personally escorted to the primary screening area to measure body mass, blood pressure and glucose levels. With minimal waiting time, medical personnel administer the screenings, answer questions, and document the outcomes on each person’s chart. Each patient then meets with a registered nurse who, upon reviewing the chart, provides immediate counsel, directs them to a diabetic specialist, or sends them directly to an on-site physician to address high-risk cases. Those experiencing pain, shortness of breath, or other alarming symptoms see the doctor immediately.

With initial examinations completed, guests then have their teeth checked and eyes examined. Patients evidencing tooth decay receive counsel on hygiene strategies and then meet with a low-cost clinic representative across the room. Nearsighted individuals are referred to a local optometry school to apply for free prescription glasses. Physical therapists analyze the posture of those experiencing back pain and suggest corrective exercises. Others receive immediate massage therapy or acupuncture. Health professionals are on hand to answer questions about prescription drugs, breast cancer exams, smoking cessation programs, and community clinics. Lastly, individuals bring their concerns to church ministers who provide prayer and counsel. All of this takes place in an old urban church building, in a few short hours, involving a good-sized band of uncompensated congregation members, professionals and partnering community agencies.

With no illusion of church-based health fairs as the answer to the nation’s burgeoning uninsured, the event was nonetheless a picture of what care looks like when the gospel is the starting point. To illuminate this, it is perhaps helpful to consider questions that our society starts with: How do We make sure that health benefits are not going to those Who are a “drain to the system?” Are those receiving services legal? Can they provide documentation to prove it? If not, are they at least capable of making able-bodied contribution to the economy? How do we provide healthcare for the less fortunate withoutcompromising the best possible care for those who can afford it? Shouldn’t those who have succeeded financially have access to the most advanced technologies? Are the medical services being provided going to get reimbursed? Which folks pose the greatest insurance risk? How do we minimize our exposure to malpractice suits? Are market forces given the freedom necessary to enable the healthcare industry to thrive? How do we provide drug benefits while assuring pharmaceutical companies the ability to sustain the current, robust trend of high profitability? Driven by the bottom line, combined with the idol of personal entitlement, America leads the world in healthcare spending while leaving over 45 million without any health insurance.

On the Sunday morning leading up to our health fair, our pastor gave us this simple and profound charge: “I want to draw a distinction if I can, between a project and a presence. It’s tempting to do something like this as a project, but God has called you to be a presence. In relationship with our brothers and sisters. . . we have the opportunity, the rare privilege, of being the presence of the living God in a community that needs what we are offering them...

Freed by the gospel to love as God loves, the church asks an entirely different set of questions. How will God be experienced when people enter our doors? Are we receiving those that our government views with suspicion? That the state deems an economic liability? Am I working side by side with my brothers and sisters, and collaboratively with secular agencies, in a manner that judges the territorial reflexes of a competitive culture? Will our approach to healthcare serve as an indictment of a system of care held captive to the unredeemed logic of capitalism and individualism? Does our ministry among the poor and sick reflect submission to the reign of God, over and against all other powers and authorities? With the gospel as our starting point, we will relate to people in ways diametrically opposed to that of the systems and structures that claim to serve them. Thus, in the simple act of hosting a health fair, the church can be a presence as peculiar in its care as it is threatening in its allegiance.

Craig Wong is Director of Grace Urban Ministries, Inc. in San Francisco, California. This article previously appeared in the Jan/Feb. 2006 issue of PRISM magazine, published by Evangelicals for Social Action. Craig can be contacted at cwong [at] gum [dot] org.

Tags: H&D, Cultural Issues, Missional Living

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