Ministries of mercy. Ministries of justice. United Methodists have long understood the importance of both meeting the need and correcting the problem at its source. At the historic United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C., headquarters of the General Board of Church and Society, the words of the prophet Micah appear in the rotunda: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)
The need for both mercy and justice are evident in the realm of health care in the United States. Despite gains for some achieved through the Affordable Care Act, health care costs continue to spiral upward, incomes of many Americans continue to flat line or decline, and equal access to quality food, nutrition education, affordable insurance and basic health care services are becoming the exception rather than the norm for a growing number of Americans.
The need for both mercy and justice is evident in the realm of health care in the United States. Despite gains for some achieved through the Affordable Care Act, health care costs continue to spiral upward, incomes of many Americans continue to flatline or decline, and equal access to quality food, nutrition education, affordable insurance and basic health care services is becoming the exception rather than the norm for a growing number of Americans.
Historically United Methodists have been at the vanguard of efforts to provide quality health care for all. The efforts come both through the building of hospitals and clinics, and food assistance ministries – and in the corridors of political power.
The United Methodist Social Principles speak directly to the issue: "Health care is a basic human right... providing the care needed to maintain health, prevent disease, and restore health after injury or illness is a responsibility each person owes others and government owes to all, a responsibility government ignores at its peril." (Social Principles, 162.V: Right to Health Care, The Book of Discipline 2012)
The Rev. Cynthia Abrams, head of Health Care Advocacy for the General Board of Church and Society, believes that the commitment to health care as a human right is part of Methodism's core identity.
"Nobody in the world should go without health care," Abrams says. "That collective commitment comes from a deep understanding of who we are as Christians. United Methodists have both a strong legacy and an important future in justice-making in the realm of health and wholeness."
That is not to say that the future is going to be easy. In fierce political battles drawn along ideological lines, 22 states have refused to accept federal funding for the expansion of Medicaid to include a large segment of the poor, leaving an estimated 4.3 million without access to health insurance. Among them are Mississippi and Tennessee, where state legislatures have voted to exclude some of their citizens from receiving health care through provisions in the Affordable Care Act.
Whatever the reason, United Methodists committed to health and wholeness are stepping up.
Ministry of mercy in Mississippi
Mississippi is ranked first in obesity in the 2014 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index and last in women's health on the National Women's Law Center Health Care Report Card. The 2014 Kaiser Family Foundation Study found nearly a half-million Mississippians remain uninsured.
The Rev. Detra Bishop, pastor of John Wesley United Methodist Church in Durant, found waiting for government to catch up to the need was unacceptable. "We decided to leverage existing resources to focus on six needs for every person to be healthy: spiritual, physical, social, emotional, financial and environmental. The whole person has to be considered when you talk about wellness. So we created the Health Education Center, and every Tuesday and Thursday, people come and have those needs met."
With a grant from Church and Society and the cooperation of neighboring churches and organizations, Bishop established the center at John Wesley, which, in her words, "promotes a wholistic form of individual health while working at the grassroots level for changes in the system." The center addresses both the economic and educational aspects of health care. "A person's health is directly related to their education and employment," she says.
From weight-loss support groups and exercise classes to nutrition workshops and kitchen classes that teach how to make healthy snacks, the agenda is driven by the needs of its participants.
"We invite politicians, health and wellness speakers, even experts from the Mississippi State Extension Service to talk about nutrition, or food, or how to sign up for existing health services. In other words, we are piecing together people from the community and congregation to create a plan to meet needs across the board," Bishop says.
From strength to strength
It is a ministry of mercy through mutual empowerment. Those in need of healing themselves become healers. The Health Education Center begins not with the question, "What do we lack?" but rather with "What do we already have?"
"We are actually taking the Social Principles and bringing them to life," Bishop says. "We're not only inviting people to the conversation but (also) to change their lifestyle. We have people who have a lot of different illnesses coming together to support one another. They don't sit around and talk about their disease, but about nutrition and exercise and wellness."
Ministry of justice in Tennessee
In Tennessee, an estimated 352,000 people are without health insurance despite the fact that federal funds and voluntary support from local hospitals would cover the cost of care. Among leaders in the fight against opposition in the state legislature to the federal Medicaid expansion proposal is the Tennessee Conference Committee of Church and Society, Health and Welfare, and Disability Concerns.
The issue is a matter of social justice, says the Rev. Merrilee Wineinger, a Church and Society field organizer serving as conference director of wholistic living and outreach. She is leading the effort to engage faith communities statewide to follow the lead of 32 other states who have opted to expand Medicaid.
Wineinger began her work after attending a 2012 training sponsored by the agency for people who had expressed a passion around health care justice.
"People of faith want to do something," she explains, "but they don't always know how to plug in, so we offer them everything from signing a petition to joining us on Tennessee's Capitol Hill to rally for a just and workable plan." In March 2015, "we had a petition with more than 6,000 signatures and some 850 people standing together in support of ‘Insure Tennessee.'" That is Republican Governor Bill Haslam's incentive-based alternative to the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion proposal.
"In the end, the measure was voted down, due in part to powerful out-of-state lobbying."
Wineinger and other supporters are continuing to press forward. People of other faiths and denominations are joining United Methodists in political activism both in cities and in particularly vulnerable rural areas. Partnering with organizations, including the Methodist Hospital network in Memphis, Tennessee, and the Tennessee Justice Center, may allow the Tennessee Conference campaign to serve as a good example of effective and faithful state-level advocacy.
"One West Tennessee United Methodist church added a 'Health Ministry Minute' to its worship service," notes Wineinger, who read from Ezekiel 34:1-10. "It focused on the responsibility we as shepherds have to care for all of the flock – not just part of it. It was powerful to see such an engaged group of people."
State legislatures may have conflicting agendas, but, Wineinger says, "for people of faith, our marching orders are pretty clear."
Vince Isner is a writer, media producer and founder of PowerTools for Fathers, who lives in Franklin, Tennessee. He is a former staff member of the General Board of Church and Society.
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