DIVINITY Online Edition

Caring for Body and Soul: Communities of faith, medicine combine forces for healing and health
by William E. Pike

SILER CITY , N.C.– Under a clear blue North Carolina sky, Martín V. proudly points to rows of ripening peppers, melons, herbs and tomatoes that he lovingly tends in a formerly empty lot near Chatham Hospital.

Photo by William E. Pike

 A native of Guatemala, 58-year-old Martín V. in the vegetable garden tended by volunteers as part of Chatham Hospital’s Immigrant Health Initiative in Siler City. In tribute to the many hours he works there, it’s known as Martín’s Garden.

Martín fled his homeland of Guatemala 14 years ago after his farm was destroyed by guerilla soldiers. Unable to speak English and without family or friends in this country, he settled in Chatham County, where farm jobs have attracted thousands of Hispanic immigrants seeking work. Now 58 and an AIDS patient, Martín spends much of his time at the hospital. But he receives much more than traditional healthcare.

“Working in the garden makes me feel very healthy,” Martín says in Spanish interpreted by his nurse, Linda Soto. An employee of the Chatham Hospital-based Immigrant Health Initiative (IHI), Soto is just one of many people Martín now calls his “family.”

This extended group includes parishioners from area Catholic, Baptist and United Methodist churches who have joined with Chatham Hospital to form a health ministry, providing much-needed care for the rural county’s burgeoning immigrant population. Together they have provided Martín with a bed, sheets, food, transportation, help with his medication, and most importantly, friendship— with neighbors and with God.

Health ministries are designed to care for the whole person—physically, emotionally and spiritually. This model is one that Dr. Keith Meador D’86, director of Theology and Medicine Program at Duke Divinity School, has promoted through the school’s Caring Communities Program since its inception in 2002.

“Caring Communities assists congregations in understanding their role as healing communities through worship and service,” says Meador, who is professor of the practice of pastoral theology and medicine and holds joint appointments at Duke University School of Medicine and Duke Divinity School. “We also help to give health care institutions a broader vision for their role in nurturing the health of a community in collaboration with faith communities.”

With support from The Duke Endowment, Caring Communities serves as a clearinghouse of information and resources, a facilitator of transforming relationships, and a champion of health ministries in North and South Carolina. Caring Communities also administers more than $900,000 in annual grants from The Duke Endowment to a dozen innovative health ministries throughout the Carolinas.

Photo by William E. Pike

 Michaila Russell, 8, helps stock the food pantry at Ashe County Outreach Ministry in Clifton, N.C. Volunteers are renovating the former deli into a restaurant they hope will help fund the ministry, which provides mobile meals for the homebound.

Reaching Out

More than $230,000 went this year to three South Carolina-based ministries, including one called Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength. This joint project of the S.C. UMC Annual Conference, Midlands Health Ministry Council and the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health received $97,950 for statewide outreach to the elderly. In Greenville, S.C., The Watchman Program received $34,866 to train volunteers from area churches to work with the dying in rural and underserved areas.

Grantees in North Carolina span the state and include both urban and rural areas. In populous Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, 23 churches have partnered with Carolinas HealthCare System as Interfaith Care Links to assist the chronically ill and their caregivers through a network of trained care teams.

Clifton United Methodist Church in rural Ashe County, N.C., where more than a fifth of children live in poverty and one out of nine adults is unemployed, received a $100,000 grant to support its work with Ashe County Outreach Ministry. This ecumenical coalition of volunteers is feeding the malnourished, staffing a teen suicide prevention hotline, aiding the elderly during emergencies, and supporting the isolated and destitute.

A former deli in the tiny town of Clifton houses the ministry’s food pantry, which provides free staples for the needy and prepares mobile meals for 37 homebound people, including a 100- year-old woman. In an innovative bid to make the food pantry self-supporting, volunteers are renovating the deli into a restaurant that will offer home-style meals.

The ministry’s impact on the community is clear, says director Theresa Russell: “I’ve seen a woman who is no longer losing her hair because she has good food to eat now. I’ve seen children who have enough to eat only because of our pantry. I’ve seen love from people of various churches shown to the entire community.” What sets the program apart, she adds, is that “We’re a ministry. We’re doing what God wants us to be doing.”

The Art of Listening

At Chatham Hospital, the Rev. Sue Flippin makes regular rounds as a volunteer chaplain through Caring for Our Neighbors: Cuidando a Nuestros Vecinos . This spinoff of the Immigrant Health Initiative received a $90,000 grant to help expand services to the elderly and those who are chronically ill.

As pastor of Siler City Presbyterian Church, Flippin visits patients and their families of all faiths—or no faith. There are two simple rules for congregations entering health ministries, she says: “First, we have to care for each other. Second, remember to care for the whole community. We’re all God’s people, and He put us here to do that.”

Though Chatham County is largely rural and has limited resources, Caring for Our Neighbors is succeeding. Several area churches encompassing diverse ethnicities and denominations worked together to raise funds for a young girl’s kidney transplant. “Our size is small,” says Flippin, “but our love is gigantic.”

Caring, adds Flippin, “begins with listening to people; only then do we begin to know them.”

Caring Communities At a Glance

Theology and Medicine at Duke Divinity School includes a number of programs and initiatives, including the Caring Communities Program and the Health and Nursing Ministries Program.

Services include:

  • The Health Ministries Resource Center at 3600 University Drive in Durham, filled with books, videos, and other materials regarding health ministries;

  • A Web site at www.caringcommunities.divinity.duke.edu, providing tutorials, resources, links, and news on Caring Communities activities;

  • Consultation services by Health Ministries Educator Anne A. Packett, BSN, MA;

  • Educational opportunities for clergy, laity and health professionals, such as the Pastoral Care in Community training series;

  • Health and Nursing Ministries, a joint program with the Duke University School of Nursing, coordinated by Alyson J. Breisch, RN, MSN, which prepares individuals both clinically and theologically for careers in health ministries;

  • Coordination of a grants initiative for health ministries in the Carolinas, supported by The Duke Endowment; Theological education for religion and health research fellows, along with medical, nursing and social work students;

  • Interdisciplinary courses on theology and health for divinity school students along with the varied health disciplines; and

  • Systematic assessment and evaluation of health ministries.


Photo by William E. Pike

 Martín and Linda Soto, his translator and nurse with the Chatham Hospital-based Immigrant Health Initiative. In appreciation for her care, he has promised to learn to write. “Working in the garden makes me feel very healthy,” he says.

Supporting Pastoral Care

But listening isn’t an instinctive response, even for many pastors. With support from The Duke Endowment, Caring Communities is helping train rural ministers in the art of pastoral care.

The Pastoral Care in Community (PCC) series is a 16- session training course for up to 12 clergy. Hosted by a local church, the course focuses on the importance of listening, storytelling and theological reflection. Pastors learn how to better care for those dealing with grief, illness, substance abuse, or family problems. At the conclusion of the four-month course, they are better equipped to care both for others, and for each other.

Al Joyner D’87 took part in a PCC pilot program in Wadesboro, N.C.

“Many times I had worked 12 to 15 hours a day, six days a week, traveling to hospitals and counseling,” says Joyner. “I needed to hear that I did not have to solve all the problems of the world or be everything for everybody.” Unless ministers are supported in making healthy choices, he adds, pastoral burnout is likely.

“I discovered caring for myself was the best thing I could do for my congregations,” says Joyner, who will host a PCC group in the coming year at First United Methodist Church in Elkin, N.C. “I am more fit physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally than before.”

Martín’s Garden

Linda Soto watches with pride as Martín inspects the lush garden near Siler City’s Chatham Hospital. “We call it ‘Martín’s Garden,’” she says, a tribute to the hours he spends caring for it, which sets him apart from other volunteers. “Sometimes he starts to cry,” she says, “and I ask, ‘Why are you crying?’ He says to me, ‘You help me so much, and there is nothing I can do to help you.’” But in health ministries, it’s not a question of who helps whom. Martín and Linda see each other as family. “This work,” says Soto, “comes from the heart.”

William E. Pike , D’03, is staff associate for the Caring Communities program at Duke Divinity School. He and his wife Brooke, a staff specialist at the J.M. Ormond Center, live in Durham with their son, Jacob, and attend McMannen United Methodist Church.


“We hope to help form the conversation regarding theology and health within the church and medicine through our work at the divinity school.We are very excited about the current synergies at Duke in this area and look forward to continued collaboration with our colleagues in the Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life, as well as with the medical center.”

Keith Meador, M.D., Th.M., M.P.H.
Director, Theology and Medicine Program
Professor of the Practice of Pastoral Theology and Medicine


For more details about Caring Communities, visit http://www.caringcommunities.divinity.duke.edu/. For information about outreach services available to local congregations, please browse the Caring Communities Web site or make a visit to the Durham resource center.

For additional information, contact:

Rose Hodge, Staff Assistant
Theology and Medicine Duke Divinity School, Box 90968,
Durham, NC 27708
(919) 660-3507, rhodge@div.duke.edu

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