Global Summit Illustrates Increased Respect for Faith-Based Health Care

c. 2005 Religion News Service

NEW YORK _ Hours before the December 2004 tsunami hit Southeast Asia, pastor Rick Warren got a 4:30 a.m. e-mail from a church in Sri Lanka. They had just had an earthquake, the pastor wrote, and it was so big that there was bound to be a tsunami.

Warren mobilized his network of churches. ``We had a team headed for the coast before the tidal wave hit,'' he said.

Speaking at the opening of Time magazine's three-day Global Health Conference on Tuesday (Nov. 1), the author of the best-selling ``Purpose Driven Life'' used the tsunami relief example to explain how churches could be mobilized to deliver worldwide health care.

``I can take you to a million villages around the world that don't have a clinic, don't have a post office, don't have a hospital,'' Warren said. ``But they got a church.''

The fact that Warren was a summit speaker along with luminaries like Bill Clinton and Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, the famed Columbia economist, illustrates how faith communities are increasingly seen as major players in the global health arena.

At the summit, sponsored in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders touted their health efforts, bickered over challenges, and discussed how they can succeed where governments fail.

Warren and United Methodist officials unveiled major church-to-church health initiatives for sub-Saharan Africa.

Using $5 bed nets and $30 hand-cranked radios, United Methodist churches in the U.S. will connect with African congregations to launch a malaria prevention campaign, church officials said.

United Methodist Bishop Joao Machado of Mozambique said 68 percent of hospitalizations in his country are from malaria alone. The disease kills an estimated 2,000 African children every day, and 900,000 people on the continent each year.

``With a radio like that,'' said Machado, waving one in his hand, ``we can educate the people in Mozambique.''

Combating the disease is possible, he said, but ``we need only people who know that we are one world.''

The malaria prevention project is scheduled to begin in Sierra Leone in December, with startup costs of $350,000. The church plans to create similar programs in eight other African nations, including Mozambique.

At the conference, Warren described his P.E.A.C.E. plan, a project that's been piloted in Rwanda. The acronym stands for ``plant churches, equip servant leaders, assist the poor, care for the sick, and educate the next generation.'' The plan incorporates the much-heralded HIV/AIDS work of Warren's wife, Kay Warren.

Warren sends small teams of volunteers from his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., to developing nations.

``When you go into a village, you find a man of peace,'' Warren tells his volunteers. The person does not need to be Christian, or a man, he said, just open and influential.

Bearing dental hygiene kits and other supplies, they try to address what Warren calls the five Goliaths of the world: spiritual emptiness, egocentric leadership, poverty, pandemic diseases and illiteracy.

Warren said 4,500 Saddleback congregants are already involved in pilot projects, and he just recruited 15,000 more. The church has an average weekly attendance of 22,000.

While religious groups have made strides in addressing health care, their efforts are not without obstacles or controversy.

At a conference panel discussion, a Sufi Muslim, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew and Warren, a Southern Baptist, were eager to talk about their interfaith collaborations and health work in the trenches.

The moderator asked about proselytizing.

``I'm kind of a pragmatist,'' said Warren, who didn't directly answer the question.

Warren said if he were sick and someone tried to help, ``I wouldn't care what their motivation was.''

Nonetheless, evangelicals have been criticized this year for preaching in predominantly Muslim countries like Sri Lanka.

Julia Greenberg of American Jewish World Service quipped that evangelism is an issue with Jewish health care.

``It's kind of hard to convert to Judaism, the chosen people and all that,'' she said.

But Greenberg was serious when she read a health statement on behalf of Ugandan organizations she works with who complained they had no access to condoms. Some health officials have said the country is under U.S. pressure to discourage condom use. It's a charge Ugandan officials deny.

At the conference other African officials also raised the issue of condoms and religion.

``There is a need for youth to use condoms,'' said C. Kaluki Ngilu, Kenya's health minister. ``Then you can take over from there and you can connect them with their God.''

Ngilu said she was extremely grateful, however, for the work of religious groups because they ``reach people government cannot reach.''

But Warren and other religious leaders said they know they can't solve the world's health problems alone.

``There is government, there's business, and there's religion,'' said Warren. ``I'm absolutely convinced that you cannot do it with one sector or even two.''

MO/PH END RNS

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