Congregations seen as key to improving health

By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — When Delaware state health officials shipped flu vaccine to the main hospital in Wilmington after a flu epidemic hit low-income neighborhoods in the city, many elderly people and children in those neighborhoods had no way of getting to the hospital for free flu shots and ended up in its emergency room with the flu.

The next year, at the suggestion of a hospital nurse, her church used its vans to pick up neighborhood residents and bring them to the church for free flu shots, cutting emergency room visits in half.

That effort, says Bob Wineburg, a professor of social work at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, underscores what he says is a huge untapped potential for religious congregations, government and nonprofits to work together and use existing resources to address local health and human service needs.

Wineburg, who studied community organizing at Syracuse University and has spent the past 30 years looking at community support that religious organizations provide, now is working to put those ideas into practice in Guilford County.

As part of that effort, Wineburg partnered with the Rev. Odell Cleveland, chief administrative officer at Mount Zion Baptist Church of Greensboro, and Vince Francisco, an associate professor of public health education at UNCG, to organize a “Faith Summit” in November at Mount Zion that focused on health care.

The event attracted 762 people from congregations, nonprofits, health-care providers and government, and offered nearly two-dozen workshops on topics such as men’s health, dental health, mental health, immigrant health, youth health and how to form a nonprofit charity as a vehicle for raising philanthropic dollars.

“Our ultimate goal is to build a coherent system of community supports” that teams government, religious congregation, nonprofits and health-care providers, says Wineburg, Jefferson Pilot Excellence Professor at UNCG. “That’s how the American system of community supports will work, where people are working together.”

Endorsing the effort to build faith-based partnerships to improve health in the community was Melissa Rogers, special assistant to the President and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership and former director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

“You are pioneering a model that we can all learn from,” she said in her keynote speech at the Faith Summit. “What you do in Greensboro will make a difference, not just in Greensboro. It will make a difference in the United States of America.”

Wineburg says the U.S. has 350,000 religious congregations with organized pools of volunteers and a lot of space that can be used to help educate community residents about staying healthy, and to house clinics and other programs to deliver preventive health care.

“We spend most of our health dollars on medicine, not on prevention,” he says.

The Faith Summit alone attracted representatives of 40 large churches in the region that together have 30,000 members.

“We want Mount Zion to be a portal and convenor for how to develop better relationships with the faith community for education for better community health,” says Wineburg, who helped Cleveland found the Welfare Reform Liaison Project in 1997.

That nonprofit, which promotes self-sufficiency for low-income families through employment training and the distribution of donated products, has had an aggregate impact on the community totaling $100 million, Wineburg says.

UNCG and Mount Zion now aim to raise awareness about the Faith Summit, he says, starting with a production of a 14-minute video featuring 1-minute clips from workshops at the Summit that he hopes will be posted on the UNCG and Mount Zion websites.

“Odell and I are in this for the long haul,” Wineburg says, “to change our community and to provide a model for other communities.”

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