Emory and St. Paul's: Public Health from a Theology of Head and Heart

St. Paul's University in Limuru, Kenya

This past summer five Emory students traveled to Kenya to participate in a new certificate course in religion, health and development—a course that is part of an ongoing collaboration between St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya, and Emory University.  Andrea Fletcher, a student in the Rollins School of Public Health, was one of the five Emory students who shared a classroom with 23 St. Paul’s students, some of whom were already development practitioners.  The eight-week-long course focused on introducing the students to the intersection among religion, public health and development practice.  But the students didn’t spend most of the course in a classroom.  After one week of intensive coursework on the theoretical foundations of religion, development and health; the application of these theories; and the study of methodologies of practice, the students were sent to field sites to apply their coursework and conduct research.

Fletcher spent the next six weeks of this contextualized and practice-driven course at Lea Toto, a community-based outreach program for eight of the poorest districts in the capital city of Nairobi.  The program provides primary care to 4,500 children infected with HIV/AIDS and supports their families—almost 16,000 people in total.  At Lea Toto, Fletcher gathered baseline height and weight data on all of the children—information that Lea Toto needed but did not have—and compared her results to national data.  Her research provided hope in the midst of the difficult realities created by HIV/AIDS when her results showed that Lea Toto children had better baseline data, in part because of the nutritional supplements they receive as part of their care. 

Fletcher’s work, which focused closely on the public health aspects of development, coincided with that done by her classmates at Nyumbani Village, which looks at spirituality as a community asset for development.  Nyumbani Village is a self-sustaining community that provides a family environment for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.  Drawing on the cultural understanding that elders must care for younger people in the community, elderly people who have lost loved ones to the disease care for orphans.  The Village provides housing, food, clothing, health care and education to the youth and elderly, while at the same time caring for their psychosocial and spiritual needs as well.  Through group homes and community activity the Village encourages activities to promote a new blended family for its residents, inspiring hope, healing and opportunities for a fresh start for all.  The Village is home to 750 children and over 150 elderly adults and is located on a 1000-acre organic farm.

After six weeks of fieldwork, students returned to the classroom to present their findings; reflect on the importance of theoretical frameworks for development practice; and to redefine previous understandings of religion, health and development.  This certificate course grew out of a longstanding partnership between Emory University’s Interfaith Health Program (IHP) and St. Paul’s University to promote the importance of religion and collaboration in the delivery of public health services.  In 2010, IDN supported the partnership’s efforts to develop curriculum that would combine intensive coursework and applied field research.  Emory efforts were led by John Blevins and Deborah McFarland, faculty of the Hubert Department of Global Health.  Additional support in 2011 enabled Blevins, McFarland and Mimi Kiser, associate director of IHP, to participate in the pilot of the certificate course.

For John Blevins the certificate course and the collaborative partnership between St. Paul’s and Emory connect to his passion for understanding the connection between health and faith.  The course enabled him and the students to explore questions that would otherwise go unanswered in a course completely devoted on religion, development or public health.  The course allowed students to identify the social factors that predispose communities toward better health—religion being one of them.  In Kenya, for instance, Blevins noted that 45% of health services were delivered through Christian organizations, a fact that cannot be ignored if services are to be delivered to as many people as possible.  However, in some communities religious traditions do not permit the delivery of certain services, and it is the interplay between these and other factors that students studied during the course. 

Blevins comes to Emory from the Midwest.  Following the completion of his seminary education, he began work as an HIV/AIDS chaplain in the Chicago area in the early 1990s, experiences that shaped his commitment to HIV public health primary care and the importance of delivering sensitive care to patients.  When asked about his perspective as he approaches his work, Blevins replied that his theological framework is one of head and heart.  Appropriately, he focused on practical theology in his doctoral studies, earning a doctorate in Pastoral Care and Counseling and traveling thousands of miles to work for the Council of Churches in Zambia before coming back the United States and in the late 1990s to Atlanta.

When asked how he thought the course went, Blevins simply replied, “I’m ecstatic.”  The course is an indication of the growing partnership between Emory University and St. Paul’s and Blevins is already planning for the summer 2012 group from Emory that will travel to Kenya. He is unsure of how many students that Mimi Kiser, Deborah McFarland and he will select this summer, but he’s certain the experience will be just as rewarding for this group.  Of other future collaborations between St. Paul’s and Emory, Blevins says that plans are in the works for potential research collaboration between Emory and St. Paul’s faculty and student exchanges that carry study abroad credit.  And in the future, perhaps, this mutually beneficial partnership will develop into a jointly administered degree program between the two schools. 

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