Patel makes case for ‘leaning in’ to religion as model for health

Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America, lectures about the intersection of health and faith, continuing the Interfaith Lecture Series on Week Three’s theme “Health and Faith: Considering the Center of Wellbeing” last Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy. Brett Phelps/Staff Photographer

Sara Toth

While Chautauquans were attending lectures, readings and arts performances last week, another group was meeting behind the scenes. There are countless conference centers that could play host to such a group — in this case, a collection of faith and health leaders — but Eboo Patel and his colleagues at Interfaith America wanted that place to be Chautauqua. The question that group spent the week considering, Patel said, was this: Can the positive and proactive engagement of religious identities improve health outcomes?

Patel spoke last week as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series theme “Health and Faith: Considering the Center of Wellbeing,” with Interfaith America as the program partner. He took the podium Wednesday afternoon to outline three points to that broader discussion.

Interfaith America, of which Patel is the founder and president, wanted to have that convening of faith and health leaders on the grounds, Patel said, because Chautauqua is “a convener and a spreader of good.”

“The intertwining of religion and spirituality, of literature, of the arts, of physical education — you gather that here, you braid it together,” Patel said. “But you also teach teachers, and they spread out all over the land. You also nurture artists, and they create beauty all over the land.”

That’s the energy Interfaith America wanted for its retreat, which was the first point, Patel said. The second, he said, was a bit broader. Why faith and health?

“There’s kind of a stereotype that lots of people have, and perhaps for good reason, that there’s a big chasm between (the two),” he said. “You go to medical school to study science, not spirituality. But you look at the issue from a different perspective, and you actually see all kinds of profound interplay between faith and health.” 

Patel started with language; scripture is “replete with references to health” and those references get absorbed into the health industry.

Patel’s organization, Interfaith America, convened a group of health and faith leaders in conversation last week on the grounds. Brett Phelps/Staff Photographer

“There are doctors who will say to you, ‘I wish for you shalom,’ which means, yes, peace, but really, (it means) wholeness, wellness,” Patel said. 

His favorite example of how the interplay between faith and health shows up in language, Patel said, is through Pope Francis. 

“If you’re Pope, you have a lot of Catholic symbolism at your fingertips,” he said. “… In one of his first public talks, one of his first descriptions of the Catholic Church, the Pope used medical analogies: ‘We are to be field hospitals for the poor.’ ”

Pope Francis went on, Patel said, using another medical analogy to describe what he hopes the church would be to the world. Francis had shared a story of a time when he was sick in an Argentinian hospital; a doctor had prescribed a certain dose of medicine that “turned out to not be quite the right fit,” Patel said.

“The nurse came by, and sat with the man (who would become Pope Francis) and listened to his story — what had happened to him, how he thought about himself, the twists and turns of his life, what made him feel good, what made him feel bad,” Patel said.

The nurse wound up adjusting the medicine. It was “just right this time.”

“Pope Francis says that we are this nurse,” Patel said. 

The point, he said, is there is “such a profound interplay between faith language and health language; it’s an area of great fertility, and so we should lean into that.” 

Patel cited other examples. Mt. Sinai Hospital, the Inner City Muslim Action Network’s health clinic, St. Jude’s — all health institutions, founded by faith communities.

“Faith is deeply committed not just to the elevation of the soul, but the health of the body,” he said. 

“They are the single best platform in which inspiring interfaith cooperation takes place, not just on a daily basis, but an hourly basis,” Patel said. 

It sounds like a joke, he said, but in America right now, there are hospitals with a Muslim physician, working with a Jewish anesthesiologist, assisted by a Jehovah’s Witness, in a room sanitized by a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, in a hospital founded by a Catholic order run by an agnostic CEO who was raised Buddhist.

“Religious identities are a matter of comfort and literacy in most healthcare settings,” Patel said. “… We begin in an area where, if you ask people at the theoretical level, ‘Do you guys do religion?,’ they might say no, not at all. But at a practical level, they do it all the time. …  There are some things that are easier in practice than in theory.”

Outside hospitals, countless congregations are leaning into health issues in their own way — just look at AA and Al-Anon meetings in church basements. Faith and health are already so intertwined, in so many ways, Patel said, that you can get mad about it, or you can lean into it.

Interfaith America leaned into it; Patel cited the work done around the COVID-19 roll-out several years ago.

“Engage the fact and engage it in an appreciative way and train people to have positive, proactive conversations with folks about how their religious identity is causing them to see the vaccine, and that is principally about getting them to do something,” he said. “It’s principally about engaging them in a faith language to have them consider the vaccine within the context of their faith.”

For Coptic Christians, who receive communion in a common cup, that meant using that as a framework: The sooner practicing Coptic Christians received the vaccine, the sooner they can receive communion from a common cup again.

Patel drew on what Ulysses W. Burley had noted the prior day; that while he, as a health professional, could do everything in his power to make a patient well, he often would be sending that patient out into a world in which they would just fall sick again. The simple question Burley tried to answer was, “Can we do better?”

“I think we can do better. And I think that just as the engagement of religion, its big ideas, its rituals, the way it plays out in identity, just like the engagement of religion can give us a positive vision of health and an individual or in a hospital or a public health agency, I think the engagement of religion can give us a positive vision of a healthy society,” Patel said.

This brought Patel to his third point: How can religion actually give us a vision of a healthy society? A healthy society is a network of healthy institutions, which is what can be seen at the intersection of faith and health.

“Religion is an opportunity, is a guide, a vision, a lens through which we can see what healthiness looks like, what thriving looks like what flourishing looks like,” Patel said.

Patel closed with asking the audience to think of how to create social change in a healthy way, and to consider religion as a model for that. Because the model right now, he said, sometimes goes like this: “If I scream at the thing that I hate loud enough, it will disappear. … If I just hate something hard enough, screaming loudly enough, it’ll go away and good things will appear in their place.”

But healthy networks, healthy institutions, are built by people following their faith. God may give us a vision of heaven, but we build the concrete manifestations of those visions on Earth. 

“The group of people to follow are the people who have built institutions that lead to a healthy culture, the health institutions that cure and treat people individually, the social institutions that are essential for a healthy society,” he said. “… We defeat the things we do not love, by building the things we do.”


The author Sara Toth

Sara Toth is entering her fifth summer as editor of The Chautauquan Daily and works year-round in Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Education. Previously, she served four years as the Daily’s assistant and then managing editor. An alum of the Daily internship program, she is a native of Pittsburgh(ish), attended Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, and worked for nearly four years as a reporter in the Baltimore Sun Media Group. She lives in Jamestown with her husband, a photographer, and her Lilac, a cat.