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Monday, 24 August 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Volunteerism

Volunteer work is defined as valuable work done by a person who is not paid.  He or she chooses to give time to help a particular, often charitable, cause.   The concept of voluntary labour is not a world-wide phenomenon.  Even though not everyone in the West participates in volunteer work, there is a sense that such labour is important to society as a whole.  How long as volunteer work been part of Western culture?  I would venture to say that it parallels the spread of Christianity.
   The ministry of Jesus Christ and his first followers was marked by giving of themselves for the benefit of others.  In his parable of the sheep and the goats [1], Jesus implies that the natural outworking of true faith in God would include giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, care to the sick, and solace to the prisoner.  All of these actions would be done without expecting anything in return, not even the notice of God as they respond with, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you , or thirsty and give you something to drink?”
   That volunteer work is a legacy of Christian faith in the West can be seen even in the 2014 World Giving Index produced by the British-based Charities Aid Foundation.  Surveys were taken asking people around the world if they had given their time to an organization in the past month.  Among the 24 countries where one-third or more people had done volunteer work, the following was also true:

7 countries are considered part of the West (Australia, Canada, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa,* USA)

7 non-Western nations have 54% or more of the population affiliating with Christianity (Guatemala, Jamaica, Kenya, Liberia, Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago)

4 are former Soviet bloc countries where subbotniks, [sometimes forced] free labour on Saturdays has been part of the culture since it was introduced by the Communists in 1919 (Belarus, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan)

4 are Southeast Asian countries that had recently been hit by natural disasters, so the numbers may have been higher than a typical year (Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka)

1 has a population 50 % Muslim, 40% Christian (Nigeria)

1 is a largely Buddhist country (Mongolia)

   The most striking information about volunteerism comes from a country that has officially endorsed atheism for 66 years.  The People’s Republic of China has one of the lowest rates of volunteerism, at 6% of respondents [2].
   About fifteen years ago, we hosted a pair of young adults who were part of a Canada-World Youth Exchange.  These two girls (one Canadian, one Russian) had strikingly different attitudes towards the volunteer work that was part of their program.  The Canadian girl who was second generation East Indian considered the volunteer work at a daycare as valuable for its own sake and because she wanted to pursue child care as a career.  In contrast, the Russian girl complained about having to work without pay as she sorted clothing and played with children at a women’s shelter.  Her country may have had social service organizations, but with exclusively paid staff.  To her, volunteering felt like exploitation.  I realize that today in my province a significant portion of high school students may likewise feel exploited that they must volunteer for 40 hours in order to graduate, but I suspect that most of the adults in their lives will help them to see the benefits.
   One last remark about volunteering’s connection to Christian faith comes from a Canadian report entitled “Religion, Participation and Charitable Giving,” published in 1999.  Statistics were gathered comparing the level of participation (weekly, monthly, never) in religious services and the amount of time spent volunteering.  The author found a staggering connection between faithful attenders and volunteer work:

“These weekly attenders who volunteer amount to only 9 per cent of all Canadians, but they account for 39 per cent of all hours volunteered. They are in a class by themselves.” [3]

   When people imagine there’s no religion, do they realize that voluntary labour to help the vulnerable would take a serious hit?

[1] This parable can be found in Matthew 25: 31-46, Holy Bible
[2] The entire report can be found at https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-us-publications/caf_wgi2014_report_1555awebfinal.pdf
[3] The full report can be found at http://www.imaginecanada.ca/sites/default/files/www/en/giving/rp_1997_religion_participation_and_charitable_giving_en.pdf

Friday, 14 August 2015

Prosperity Defined

   I'm taking a brief recess from my series "The 'Imagine' Reality Check" to deal with another topic: prosperity.

   My husband and I recently transferred all our banking to a credit union.  This cooperative financial institution has a "Prosperity Project."  In order to engage its members, each branch has been inviting people to write on a round piece of card stock what prosperity means to them.  Some of the definitions I can remember were:

Being rich                                                        Being mortgage-free sooner; retire before age 65

        Being healthy                               Enjoying children and grandchildren

   This week I picked up the Sharpie and wrote a definition of my own:

Prosperity is being able to pay my bills and having enough to share with those in need.

   Please allow me to unpack why, for me, prosperity involves these twin aspects.

1)  Being able to pay my bills
When I can pay my bills, I am living within my means.  I make purchases not according to what I want or according to what my neighbors have.  Instead, I buy things I need at the rate I can afford them.  If that means choosing second-hand items rather than brand new ones, that is part of prosperity.  Prosperity does not go into consumer debt.  Living within my means reduces my stress level because I'm not afraid of bills arriving that I cannot pay.  Unless I will be able to pay the full balance of my credit card on the due date, I do not use it.
   When my income increases, I have the option of continuing with that original standard of living. Living beneath my means can lead to even greater prosperity as I see it in the second half of my definition.

2) Having enough to share with those in need
How can a person feel prosperous if he or she in only grasping for material things for him or herself? I feel prosperous when I can give some of my income off the top for God's work in the world--that feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, brings good news to the oppressed, and prevents abuses of many kinds.  I feel even more prosperous when, at the end of the month, there is more good that can be accomplished with what has come into my possession.  Prosperity is entrusted to us so that it can be shared.

I'd love to hear your comments about this definition of prosperity.  Does any of it resonate with you?

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Health Care Infrastructure, Part 4: Hospice

   The hospice, a specialized home for those with a terminal illness and their families, is a relatively new part of Western health care infrastructure.  The first hospice was established in 1967 in London, England, but it built itself upon the foundations outlined in my last three posts. 
   Without hospitals, the idea of a hospice as a specialized institution would not have arisen.  The founder of the first hospice and the hospice movement itself, Dame Cicely Saunders, began her medical training during World War II.  She trained to become a Red Cross war nurse at, notably, the Nightingale Training School!  She subsequently added to her education, becoming a medical doctor in 1957.
   Ms. Saunders, according to the Encyclopedia of world biography, was “[a] devout Christian.” When planning the concept of a hospice, she “incorporated opportunities for spiritual reflection into her plan, including a chapel, staff theologians, and prayer time. Yet she remained adamant that religion not be forced on anyone” [1].  She believed that the atmosphere of well-lit and home-like rooms would bring comfort to patients and their families.  More consistent pain control and other palliative treatments would not try to artificially extend life but make the end more bearable.  Due in part to Saunders’ research, palliative care has become a specialized area of medicine.
   Hospice care, according to Saunders’ model is diametrically opposed to physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia since her beliefs were based on the sanctity of human life and the sovereignty of God over one’s lifespan.  It is worth noting that despite its faith-filled beginnings, not all hospice care today continues in that life-affirming tradition [2]. 

[1] Encyclopedia of World Biography | 2005  : Saunders, Cicely.

[2] American hospice pioneer Florence Wald was open to euthanasia, and that has trickled down to some US hospices, according to Kelleigh Nelson’s March 6, 2013 article “Killing us Softly” found at freedomoutpost.com 

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Imagine Reality Check: Health Care Infrastructure, Part 3: The International Red Cross

   When a disaster happens around the world, one of the first humanitarian groups to respond is the Red Cross (or Red Crescent).  We expect that this not-for-profit group of nurses, doctors and behind-the-scenes logistics workers will reach out to those caught in war, flooding, famine and other calamities.  As of 2015, there are 189 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, meaning that 189 countries not only value but actively engage with this movement [1]

   Where did the vision come from to start such an organization?  It was born out of the strong Christian faith and concern for humanity of Swiss merchant Jean Henri Dunant.  As he travelled on an official errand, he happened to witness the cruel and needless deaths on a battlefield in Solferino, Italy in 1859.  At the time, he took action to beg with the army leaders to release any captured medical personnel to help save the wounded and tried to mobilize volunteers in neighboring towns to assist as well.  The experience led him to write a memoir and to work with others in establishing an organization that would be neutral and non-discriminatory in meeting human needs.  Although it began in Switzerland, the merit of the idea caught on in many countries of Europe and North America, and beyond.
   The Red Cross organization was founded in 1863, but Dunant did not remain at the helm for various reasons; his business interests went bankrupt, and thus he lost social standing among the other philanthropists who took up his mantle.  It was not until nearly forty years later when Dunant was honored and recognized with the very first Nobel Peace Prize. These words of congratulation were issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva:
There is no man who more deserves this honour, for it was you, forty years ago, who set on foot the international organization for the relief of the wounded on the battlefield. Without you, the Red Cross, the supreme humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century, would probably never have been undertaken.” [2]

[1]  According to the website of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Health Care Infrastructure, Part 2: Nursing

   The origin of nursing care as we know it began in the early days of Christianity, where males and females offered comfort and practical help to those who were ill.  It modelled itself after the practical care and love Jesus showed to the sick during his ministry.  The progress of this calling, however, was anything but linear.
   Within the monasteries and early hospitals, nurses had an important role.  As things became more formalized with specific “orders” (Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony 1095, Knights Hospitaller 1099 and Franciscans in the 13th century), monks and nuns were trained to the degree that medical knowledge was available.  They were respected for the care they gave to anyone who needed it, free of charge.  Becoming a nun who served the sick was considered an honorable vocation.
Freerange Stock photo
   One of the unfortunate consequences of the Protestant Reformation was that in nations where Roman Catholicism was displaced or outlawed, health care suffered and nurses became devalued.  In Protestant Germany it took 200 years before a revival of nursing took place through the movement of deaconesses.  This movement was based upon a number of models: the deaconess Phoebe mentioned only once in the New Testament book of Romans, the deaconess movement in the Netherlands, the work of the Sisters of Charity affiliated with St. Vincent de Paul and the diaconal movement of Johann Hinrich Wichern within the Lutheran community.  The Deaconess Community established training schools that extended to neighboring countries as well as particular districts within Pennsylvania, Maryland and Nebraska. [1]
   Up until this point in much of Protestant Europe, the position of a nurse was considered one of the lowest possible for any woman.  The pay was meager, and many nurses supplemented their income by acting as prostitutes.  Since the importance of hygiene was not known or recognized, nurses often caught the diseases of those they were treating [2].
   One person whose mission it was to change the face of nursing was a British citizen named Florence Nightingale.  Her family did not support her desire to care for the sick because of the reputation of nurses, but finally in her early 30’s she succeeded in going to Kaiserwerth, Germany to be taught by the Deaconesses.  Using this training and her uncommon insights into effective, compassionate care for the sick, Nightingale became the superintendent of a new London hospital.  Within seven months, she had her sights on becoming Superintendent of Nurses so that systemic changes could be made that centered on training good nurses. In another seven months she was dispatched with a team of 38 nurses to assist the army hospital stationed along the Black Sea in modern-day Turkey.  At this time the Crimean War was taking place, and Nightingale worked tirelessly to minister to the wounded soldiers; she created clean living quarters and the means to provide healthy food so that victims would be able to recover.
   Florence Nightingale was motivated by a sense of calling by God to a life of service, a calling she received when she was just 16 years old [3].  As her life unfolded, the three years between August 1853 and August 1856 proved to be pivotal to the care of the sick starting in Britain and the British military but spreading ever outward to continental Europe and as far away as India.  Nightingale wrote the textbook Notes on Nursing (based largely on exhaustive notes and statistics she had kept while on duty) that was used in her nursing schools.  Even when she was later confined to a small room because of her own health concerns, Florence Nightingale was always active by writing letters, reports, pamphlets and books to improve health care.
   Something essential to a good nurse, according to Nightingale, was good moral character.  Thus, she encouraged nursing students to enjoy poetry and music and to attend church [4]. She saw in the task of nursing a noble vocation, and that vision has led to its present status as a respected profession for both women and men.

[1] For further information, see http://deaconesscommunity.org/our-history/  
[2] Gena K. Gorrell.  Heart and Soul: The Story of Florence Nightingale.  Toronto: Tundra Books (2000), p. 34.
[3] Gorrell, p. 21.

[4] Gorrell, p. 131.

Friday, 7 August 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Health Care Infrastructure Part 1, Hospitals

 Singer/songwriter John Lennon wanted people to "imagine there's no heaven...no religion too." Applying that vision specifically to what the world would be like without the Christian religion, I will examine what it would mean for health care in the West

   I will not claim that Christianity can take credit for all the medical knowledge and advancements that exist in the world.  China, the Indian subcontinent, Egypt and Greece from ancient times held a body of medical knowledge that developed independently of that in Medieval Europe.  One example of their crossing paths occurred when British doctor, Edward Jenner, used the preventative technique of variolation (applying a small amount of a small pox pustule to a skin scratch of a healthy person) common in Chinese medicine.  Eventually, that practice led to the introduction of vaccines for smallpox, followed by other types of vaccines according to the same rationale [1].

   Nevertheless, one of the things we take for granted in our medical system, the hospital, is a direct legacy from Christianity.  Having a specialized facility where very ill people can be cared for when they are unable to stay at home is something we expect to find in every decent sized town or city in the West.  How did this come to be?
Freerange Stock photo
   The first public [where care was given free of charge] hospital was established by Christian leader Basil the Great in the fourth century A.D. in what is now Kayseri, Turkey.  The institutions prior to that one could not truly be called hosptials.  For example, ill people were welcomed in temples of the Greek god Asclepius.  However, there is no evidence that trained physicians attended them; instead the hope for the patient came only in proximity to the god of healing.  There is evidence that if a patient was not expected to survive, he would be turned away at such a temple because it would bring impurity to the holy place. [2] The Romans did have hospitals called valetudinarian, but they were intended for soldiers only.  The state and wealthy people funded these institutions that were deemed crucial to the maintenance and expansion of the Empire.
   When Basil constructed the complex of buildings we could call the first hospital, it was known as a “new city.”  According to Robert Louis Wilken, it “included medical facilities for the sick staffed with nurses and physicians, living space for the elderly and infirm, a hostel for travelers, a hospice for lepers who had been driven from the city because of disfigurement, a church and a monastery” as well as kitchens, baths, stables and storehouses for supplies. [3] Basil the Great was building upon an early tradition within Christian monasteries of the East, where medical care for both monks and members of the community was part of their ministry.  This idea spread to some monasteries in medieval Europe as well.
   The first hospitals in France were established by church leaders and were known as Hotel-Dieu (hostel of God); they particularly reached out to the poor and needy.  Admittedly, some basic knowledge of sanitation in hospitals was lacking during the medieval period, but the idea of quarantine during the Black Plague appears to have been derived by clergy in Vienna going back to the societal laws contained in the books of Moses, especially Leviticus.  The isolation of a sick person so that his illness could not spread to the healthy population, given as a directive from God, was thousands of years ahead of the scientific knowledge of the spread of germs. [4]
   Turning to the new world, the first hospital in North America was built in Mexico City in the early 1500’s and named after Jesus of Nazareth.  In Canada, an order of Catholic Sisters established the first Hotel Dieu in Quebec City in 1639.  The first US hospital would appear to have no religious affiliation since Benjamin Franklin is credited with its founding.  But even this is misleading. Benjamin Franklin cannot be separated from the faith in which he was raised.  He believed that faith had to lead to action and service to one’s fellow man. Says biographer John Fea, “Although he [Franklin] never returned to the Calvinism of his childhood, the religion of his parents leavened much of his adult thinking. Franklin believed in a Creator - God who possessed great wisdom, goodness, and power. This God not only created the world, but sustained it.” [5]
   In my very own city, there are three hospitals, two of which have distinct Christian roots.  Freeport Hospital was originally a sanatorium to treat people with tuberculosis, often called consumption, but the person who spearheaded its founding was Rev. Dr. Oberlander.  This pastor was distressed by the deaths of children and adults in the community and gathered physicians to see if better treatment could be put in place for those struggling with this illness [6].  St. Mary’s Hospital, as its name suggests, was birthed as a ministry of the Roman Catholic Church, through the Sisters of St. Joseph of Hamilton, in 1924.
   Since many hospitals doubled as teaching and/or research centres, many of the medical innovations and standards of care that we are accustomed to also rest on the foundation of the institution of the hospital.


Another fundamental aspect of medical care in the West is the nursing profession.  Next time I will outline the links between nursing care and Christian faith in action.

[1] Kate Kelly. The History of Medicine: Early Civilizations (2009), p. 84-85.
[2] Gary Ferngren. Medicine and Religion: A Historical Overview. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, (20140, p. 91-92.
[3] Robert Louis Wilken. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. Yale University Press (2012), p. 159-160.
[4] Leviticus 13-15 can be consulted for more detail.  See also Grant R. Jeffrey, The Signature of God  (1998), pages 145-6
[5] By John Fea. “ Religion and Early Politics: Benjamin Franklin’s Religious Beliefs.” Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine Volume XXXVII, Number 4 - Fall 2011.  Accessible on the web by clicking here.
[6] William V. Uttley. A History of Kitchener, Ontario (1937), p. 404-405.