Health care reform has been called a defining issue of our era, akin to the battle for civil rights in the 1960s. But, unlike the struggle for civil rights, religious leaders have, to a great extent, refrained from becoming actively involved in the public debate over health care policy.
40 Days for Health Reform is a national mobilization of members from over 25 faith communities that seeks to promote a civil, fact-based examination of our nation's health care situation along with a better understanding of the options for reform that are now under consideration. 40 Days activists have organized prayer vigils across the country and a call-in with President Obama.
The Rev. John Hay Jr., formerly senior pastor at West Morris Street Free Methodist Church and now director of advancement for an international child sponsorship initiative, has been an active participant in the 40 Days project. Hay has been serving in the urban core neighborhoods of Indianapolis for over 20 years as director of the Shepherd Community, Inc., the John H. Boner Center and Horizon House.
NUVO met with Hay at the West Morris Street Free Methodist Church on the city's near Southwestside to learn more about 40 Days for Health Reform.
NUVO: How would you characterize the health care reform process so far?
HAY: What's troubling to me is that we were supposed to have a debate. It seems to me we have not yet had a debate. We've had a lot of screaming, we've had a lot of yelling, we've had a lot of name-calling. But we haven't yet, as a public, really been able to understand what even the public option's about. The idea of it has been co-opted by fear.
My hope is that faith communities can be a part of conversations within their own communities where you can have levelheaded, soul-searching, truth-seeking, truth-speaking conversations. To this point, I don't think we've had a debate -- and that's something I'd like to see.
NUVO: How have faith communities been involved up to now?
HAY: There are some groups that are very vocal and very much part of the health reform dialogue; then there others that are very much against it.
My own tradition is Evangelical. I may not represent what's mainstream in Evangelical tradition. I consider myself a relatively conservative Christian, but my tradition is such that we come out pretty progressive on some social issues that others do not.
It's interesting. Within a congregation there's this wide variety of thought and ideology and perspective. Conversations within churches aren't monolithic. They're very robust. Sometimes the result is that conversations don't take place within the church.
But [40 Days for Health Reform] is a strong coalition of faith-based groups -- churches, synagogues, mosques -- that folks like myself can get involved in. I've encouraged other pastors to get involved.
It's not a partisan effort. It's not asking pastors in the last week of August to proclaim President Obama and Congress' health care agenda. It is about lifting up what we consider a moral imperative that there should be quality, affordable, accessible health care for all. We currently don't have that. It's a high cost, morally. It's a high cost, ethically. It's a high cost, economically. This is something we can do, that we should do. Let's do it.
NUVO: What has prompted faith groups to coalesce now?
HAY: In the last go-round for health care reform, during the Clinton Administration, faith communities, by and large, were ideologically stereotyped and lumped in one camp or the other and literally sidelined. The voices of people of faith weren't there.
There was a determination that, this time around, this is too central an issue for our common good as a country. We know that the elephants and special interests have been working hard and, in some cases, been quite successful again in co-opting a common voice and even the very idea that everyone should have health care. We're not even talking about that aspect.
But, to me, that's one of the most important things. We've got to talk about how this might work for every American citizen. And, as communities of faith, with the Scriptures, why wouldn't we? Why wouldn't we be talking on this? Why wouldn't we be leading on this?
NUVO: What do you think should be the role of faith-based organizations at this time with regard to health care reform.
HAY: Certainly to hold a dialogue. I would hope that every congregation would have a reasonable, informed dialogue with folks on the issues. That their pastors, or Bible teachers, or Scripture leaders would at least lift up the challenge of what I call the Samaritan principle. To me, the story of the Good Samaritan is the imperative for health care for all. Here is a person who is waylaid by the roadside, helpless. The person is called "the neighbor" by Jesus, who stops and cares for the man's needs. He cares for his health and makes sure there is enough money and resources to care for him until he is well.
To me, this is the story in the Christian faith that says we can do it, we should do it. So I would hope that story and others would be lifted up to say maybe you don't like the shape or the form of this, but it is the right thing to do.
I've had a lot of hate mail because of my involvement in this. Some have asked, "What about the parts of this legislation that are ideologically unacceptable?" And I say, "If you know what they are, tell me." The reality is that folks have listened to the stuff that's come through viral e-mails and other, similar influences, and they really don't know what's there. That's why I say we haven't yet had a debate.
My thought is that faith leaders and congregations should be finding out what truth is in this legislation and speaking the truth and leading their congregations to talk about what's real. We have a Scripture that says, "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free." I really like that.
We have another scripture that says, "God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of love and of power and a sound mind." We need to take the fear that's been implanted and, by speaking the truth and seeking what's there, let's have a great conversation.
Just casting, for example, the provision for a living will as a "death panel" has been one of the meanest, grossly misconstrued elements of all this. I've been with I don't know how many parishioners whose family members are on their death bed -- and there is no living will. There are no directions for them. So they're asking me and they're asking the hospital staff and the chaplain and their friends: What should we do?
The provision of an opportunity to have counsel for a living will -- that's all that was about, to say wouldn't it be good to have a conversation with your family members about what to do in case of an emergency. But that's gone. It's off the table now.
NUVO: Aren't we moving to the question of whether health care is a fundamental right of all people?
HAY: Undoubtedly. As a Christian, I would say that good quality, affordable, accessible health care is a moral imperative. As an American citizen, I would say it is also a right. I really welcome that debate. I think it helps us. The reality is that more and more people are losing their insurance, are being denied procedures, are having to go out of country for procedures.
I have a friend whose organization changed health care companies and the new company, a nonprofit by the way, went through his wife's file and found that when she was a teenager, about 20 years ago, she was mildly depressed. They disqualified her and would not carry her. This is the kind of stuff we're facing.
As we ask the question, is health care a right, we also have to ask about how health care companies have responded to what they are called upon to do.
If health care is everyone's right, then whose responsibility is it? It seems to me that's where we can begin to talk about the various sectors sharing the load. I would hope that faith-based communities would be part of that.
NUVO: What's in store for 40 Days for Health Reform?
HAY: The last weekend in August we have been encouraging pastors, rabbis and imams to lift the challenge of universal health care in their faith communities as we prepare for Congress to get back to work.
The Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis weighs in
On Aug. 14, the Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis added its collective voice to faith-based calls for health care reform. That statement follows in its entirety.
"The Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis affirms a heath care future that is grounded in the sacred bonds of God given life to all of God's people and creation. God breathed life into his creation and expects the same of those he created. We believe that God's intent was and is for all to have access to the health care resources that maximize the benefits of the natural elements of God's beautiful creation so as to foster, enhance and sustain life. The sacred texts of Genesis 1 and 2 inform and inspire our common humanity, which is defined by compassion given to us by God when he gave us life. We are especially concerned for the life of those who are the most vulnerable who do not have access to adequate health care resources that affirms faithful stewardship of our abundant health care resources made from God's creation.
"As people of faith, inspired by shared values from our sacred texts, we envision a society where each person is afforded health, wholeness, and human dignity as demonstrated in the sacred texts. Therefore we urge all concerned to work together and to move beyond differences so as to affect health care for all. More specifically, we invite legislative proposals, as well as private and public partnerships to move us toward a health care future that is:
"Inclusive, an offering of health care for every person regardless of individual circumstances.
"Accessible, eliminating all barriers to the care which contributes to our health and wholeness as individuals and as a society.
"Affordable, ensuring that we use our abundant health care resources effectively, efficiently, and equitably.
"Accountable, calling for shared individual and institutional responsibility in a system of timely, quality and safe care that treats body, mind and spirit."
For more information on the Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.