It is time to celebrate the first anniversary of Health and Faith in Baltimore, even if a bit late. With this posting comes a tribute to the many people who have made this blog possible through their involvement in promoting health and wellness at Baltimore’s various faith communities. When I set out to follow and tell the stories of people around the city, I knew that I would find struggle and hardship. But what I found was much more than a sum of devastating stories of poverty and inequality. I have seen the courage of people who turn their own struggle into communal currency for others; I have seen women who have little for themselves and their children but still tirelessly advocate for the betterment of their communities at neighborhood meetings; I have seen the culture of hope and caring in circumstances that I previously thought were so challenging that little was left for building tomorrow.
I have often asked myself what practices and attitudes help some people be well even amid crushing circumstances. What is it exactly that helps people to be healthy no matter what their social or financial situation? Based on the witness of people who I have followed and worked with, I would like to suggest an answer that may come as a surprise – a love of the written word. The love of reading, writing, and desire to know comes in many forms. For one it may mean journaling, for another reading the Scripture with pen in hand. With desire to understand through the written word comes the commitment toward the world of possibilities and future. My experience is that this type of orientation is the foundation of wellness; it is a disposition that brings the habits of health with it. The statistics seems to agree – a correlation between literacy and health is strong.
I have seen books in places where I have not expected them; I have witnessed an intense hunger for learning in circumstances that are well outside the tranquil sacristies of formal learning. A homeless girl, who travelled with me a bit of her life’s journey last year, did not want to talk to me about her lonely, cold nights on the hostile streets of Baltimore – she wanted to share her readings about the world mythologies and the books of the Bible. Or consider the story of Anthony (name changed), whom I met a few times last fall at The Jacques Initiative, The University of Maryland’s center for people living with HIV/AIDS. This affectionate and friendly man had left behind the various addictions that had shaped his youth in West Baltimore. He now shares his energy with other people who are learning to live well with HIV. Both times I met him he came with a book, set it right in front of him, and picked it up to read as soon as there was a moment of peace in the room filled with people. The book was Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. It indeed is a lot easier to commit oneself to health when the world around one makes sense and has a purpose.
Some of the health-promoting spiritual practices bring together reading and movement, words and nutrition. An interesting, powerful example of this is Health Freedom, Jeanne Charleston’s, R.N., initiative that recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. Health Freedom blends African-American history and spirituality with walking. Walking is the most democratic of all forms of exercise: all one needs is shoes and a path. I attended one of Health Freedom’s walks in June. The walk followed Randallstown’s Liberty Road, which now is a busy commercial corridor, but homes some of the significant historic sites of The Underground Railroad. We learned about the nineteenth-century history of the slaves from the event’s brochure. A sticker in my brochure let me know that I was walking in honor of Benjamin Duckett, a freedom seeker from Prince George’s County. The idea that health is freedom and our commitment to it a liberty road strikes a deeply resonating cord, especially when one remembers that too many of us are born to circumstance of health inequality and, hence, reduced freedom.
A very similar testimony of active people committed to words and learning met me at Shiloh AME in Windsor Hills when I went to walk with the group associated with the church’s health ministry. In a tender early summer evening we walked up the hills and down the hills, stopped to talk to neighbors walking their dogs and workers fixing a house that had recently been destroyed in a fire. Annette Fowler, one of the walkers and a physical therapist, read words of wisdom from Health Freedom’s weekly agenda of history, health facts, and inspiration: “It is a dream until you write it down, and then it is a goal.” Also Reverend, Dr. Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo walked with us and she too brought the message of books, writing, and health with her. For her writing about her life and especially about the African and American women’s ministry has been a way out the Apartheid circumstance and imprisonment that she experienced in her native South Africa.
In this same group of walkers was Vincent Greene, a lively man whose humorous comments and quick beat kept the ladies moving at a pace that picked up everyone’s heart beat. “Somebody has to keep order here,” he joked. He too was a person of physical health and literary commitment, a poet, in fact. Surely it was no coincidence that these people, lovers of the written word, were among the active movers of their congregation. That is what books do to people; they build the life of the mind and the life of the body. They help one to dream and hope, build a future that is more than the immediate circumstance of one’s life. This year has taught me that Baltimore is indeed a city that reads, and I believe that it can be the greatest city of America if the practices of reading and writing are lifted among the health assets of the people of all sorts of backgrounds. I let a quote from Vincent Greene’s poem, “Take Courage,” to wish all happy new beginnings in the fall of 2012: “I’ve learned to keep faith. Ignoring the distractions that are found every place. On the path that I walk I find uncertainty. But I am reminded to go forward fervently.”