The Movement for Equality Starts with Health Care

I have served as an organizer with faith communities for the past ten years. While I have worked on issues ranging from environmental and food justice to housing and rights for undocumented persons, I have found that the area of health care is often overlooked in our spiritual call to a just and equitable world.

Although I grew up as a Christian, I was not aware until attending Divinity School that nearly one-fifth of the Gospel is dedicated to Jesus’ healing ministry. From Jesus’ own healing abilities to the power he grants his disciples, the New Testament is full of stories depicting the travels of Jesus and his disciples preaching and healing the disabled and paralyzed. As Christians, we often view these stories as examples of the miraculous/messianic nature of Christ. His ability to make the lame walk and the blind see is demonstrative of his divine nature. But when we look at the historical context of these illnesses and disabilities, we are actually confronted by a reality which shows the power of Jesus’ ministry and the intention of the Gospel he was preaching. During this time being physically disabled, blind, or showing signs of disease was not only physically difficult but socially isolating. The promise of healing meant that one could regain social, economic, and religious standing not only for oneself but for one’s family. Jesus’ ability to heal meant much more than the mere alleviation of physical suffering – it was an equalizer. While we may have a better understanding of the root cause of disease and improved treatment measures in the 21st century, illness can still elicit social stigma as well as prevent individuals and families from gaining economic stability. Many Americans struggle to pay their medical bills even if they have insurance. The high cost of care can lead individuals to delay medical treatment ultimately leading to more serious, and costly medical interventions. Families have reported taking money from retirement or college savings accounts and in some scenarios even filing for bankruptcy.

The impact of COVID-19 on our nation has further highlighted the economic toll that illness can have on individuals and families. Those on the front lines such as nursing home staff, supermarket workers, and big box chain employees are treated the worst by our health and economic systems and are often paid minimum wage with few benefits and labor protections. Yet, as our country rushed to get back to work and “restart the economy,” it seemed like our nation made a choice. Those essential workers are seemingly expendable – their lives and those of their families are not as valuable as others. This is even more disturbing when we consider that workers in these positions are more likely to be People of Color. Across the country we have seen COVID-19 case rates in Hispanic and Black individuals almost three times higher than that of White, Non-Hispanic persons. People of Color are already at a higher risk for negative health outcomes due to socioeconomic status and access to health care - all of which has been exacerbated since the pandemic.

The reason why I have chosen to work with communities of faith around access and education for health is not simply due to my own religious beliefs, but because pragmatically faith groups serve as one of the last vestiges of organized community. While the number of practicing Christians may be declining, churches and other faith-based institutions represent a unified structure that can motivate and mobilize people.

In a country that continues to view health care as a commodity rather than a right, we are neglecting the Gospel mandate set out by Christ that envisions an equitable society. While this was evident before the pandemic, COVID-19 has further demonstrated that our national policies and priorities favor the few over the many. We have been called upon to upend social and structural inequalities, and I hope that we can look to the promotion and access of health as a pillar of this Gospel movement.

Victoria Strang is a member of the IPHN Community Council and serves as the first Faith Policy Advocate for Human Rights Watch.