"Heal the sick."
"It's one of the commandments of the church," says the Rev. Philip L. Natwick, pastor of St. Stephen's Lutheran Church of Granada Hills.
His congregation takes the message to heart.
Last year, several congregation members, including four registered nurses, formed a health committee. They asked Holy Cross Medical Center for help in creating a "health ministry."
With the support of the medical center in Mission Hills, the group conducts blood-pressure screenings, presents stress-management workshops, talks to teen-agers about sexually transmitted diseases, visits hospitalized and home-bound parishioners, leads nature walks, writes articles on nutrition for the parish newsletter and posts bulletin boards on a variety of topics.
"We would like to have people thinking not only about their ephemeral soul, but also about the real and the practical and the everyday," Natwick said. "Church is a place where all those components can come together. We want to make St. Stephen's the kind of place where wholeness and healing take place."
St. Stephen's is one of thousands of churches across the country, including six in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys that are working with Holy Cross Medical Center, that offer not only spiritual inspiration and moral guidance, but also health care. More than three-quarters of the nation's churches tend to at least one health concern, according to a recent survey by the National Council of Churches.
Parish nurses are the backbone of most health ministries. About 700 parish nurses throughout the country, most of them volunteers, serve as educators, counselors and referral sources.
"We can do a lot of wellness teaching in a spiritual setting," said Marilyn Galins, a registered nurse who conducts monthly blood-pressure screenings for fellow parishioners at St. Stephen's Church. "When I take someone's blood pressure, I am touching that person physically and emotionally. I am sending the message that I am interested in how they are doing. There is a calmness that comes about because they know they have a resource within the congregation who will assist them and pray with them."
Holy Cross began its parish nurse partnership in 1990. The hospital helps churches develop health ministries, trains parish nurses and lends its resources and staff to congregations.
A few months ago, Holy Cross offered free diabetes screenings to members of Santa Rosa Church, a large San Fernando parish attended by 10,000 families, many of them poor immigrants.
More than 200 church-goers participated, and abnormal blood sugar levels were detected in 35. Many had no idea they were at risk for diabetes and did not know what they should do about it.
The hospital referred them for a follow-up and helped those without medical insurance work their way through the county health system.
Registered nurse Gloria Hampton offered to run a monthly Spanish-language diabetes support group at the church. Only eight people attended the first meeting. But all 69 chairs were filled at the second meeting, and many people hung around outside the door, straining to hear what was going on inside.
"As a critical care nurse, I see diabetic patients with severe complications--blindness, amputations," Hampton said. "There is such a high incidence of diabetes in Hispanics." The reason for the greater incidence is unknown.
Hampton talks to the group about the importance of diet, exercise and education. She teaches them how to monitor their blood sugar levels.
"I tell them they have to take control of their life," she said. "After one meeting, one gal came up to me. She was so excited. She told me she took the handouts home and tried the diet, and her blood sugar came way down. No one had ever told her what to do about her condition."
"We need to empower our congregations to learn all they can about their own bodies and to take responsibility for their own health," said Deborah Benada, a registered nurse who staffs the Holy Cross parish nurse partnership program. "It is not just the soul that goes to church and the body that goes to the doctor and the mind that goes to work and school. Church is a place to foster wholeness and healing of the body, mind and spirit."
Where to Go
Call: For information about forming a health ministry in your church, contact the parish nurse partnership at Holy Cross Medical Center, (818) 898-4680.