The Seventh-day Adventist world church president today called on Adventists to partner with other health organizations in offering primary healthcare globally, a request that urges the denomination's members and institutions to shed individualistic approaches to offering care in communities.
Jan Paulsen's remarks came on the opening day of a global health conference, which is exploring ways to achieve public health goals through partnerships and the role faith-based organizations (FBOs) play in such an effort. Church health leaders also hope to demonstrate the role spirituality and holistic living can play in primary care and find common ground when working with partners.
Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO), a United Nation's agency, has sought to bolster partnerships with FBOs, which deliver as much as 40 percent of primary care in some nations.
Yesterday, Adventist Church officials met in a high-level conference with WHO leaders in Geneva to explore effective ways of partnering, particularly by implementing the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. Leaders from both organizations have met several times in the past two years, their work culminating in this week's Global Conference on Health and Lifestyle.
In his keynote address today, Paulsen urged community involvement as a way for Adventists to express their own values in an age of globalization. Such involvement, he said, would define the public's perception of the church's approach to primary care.
"An individualistic, inward-looking conception of Christianity is utterly at odds with the savior who reached out to restore blind men's eyes, cured lepers and healed an emotionally broken woman," Paulsen said. "We cannot express our faith, our desire to imitate Christ, in seclusion."
Paulsen spoke to some 500 world church leaders in a packed lecture hall at the University of Geneva, the site of the conference.
During his half-hour speech, Paulsen said the church would continue to prioritize facilitating, funding and supporting professional medical healthcare through its network of more than 600 hospitals, clinics and dispensaries. The denomination's 150-year health focus also emphasizes health education, advocacy of vegetarianism and living alcohol- and drug-free.
Paulsen also addressed concerns that partnerships would be at odds with the church's mission, saying, "Some have been critical, and rightly so, of an eschatological perspective that serves simply to reconcile us to current miseries. Awaiting [Christ's return] is not a passive exercise, but something that demands action [in] the present."
The church's emphasis on health, Paulsen said, should not just be one of treating disease, defining what is healthy to eat or drink, or the training of medical professionals.
"Our approach to health is a concept that encompasses all that contributes to the fullness and completeness of human existence," he said.
A WHO officer noted that the Adventist Church in the past has sometimes acted in a closed manner, but said he welcomed the partnership.
"I think the Adventist Church is ready for official relations with us," said Ted Karpf, an Officer with the Department of Partnerships and UN Reform at the World Health Organization.
"The church is here as partners to begin with, so some change has happened already," Karpf said.
Addressing the gathering, Jean Duff, executive director of the Center for Interfaith Action on Global Poverty, recognized the Adventist church as "a faithful partner in mobilizing their health assets and congregational infrastructures" to collaborate in an inter-faith anti-malaria program in Mozambique.
Many of the church's health ministries leaders said they welcomed Paulsen's comments.
"I think he set a new direction," said Chester Kuma, associate Health Ministries director for the church's South Pacific region. "He provided a great challenge to the church, getting us back to basics. It's a good reminder about compassion and helping the poor."
Elie Honore, Health Ministries director for the church's Inter-America region, said Paulsen's comments weren't aimed at just church health leaders but at many segments of the church. "We have education represented here [at this conference], and ministry, as well as leadership," Honore said.
"He reminded us of the questions we should be asking. We're not going to just stick to ideas or theories but open our eyes to the community and fulfill our mission as a church."
While church leaders seek to work with global health partners, they also hope to demonstrate the church's value of holistic care -- the integration of physical, mental and spiritual needs in assessing overall health.
Yesterday, during the meeting with WHO officials in the organization's Executive Board Room, the Adventist Church's Health Ministries Director, Dr. Allan Handysides, stressed that the essential, fundamental value of healthcare is the appreciation of human life.
"The delivery of care must be inclusive of all, regardless of gender, religion or race," he said.
The Global Conference on Health and Lifestyle continues through Friday. Other speakers and workshop presenters include David Williams, professor of public heath at Harvard University; Sir Michael Marmot, director of the International Institute for Society and Health; and Alex Ross, WHO director for the Programme on Partnerships and United Nations Reform.