Wading in Troubled, Healing Waters
by Karen L. Brau and Kati Kluckman-Ault (January / February 2004 — Volume 20, Number 1)
Preaching and teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ go hand in hand with a desire to create wholeness through the health-related ministries of an inner-city church.
"Wade in the Water" is an African American spiritual that speaks eloquently about the Christian journey of the baptized life — filled as it is with both struggles and liberation. This call to wade into the water is one that comes from God because God is "gonna trouble the water." The "troubled water" tells us of God's power to move, stir, and generate healing in our lives.
Yet there are times when it is difficult to get in the water — even if the water is moving in powerful ways. The man at the pool of Bethzatha in John 5 knows how hard it can be to move into troubled, but healing waters. And when Jesus arrives and assesses the situation, he asks the man, "Do you want to be made well?"
At Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, we have a deep longing to be present with people in a relationship that moves us to answer Jesus' question with a yes. We are part of creating a community of faith engaged in community health ministry — a ministry that offers both an openness and a way to experience the healing waters of our grace-filled God. Wading into the water of congregational health ministry at Amazing Grace has been challenging and difficult but also exciting. And it continues to take place where God has "troubled the water."
Amazing Grace is a young congregation that sits in East Baltimore, a community that is a vibrant mission field yet fractured and stressed by poverty, inner-city violence, and pervasive substance abuse. This congregation, formed in 1996 through the grass-roots-led consolidation of three established Lutheran congregations, is deeply committed to its place.
In its process of re-formation after consolidating the three congregations, the new congregation's mission became clear —"Bringing Jesus to people and people to Jesus." In living out this mission, the leadership knew only too well that the brokenness evidenced in East Baltimore was influencing the community's view of the church. "When I get myself together," folks from the community told leadership over and over again, "then I'll come to church."
In times of prayer and reflection, the Holy Spirit troubled the waters of Amazing Grace and said, "Come as you are! Come and be part of a community of faith with your brokenness and struggle. In the midst of Jesus' community, Jesus will invite you to be made well."
How does an inner-city congregation live out the wholeness that Jesus offers so many times in the Gospels? This is the challenge that faces Amazing Grace daily. Churches are often the most stable institutions in neighborhoods experiencing the effects of concentrated poverty. In distressed communities, this poverty also affects people's health and wellness.
The commitment of churches to health is an old one, for Jesus stepped across barriers separating clean from unclean and did not demand purity as a precondition for giving health. The healings done by Jesus, noted in the Gospels, were also a part of a larger healing of the creation that is a vital part of Jesus' total ministry. Congregations do promote health through community building, enhancing the meaning of life, nurturing core spiritual values, and sponsoring health-related programs.
How Ministry Developed
The prayers for developing a ministry of health and wellness went up as the leaders of Amazing Grace, now led by Pastor (and co-author) Karen Brau, acknowledged the need for personal and corporate healing in creating a new congregation. From these troubled waters the Spirit stirred up help through both a grant and a person.
The Urban Congregational Health Ministry Project, funded through grants, enabled this congregation to begin its own version of a Congregational Health Ministry under the direction of Kati Kluckman-Ault, a deaconess in formation/intern who is also a parish nurse. Ms. Kluckman-Ault brought over 20 years of community health nursing experience with her and a desire to be present in a more tangible way with people as her own call to ministry developed.
All of this came together so that Amazing Grace could explore and expand its own understanding of itself as an agent of God's profound healing presence. Pastor Brau, Deaconess Kluckman-Ault, and Amazing Grace parishioners began a journey that has had deep and significant effects in both the congregation and its surrounding neighborhood.
Our parish-nurse-led Congregational Health Ministry began in 2001. This ministry started simply, with blood pressure screening once a month. This regular offering allowed the parish nurse a chance to get to know people one on one, hear the stories of their lives, and begin to see the ways that health promotion might be applied to this congregation. Soon, a congregational health survey was done which enabled Pastor Brau and Deaconess Kluckman-Ault to begin to focus on how the ministry of congregational health would be lived out. Shortly after that, a monthly newsletter, filled with wellness information, began publication.
During this time, the connection between the parish nurse and the congregation was slowly strengthened. Crucial to this process was the need for the parish nurse to attend worship weekly, for in sharing the Word of God, praying together, and receiving Holy Communion at the same table, relationships grew. The parish nurse, a member of the diaconate, also led worship and preached regularly, incorporating themes of wellness and healing into the sermons.
The Word of God was given further incarnational expression as the parish nurse prayed once a month with members during the services for healing. Over time people began to talk with the parish nurse about the significant events of their lives. They asked questions about what the lab tests meant for a member's son in the hospital and where to find dental care for a daughter with no insurance. They shared stories about the losses and deaths in people's lives and families. They asked questions about how diabetes medicine worked. All these together brought the parish nurse and the congregation closer.
Health Ministry Cabinet
In Granger Westberg's design for congregational health ministry (see suggested reading list at the end of the article), the article focused on the need for a Health Cabinet. At Amazing Grace, a ministry team called The Shepherds began to function as the health ministry cabinet. Once mainly focused in the area of calling and caring, this ministry team expanded their call to embrace congregational health ministry. The Shepherds have found that congregational health ministry is about paying attention to the ways in which the congregation itself functions in a healthy way, both individually and corporately.
Some of the ministries at Amazing Grace already were incorporating a sense of wellness and wholeness, yet Congregational Health Ministry has given us a further framework from which to see and develop new connections — within both the congregation and the surrounding neighborhood.
Amazing Grace has a gift of outdoor space, in a dedicated churchyard and 20 vacant lots that the congregation and community have taken over. Amazing Port Street is in the 600 block of North Port Street that we are developing as a "Sacred Commons — a place of healing and peace in the heart of our community."
Amazing Port Street has a labyrinth for walking and praying, gardens, children's art, and a mural. This Sacred Commons is accessible at all times to people who may be reluctant to enter the church itself.
The congregation has partnered with the local elementary school and the School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins Hospital to create Amazing Grandmothers, a program to nurture and support grandmothers raising their grandchildren. During the year, an after-school program offers healthy living classes, homework support, and computer activities. Art classes and the development of a youth choir this past Fall will supplement this program. Our summer day camp offers programming to 30 community children and includes art, gardening, spiritual development and practice, music, and yoga.
Funding for Congregational Health Ministries is a creative venture. With initial funding coming through the Urban Congregational Health Ministry Project, Amazing Grace continues to seek new funding sources. Opportunities can be found in traditional places such as Women of the ELCA or by developing relationships with local foundations interested in health and wellness ministry, such as Diakon Congregational and Community Ministries.
A high point of Community Health Ministry has been experiencing the power of relationship building which has led to openness and honesty about some challenging health situations. Furthermore, the team leadership of a parish nurse and a pastor working together to promote the health of the whole congregation creates among the congregation a very positive and contagious feeling.
Low points are the ongoing level of health crisis in our inner city. We have families, growing in health and wholeness, who have had to make an emergency move to another part of the city because their landlords were facing bankruptcy. Or, instead of walking the labyrinth, a large group of 10-year-old boys has a rock fight, pitching stones at each other across the labyrinth.
At a quick glance, in this poor urban setting, the reasons for congregational health ministry in a congregation such as Amazing Grace are obvious. But congregations everywhere are called to live out the wholeness of creation desired by God for all people. Each congregation has unique gifts that can become the tools to live out this aspect of ministry.
How might congregational health ministry work in your congregation? Look around — Where are the hurting places for the people of your congregation? Look around — Where are people feeling isolated and alone? Look around — Where can the movement of the Holy Spirit bring your congregation to a new level of ministry for those within the congregation and those on the outside?
"Wade in the Water" is a hymn we sing with power and joy at Amazing Grace, for we experience the troubled water as a reminder of our baptism and God's gifts of transforming love that can move us toward healing, wellness, wholeness, and liberation to new life. Each day, as Luther reminds us, is a return to our baptism and all that means in terms of redemption and salvation for all of us, wherever we are. Each day in congregational health ministry is full of mystery, surprise, and hard work.
As God troubles the water for the spiritual leaders at Amazing Grace, the congregation, and the community in which Amazing Grace serves, we respond to Jesus' invitation to try the water — it's great.
For more information
Scope and Standards of Parish Nursing Practice (1998) is written in collaboration with Health Ministries Association, Inc. Professional nursing is rooted in the concept of health and healing. Health is not only the absence of illness, but also a sense of well-being involving the self, others, the environment, and God. Parish nursing integrates current medical and behavioral knowledge with beliefs and practices within a faith community. The 28-page publication is available through the American Nurses' Association, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Suite 100 West, Washington, DC 20024 (800-274-4ANA).
The Parish Nurse: Providing a Minister of Health for Your Congregation by Granger E. Westberg and Jill Westberg McNamara (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990).
humancare.lcms.org/HM/hm.html (unverified link)
ipnrc.parishnurses.org/index.htm (unverified link)
Pastor Karen L. Brau and Deaconess Kati Kluckman-Ault, parish nurse, both serve at Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Baltimore, Maryland.