A Piece of the Gospel: Engaging in Global Community

This post was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of "Alive Together" magazine.

What does it look like to step out and engage with the global community in a way that is personal and involves more than writing a check? While it is true that monetary support of globally-involved organizations and projects is often the most responsible and effective way to impact change, there are times when our presence in some far-flung place is called for—when nothing other than our very human self is necessary. Putting “our boots on the ground,” of course, calls for an investment of time, arguably our most highly prized commodity; it calls for tolerance of great cultural differences; and it calls for courage to leave the familiar behind.

Emily Robinson, a student in the Doctorate of Nursing Practice program at the University of Washington, embrace(d) these exact challenges. Emily (spent) three months in northern Ethiopia in 2014, working with SCOPE’s (Strengthening Care Opportunities Through Partnership in Ethiopia) current priest training and Prevention of Maternal to Child Transmission (of HIV) project in the city of Gondar. SCOPE represents a unique partnership between University of Washington Department of Global Health, Ethiopian Orthodox Church, University of Gondar in Gondar, Ethiopia, and University Presbyterian Church. It works to bring the faith and medical communities together with the goal to eradicate maternal to child transmission of HIV in northern Ethiopia.

“When I read the description for the SCOPE fellowship one morning over my cup of coffee, I immediately re-read it just to be sure I was not hallucinating,” Emily says. “The opportunity to work with SCOPE intersects with my interests so closely that I feared it was too good to be true.”

This summer will not be the first time this energetic and compassionate young woman has intimately engaged with communities far different from her own. Whether it is with Muslims and Coptic Christians in Cairo, Egypt, with the inner-city population in downtown Tacoma, or with rural Ethiopians with poor access to healthcare, Emily shows us exactly what it truly looks like to be globally engaged.

Emily grew up in a Free Methodist Church in Wenatchee and as a young Christian often thought of those with different faiths, or no faith, as ‘other.’ Through college experiences and relationships with those she once considered ‘other,’ Emily gave up many of her more rigid religious beliefs and, as she says, “traded them in for a whole boatload of questions.” Emily’s husband, Ben, is now a pastor at Urban Grace, a church in downtown Tacoma they chose because of its work on issues of social injustice. There, Emily sits up front with the children of the congregation. One recent Sunday, Emily spoke with the children about ‘wonderings.’

“My faith,” Emily says, “consists largely of wonderings, or unanswered questions. I find that God comes near to me in my wonderings. I also find that in the midst of my wonderings, God grows.”

In eighth grade, Emily gave up her childhood dream of becoming a chimpanzee trainer and instead decided she would go into the nursing field. She entered nursing school right out of high school, attending Whitworth University in Spokane and a program that fed directly into Washington State University’s school of nursing. After graduation in 2005 while her husband was earning his Masters of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary, Emily worked at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, then as a school nurse and cross-country coach at Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart in Princeton, New Jersey. Her next nursing stint was at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, where she worked in a primary care/public health setting.

“During my time in Egypt I was able to work closely with local people and resources to meet the needs of our population,” Emily says. “I was exposed to a vastly different way of delivering healthcare and an unspoken hierarchical understanding of people’s value, and thus their right to health and wellness. Of course, this was difficult to swallow. Leading health fairs for a local community of African immigrants compounded my realization of the upside-down realities in much of the world. I began brainstorming how this reality could be changed. Oftentimes, I ended up feeling as though I was beating my head against a wall, but nonetheless I was driven to keep thinking.”

Living and working for three years in Cairo, Egypt, deepened Emily’s convictions about the injustice in our world and gave her the opportunity to strengthen both her medical skills and the skills necessary to develop and nurture relationships across cultural and religious lines. While there, Emily became very involved in religious life. Ben served in an Anglican church that worked extensively in Christian/Muslim relations. “Our church and its programs minimized differences and built on similarities. When differences did arise, we pointed toward ways we might learn from those differences and from each other and even celebrated those differences.” Though her personal faith and religious practices are quite different from those she came to know in Cairo, Emily fostered a deep appreciation for, understanding of, and respect for the faith of both Muslims and Coptic Christians.

SCOPE is an organization that by definition requires the commitment to work in partnership with groups in conflict.

Emily’s cross-cultural medical and religious experiences have uniquely equipped her for working with SCOPE, but not only as an American Protestant Christian working with the Archbishop, priests, and parishioners of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. SCOPE is an organization that by definition requires the commitment to work in partnership with groups in conflict. In Ethiopia as a whole, there are 500,000 Orthodox priests but only 2,000 medical doctors. Eighty-seven percent of people in the Gondar region belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and these religious leaders play an overwhelming role in influencing the opinions, attitudes, and behaviors of their followers. Historically, there has been a long-standing and deeply entrenched distrust between the medical profession and the faith community, and people have always held their priests and “soul fathers” in far higher esteem than they hold physicians. SCOPE believes that the best—perhaps the only—way to eradicate maternal to child transmission of HIV is to bridge the trust gap between medicine and faith and involve these influential church leaders in the effort.

“I interacted a lot with the ‘other’ in Cairo,” Emily says. “Both the Muslim and Coptic traditions opened my eyes to the power and influence of religion and religious leaders in society. During my time in Cairo, I began to think about how that influence could be wielded to produce positive results.” Emily values religion and its place within culture but she also recognizes it can become a barrier. “I feel strongly about trying to preserve individual and communal convictions and beliefs while also trying to ensure access to the best services and care.”

“The gospel is not proclaimed fully until we are all speaking or enacting our piece of the truth.”

Emily will work primarily with SCOPE’s Prevention of Maternal to Child Transmission (PMTCT) pilot project at Woleka Health Center in the Gondar region of Ethiopia. This project was launched a year ago, is ongoing under the direction of SCOPE’s Ethiopian fellow, Kefyalew Addis, and is expected to expanda into other health centers in the region. Local priests are trained to competency in the subjects of HIV transmission and prevention, HIV testing and care, the role cultural stigma plays in refusal of testing and compliance with medication, and how they can positively impact the health of their parishioners as regards improving antenatal care and prevention of maternal to child transmission of HIV. These priests are then paired with women in the community and work together—a feat in itself as Ethiopian society remains quite patriarchal—to identify pregnant women in their communities and bring them into their local health center. The health center then provides antenatal care (care during pregnancy and after birth, for both mother and baby), HIV testing and, if the mother is HIV+, treatment to prevent transmission of HIV to the baby during delivery.

Emily’s primary responsibilities will be to assess the results of the first year of this project and prepare it for expansion into other Gondar-area health centers. She will work directly with the staff at Woleka and with the teams of priests and women to assess barriers and successes, where and how changes may be made, the need for mother-to-mother groups to aid in support of both HIV+ and HIV- pregnant women, and how best to implement a new HIV training program that will include priests but also the female volunteers and health center staff.

A challenging job, no doubt. But one that Emily looks forward to.: “I once had a conversation with a few close friends about what we thought ‘the gospel’ was,” Emily said. “In the midst of this conversation, I realized my belief that we each hold a unique piece of the gospel. That is the beauty of the body of Christ, that the gospel is not proclaimed fully until we are all speaking or enacting our piece of the truth.” Emily explains that prior to that realization, she had tried to make explicit the ways in which her faith was interwoven with her work. Now she sees her faith and her work to be implicitly connected. “My piece of the gospel is to extend the healing power of God’s unbridled acceptance of us, just as we are. In the world of public or global health, this means searching for ways to undo the injustice and marginalization that plagues our world. When I read about SCOPE’s efforts, I saw my piece of the gospel in the midst of it.”

Indeed, Emily recognized her piece of the gospel in the work to be done in Ethiopia. She is stepping out on that faith and going. Sacrifice of income, sacrifice of time, sacrifice of all that is comfortable and familiar in order to impact the lives of others in need. Sometimes that is what it takes to claim one’s piece of the gospel.

This is what it looks like to be truly engaged in the global community.

Peggy Sarjeant, M.D., is a pediatrician and writer who lives in Seattle and in Winthrop, WA. Along with Nancy Andrews, she is co-director of SCOPE.