The sterile, plain white walls of a doctor’s office ringing with silence can be intimidating for anyone, but especially for people from underserved communities. Trying to tell a doctor what ails you in a language you are barely familiar with, or don’t speak at all, is challenging. And for others, they fear a regular check-up will result in their family’s deportation.
These barriers, among many others, are some of the reasons why communities of color seek out and receive health treatment less often than white communities. Black, Asian and Latinx Americans often see this disparity appear in nearly all aspects of their lives. According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, they experience higher rates of infant mortality, chronic health conditions, pregnancy-related deaths, fatal COVID-19 cases and overall worse physical and mental health.
As these inequalities continue to worsen, especially in California — home to one of the highest levels of wealth and income gaps in the country — vulnerable populations must face poorer quality of care and worse health.
Amid these ever-intensifying health challenges, churches, synagogues and mosques are employing trained nurses to help bridge the gap. Community nurses, or medically trained nurses who are inserted into public institutions like worship spaces or schools, could transform how people view health care.
Cristina Sandoval, the mental health program manager at QueensCare in Hollywood, is one of the dozens of staff members who work in underserved communities to provide health screenings, eye exams, medical treatment and educational programs. Sandoval works with children and young adults to offer counseling and treat mental health issues.
And while QueensCare offers accessible health care for low-income individuals and families, the faith-based organization also works within religious communities to connect with people.
“We go and meet the families wherever they feel comfortable,” Sandoval said.
While the community health care worker model has been around for decades, it is largely underused in public health settings. From the sporadic data that exists, community health care workers have been shown to have a positive impact in their communities, especially with disease management, coordination of care, empowerment and access to care.
Further, faith community nurses, or a health worker who serves in a faith capacity, attempt to address a person’s health concerns and their overall wellness. They offer advice and referrals, as well as encourage specific treatment such as bringing in doctors to perform mammograms or cancer screenings. During the pandemic, faith community nurses helped encourage testing and COVID-19 vaccination within these spaces.
“It’s really that presence, looking at the person, as a whole person, not just a disease, not just somebody who comes to you for a referral to a clinic or to get their blood pressure taken,” said Mary Lynne Knighten, president-elect at Faith Community Nurses International and health ministry director at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in Eagle Rock. “It’s looking at the person’s mind, body and spirit as a whole person and trying to address the needs from that holistic approach.”
Faith community nurses who receive formal training usually get a combination of theology, pastoral care and nursing science education. Then, these nurses act as consistent lay pastors and educated health care workers who can address a multitude of congregants’ needs.
Cari Moodie, the director for faith community nursing at Health Ministries Association, which is the national professional organization for faith nurses and health ministers, said the organization often tries to treat community members comprehensively, even working with people to find food, transportation and rent money, if needed.
“You can see how if they’re spiritually or physically distressed, your health can just domino,” Moodie said. “So we feel like serving the whole entire individual helps. And not just themselves, but their whole family.”
Knighten believes sharing the same faith as the congregation can help build confidence and certainty in the spiritual and wellness advice faith nurses may offer to clients. The nurses worship and serve alongside the church members and become a consistent force in their community.
“There’s already that level of trust established,” Moodie said. “We’re hoping they’ll be a little more open to actually seeking help and plugging into service that maybe they didn’t know were as accommodating.”
For many people of color who may not trust government entities or public institutions, their religious institution is often embraced as a safe place. According to research published by the JAMA Network, communities of color are more hesitant to accept vaccinations than their white counterparts because of a history of medical racism in the country.
“They know they’ll get help and they don’t have to worry about how they appear or if they’re clean or if they do not have clothes to change into,” Knighten said.
Moodie notes they also try to limit the amount of paperwork or identification a congregation member would need to work with the nurses.
“We don’t want people to be scared to come to us or to think we’re not going to serve them if they don’t produce every single piece of documentation we want,” she said.
Knighten organizes health fairs at her church multiple times a year to allow a number of different agencies and organizations to educate the congregation on the resources available to them. One year, a church member brought her daughter to the health fair after Knighten suggested it. The daughter had been in and out of emergency rooms but was unable to find relief for the mental duress she was experiencing each day. At the health fair, Knighten said, the daughter was able to have a one-on-one consultation with a therapist and a psychiatrist and was able to start the journey toward healing.
“Her mother told me that no one had ever given them these resources,” Knighten said. “To me, that’s why we have faith community nurses.”