Synchronicities and callings
Editor's Note: Diana M. Swancutt, a professor of New Testament for more than a decade at YDS, is leaving her regular faculty position at the end of the current academic year. She was a principal organizer behind global anti-poverty activist Dr. Paul Farmer's recent visit to YDS. Following is her reflection about faith and poverty and her own plans to work at the intersections of religion, poverty, education, and global health care.
A couple of years ago, in a time of very poor health and poorer spirits, I stumbled onto a memoir about Paul Farmer, Mountains beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. The book has an unfortunate subtitle ("The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World"), unfortunate because no matter how profound the actions of another, transformation requires communities in action, and heroizing one man runs the risk of blinding us, who may not see ourselves as heroes, from recognizing our own ability to act for great good. But for a variety of folk unfamiliar with the work of global health care and the fight against poverty, Mountains has nevertheless been an extraordinary entree into the worlds of what we must do for each other—the world's peoples—and why.
The what: Kidder detailed in compelling prose the refusal of one man, Dr. Farmer, and one developing organization, Partners in Health, ever to give up on the truth, that the poorest among us always deserve the best—in education, clean water, health care, and community thriving. The why: because those who find themselves in abject poverty are our kin in the human family (and in the deepest spiritual sense, God's children). As Farmer put it, in slightly different words: Turning our backs on the poor is turning our backs on the reign of God (Matthew 25). Comma.
I felt, in this man's story, a push to fight and climb—for my own renewal of spirit and for the health of those who have far fewer opportunities than I to find good health care. But how? I'm just a teacher, I thought, and that of Bible (which can sometimes feel as arcane and irrelevant as it is lively and on the edge of our politicians' and church leaders' lips). I started talking to friends about what I might be able to do. One idea, the obvious idea, for a course emerged, and after some initial testing “Jesus and Paul on Poverty and Economic Justice” came into being this spring in three iterations, two at Yale Divinity School and one at Hartford Seminary. The course placed modern materials on poverty—demographical information, statistics, Farmer's extraordinary book Pathologies of Power—in dialogue with liberation theology and biblical materials on issues of status, wealth, economics, power, and difference. The course was crafted as a collective effort to learn and to engage communities where these issues are currently at play. It—my students, the class experience—felt like a gift.
In the context of the class, I thought it was crucial to bring Paul Farmer to speak, so that students could hear directly from someone doing integrative, holistic, community care with a preferential option for the poor; this was the genesis of Dr. Farmer's talk on April 26, and I am grateful to Ali Lutz ’12 S.T.M., PIH Special Projects Coordinator for Haiti, and one of my students, for helping to make that possible. I am also grateful that so many people—from area churches, public health, medicine, environment, other universities, and community folk—had the chance to hear of PIH's global work and to speak with Dr. Farmer afterwards.
For me, this talk and the class mark the middle of the beginning of work I hope to do for the remainder of my career—at the intersections of religion, poverty, education, and global health care. I will still teach and write. This year I will pen a book, coming out of the class, that I hope will serve as an encouragement toward similar work in readers' own communities. I will get a degree in public health (I hope to be able to bring my intellectual knowledge of "religion" and religions' social anthropologies to good use, studying how religion functions in public health and public health discourses globally.)
But ultimately I hope to focus on "translation," to secular agencies, of the crucial energy and power of religious communities to (continue to) do really good work in global health settings; and to the religious, of the crucial need to educate spiritual communities about public health, human rights, and medical material, in languages the religious "get," so that we can act—together, knowledgeably, and well on behalf of the poorest among us. Because the work is imperative, here in New Haven and around the globe.