Here’s a startling fact: your postal code matters more than your genetic code in determining your life-span. Recent research into the “social gradient of health” links societal status with health status and mortality, proving that chronic stress from factors like poverty, unemployment and violence can lead to toxic stress and contribute to disease. That’s the central finding of How Neighborhoods Make Us Sick, a new book by Christian health care practitioners Breanna Lathrop and Veronica Squires. Christian Courier interviewed the authors to learn more about their vision for restoring health and wellness to our communities.
We are called to care for the poor, the widow and the foreigner. Yet in Canada, one in seven people live in poverty (1.3 million of these are children), 13 percent of the population lives in a state of food insecurity, and over 150,000 Canadians are homeless on any given day. Lathrop and Squires challenge us to consider how we respond to the basic health needs of our neighbours. Both authors have immersed themselves in caring for some of the most vulnerable people in a resource-depleted community in West Atlanta, Georgia, and are rooted in the belief that God loves all his children and desires equity for all. Sadly, people in this area of the city have a life expectancy 13 years lower than the national average. Crime is rampant and employment is scarce, making West Atlantan residents extremely vulnerable to the toxic and chronic effects of poverty. Lathrop works as a health care practitioner at the Good Samaritan Health Center, and Squires lived nearly a decade in one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. Their stories depict the racial inequity, historic injustice and cycles of poverty that comprise social determinants of health, but these two women also highlight stories of hope, determined that restoration and redistribution are possible.
JOURNEY TO THE INNER CITY
Both Squires and Lathrop have worked extensively in researching and understanding social determinants to good health. They define these invisible fences as “the conditions of our neighbourhood, our jobs, our education and the social structures surrounding us,” which “have a direct impact on health status and life expectancy” (23).
Squires’s journey to the inner city of Atlanta began shortly after she graduated from university. With another young couple, she and her husband purchased a home in one of the city’s roughest neighbourhoods, confident that they could have a positive influence in their new community. Two years later they were “scared and weary” from the “scraping of our ideals against the harder realities of our chosen neighborhood,” including mountains of trash, nearby shootings, broken sidewalks and 18 attempted break-ins. Though their housemates soon moved out, Squires and her husband stayed nine years, until the strain of living in an impoverished zip code left her fighting off severe depression and recurring panic attacks.
Lathrop had been passionate about health care from a young age. As a nurse at Good Samaritan, she now offers health care to people without insurance.
“I spent years learning how to prescribe the right cure for the right illness,” she says, “only to learn I couldn’t prescribe the things my patients needed the most” – a new home for a teen being raped by her dad’s friend, a job for a schizophrenic mother, a family for a new immigrant who needed a kidney (90). Both women are witnesses to how the trauma of poverty, the depletion of resources and insurmountable social and economic barriers negatively affect physical health. Both women desperately believe in finding better ways to help.
“We need to recognize the power and beauty in doing the work of restoring equity and helping our vulnerable neighbors,” Squires says. “Change often causes tension, and we do not need to run from that tension, but to embrace the tension and be part of the healing.”
In fact, the overall theme of the interview was one of encouragement, to empower all of us as brothers and sisters who respond to Jesus’ call to enfold all people in the support systems that benefit the health of individuals and communities. “We want to speak positively to the folks who are in the trenches,” Lathrop says, “and to offer them encouragement. Let’s speak honestly to acknowledge that the work is hard, the political climate may be challenging, the news may be difficult, and there are often reasons to be discouraged, but part of our work is cultivating hope which is prompted by our faith as we work in tandem with the Lord.”
Do churches actually care about the poverty that exists around them?
“Churches can begin by acknowledging that we live in a broken world, lamenting that reality,” Lathrop says, “but then challenging us all to consider, ‘Who are we in society? And how can we engage in the restoration of all of God’s people to equity?’” In response to Luke 6:37-38, Squires encourages “the opportunity to be relationally generous, to pour out as much love as possible, and to partner with one another in strengthening communities. This also applies to how the church sometimes views poor neighborhoods and their residents. We talk in the book about the idea of the ‘deserving poor,’ and how we often require good behavior before extending charity, but what if we just tried relational generosity as our first move . . . and see what happens?”