Earlier this week I attended a conference for work in San Diego. I work in the field of Public Health, and specifically in the area of chronic disease prevention. The overall purpose of the conference was to convene a bunch of us that have similar funding — which is about to end — and discuss how we can continue to carry out our work even when there’s no funding to do it.
Going into the conference the facilitator asked all attendees to be prepared to tell their story, if called upon, in front of all of the other attendees. Our story was meant to be a three minute monologue about how we got into the field of Public Health to begin with, but we weren’t instructed to simply describe a chain of events. We were supposed to narrow it down to the moment that we knew we needed to pursue this as our career.
Happily, I didn’t get called on. I say happily because my story doesn’t have a definitive moment that I decided to pursue this career — at least not an emotionally charged one which was the goal of the exercise.
Many attendees told stories of how they watched their family members suffer through diseases that could have been prevented and that motivated them to be a part of the change. No knock on any of my loved ones, but that’s just not what motivated me. I chose the general field of health because I needed to declare a major in college, and I was pretty good at all of the health classes I had taken (aka: this would be easy). I chose health promotion as my concentration because I didn’t want to be a teacher, and those were the only two concentrations available. I chose public health as the focus of my master’s degree because it seemed to align with the focus of the activities I had been involved in during my undergraduate work, and I thought it would be broadly applicable. Finally, I pursued a position with my local health department because it was the most natural and logical place for me to work given all of the steps leading up to that point.
That is my story. That is how I got to where I am now, and while I don’t have a something that motivated me to be in this field today, I do feel as though there’s ample reason for me to work hard in the field now.
Motivated by the Gospel
If you’ve spent any amount of time around me (or on this blog) before you arrived at this post, you’ll know full well that I’m a Christian. It’s my Christianity that motivates me to work hard in this field (for multiple reasons, but this post will address a big one). The Apostle Paul summarizes the gospel in 2 Corinthians 8 when he says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (v.9).
My motivation is found in the inequitable environment in which we find ourselves in the United States and California generally, but San Joaquin County and my real heart of Stockton specifically. To see a bit of how that works itself out in the realm of health and social justice, feel free to stop and watch this video:
A Tale of Two Zip Codes from BLACKMATH on Vimeo.
Through practices like redlining in the middle of the 1900’s — and many, many others that carry themselves out today — we’ve created systems that keep minorities and those of lower socio-economic classes (which are often synonymous due to our country’s ugly history of racism) oppressed with lack of access to healthy outcomes, among other things. In short — and regardless of what you may think — people don’t start on an even playing field.
It grieves me to the heart to know that because I was born a white male in the United States, I have so many advantages afforded to me simply through birth. I believe — along with Christians around the planet and across time — that all of mankind has been created in God’s very image, and having been created in His image it means we all have inherent and inextricable dignity. However, fallen humans throughout time have seen fit to take certain aspects of our diversity and elevate them as better, or more important, than others — most notably the color of one’s skin. Rather than glorying in the diversity of humanity, and recognizing the intrinsic dignity found in all of us through our image bearing nature we oppress some and elevate others. This is sin.
According to the table to the right, I’m literally the person described in the “One-Up” column. I meet every single one of the features of an advantaged individual living in the United States of America, and I’m sure that this list doesn’t capture it all. One thing you’ll notice is that a lot of those things I have that give me an advantage in our society I didn’t “earn.” In many cases I was simply born into the situation. This is my wealth, and I’m willing to bet that as you look at the list you may see you have great wealth too.
The reason that I’m motivated to work hard in this field is because equity matters. Through my work I have an opportunity to create policy, system, and environmental changes (PSE) that can help right some of the wrongs that have been done (and continue to be done) over the many years of injustice not only in our nation as a whole but in my local community. These types of changes are wonderful because of their staying power. We’ve all had some experience with, and therefore understand, the difficulty that comes with changing an unjust policy, overthrowing an inequitable system, or altering a bad environment. With this in mind, when a PSE is adopted that is just and equitable there’s some permanence involved because of the difficulty that comes with changing it.
Tying it Back In
As we recall our verse from before, Christ gave up his wealth so that the poor could become rich through his poverty. The main difference between the two situations is that Jesus was deserving of all of his wealth. Jesus Christ, the second person of the One Triune God deserved every ounce of his riches. He, being the creator of the universe, absolutely merited every bit of his wealth. But what did he do? He exchanged if for our rags so that we could have his robes. He took our poverty so that we could inherit his fortune.
How much more should I, who has nothing except for what has been afforded me by God’s grace, use my wealth to find ways to make the poor rich. There are many ways that I can be involved in righting historical social wrongs through my work, and my favorite parts of my job involve just that. I have been given great wealth, and that wealth is meant to be spent liberally for the sake of others that have less.
So I suppose, in a certain way, this is a variation of my story. It’s not exactly the thing that got me here, but it is definitely something that keeps me around.
I would ask any of you Christians reading this to think with me about how you have been given great advantages in life and reflect upon these questions: 1) How you are utilizing your advantage to lift up those without it? 2) In what ways are you spending your wealth so that others are benefiting? 3) What wrongs do you see that you can play a part in helping to set right?