A Mosque, a Church, and Neighborhood Health

Interfaith Connections for Life

by Lance Laird

In the recent political controversy over the Park 51 or “Ground Zero Mosque” in Manhattan, one fundamental assumption of its opponents is that what people do in mosques is very different than what people do in churches. Pundits and ideologues among Christians and Muslims like to separate these religious groups behind neat lines in the sand or walls or national borders or moral categories of good and bad, loving and violent.  When we examine the actual lives of particular Christians and particular Muslims in a particular place, however, we may find the picture more complex, intertwined, and familiar.

I am a medical anthropologist with a background in theology and comparative religion, and I have become both fascinated and troubled by the ways in which scholars link the terms “religion, spirituality, and health.”  Some research involves Christian and some Jewish populations and focuses on health outcomes: how prayer affects blood pressure or healing after surgery, regular church attendance affects longevity, or “spirituality” affects end-of-life care.  Physician scientists search for the biological and chemical “mechanisms” (hormones, for example) that are activated by prayer, meditation, and other “spiritual practices.”  Public health researchers identify general trends among religious or ethnic populations, such as the impact of religion on physical and mental health among Black churchgoers.  They find that groups which make stricter behavioral demands (like Muslims or Pentecostals) may have a greater health effect.[1]

Some social scientists have come up with models and mechanisms to link beliefs to psychological health, community to social health, and practices to biological health.[2]  Others suggest that “religion” could buffer the effects of racism, mental health stress and physical challenges for Black Americans,[3] and still others have talked about Black churches as “therapeutic communities”[4] and places where secular and political concerns often intersect with spiritual themes.[5]

For those of us who participate regularly in religious communities, though, we are well aware that lots of folks have difficulties with their faith communities, while others find support; and people participate in many different ways for many different reasons.  “Religion” does not mean one thing to everybody; and for that matter, neither does “health.”  How is it that regular folks in the pews of churches or on the prayer mats of mosques link “health” (their own and their neighbors’) and “religion” in everyday life?

Introducing the project

For the past year and a half, several student researchers and I have been attending and talking with people who are members of two congregations—one mosque and one church in one neighborhood of a large northeastern US city.  Both congregations are predominantly Black, though the term Black masks many shades of color, identity, and experience; each includes new and old immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa, among other places of origin.  We went to meetings, meals, scripture studies, special events, prayer and worship services, and health fairs.  We interviewed individuals and small groups—a total of sixteen men and women at a mosque, and a total of ten people at the church.  We asked about how they define healthy people, healthy congregations, and healthy neighborhoods; how the congregation supports that health; and what the biggest obstacles to health are.  In addition, we got eight members of the mosque and four from the church together for a day-long workshop to brainstorm ways that religious congregations might contribute to the health of the neighborhood.

We hope that the results of this project will point a way forward, giving some concrete shape to the ways religious communities might better support both individual and public health.  When local, state, and national public health officials approach faith-based communities, they have a tendency to view them as “information delivery sites” for dissemination of health education materials, like messages about breast or prostate cancer screening, vaccinations and HIV/AIDS prevention.  Religion scholars have a tendency to focus on theologies, rituals, or the organizational structures or official programs of churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.  What can a close study of the religious lives of individuals and stories of congregations tell us about how faith communities actually connect religion and health?

The Congregations and the Neighborhood

The church is a highly structured, hierarchically arranged body of approximately 2000 members organized into several “departments,” with seven paid ministers and fourteen volunteer ministers on staff.  According to our estimates, Sunday morning attendance at two services ranges from 600 to 900.  The church is a long established African-American congregation in the city, with several multi-generational families at its core.  It has been characterized at some periods in this long history as a “black elite” or “silk stocking” church, according to some members, who also say they think that reputation is undeserved.  The congregation includes a broad spectrum of people across educational, professional, and economic levels.

In the past decade or so, church members of Afro-Caribbean heritage have organized a social group within the church to coordinate cultural activities, and several new members are African immigrants as well.  Youth and children are a visible presence, with children’s choirs of about 30-40, and youth choirs involving about the same number.  Teenagers lead an annual worship service, and some will offer a prayer or read scripture in regular worship services as well.

The mosque is a historically Sunni African-American masjid (the Arabic term for “place of prostration in prayer”).  While about 250 adults attend regular Friday congregational prayers, official “membership” is fairly fluid, despite ongoing efforts to institute dues-paying.  The imam is nominally paid, with about twelve people on a formal “board of directors.” The imam estimates that approximately forty percent of the Friday attendance is African-American or Afro-Caribbean, mostly Muslim converts; while the majority of the remainder are Somali refugees.  A handful of West African, Bosnian, Arab and South Asian adults also participate on Fridays.  Even during the summer months, very few children participate in Friday worship, though some Somali members hold a weekend Islamic school at the mosque.  The mosque runs a book and sundry store on the premises, and members have done major renovations to the building with mostly volunteer labor.

The imam and several attendees often discuss their “membership” in a larger Muslim community that includes two or three other local mosques and their “relationship” with other organizations and schools.  While some active members are professionals, most leaders characterize their distinctiveness from the other mosques that are “more middle class” in their values, identifying themselves with a working-class population.

These two congregations sit at either end of a long city street that connects two major intersections that outsiders often characterize as plagued by poverty and violent crime.  When mosque and church members gathered to discuss their common neighborhood, they listed threats to health in several categories: media, violence, negative values, substance abuse, socio-economic issues, and a toxic environment:

  • Media threats included too much television and video-games that compliment sedentary lifestyles, the intensive marketing of liquor, cigarettes, fast food, and excess sexual and violent imagery.
  • Violence referred to the abundance of guns, the climate of fear, and prevalence of aggression in neighborhood streets, where violence becomes normalized for young people and adults alike.
  • Negative values included self-centeredness, disrespect, instant gratification, excessive sexual exposure, consumerism and materialism, negative peer influences, lack of interest and connection in the community.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse was seen as both a symptom and cause of the social and physical environment, but participants also felt that medical providers contributed to the overuse of prescription drugs in the community.
  • Socio-economic threats included a lack of education, unemployment, high rates of incarceration, and low rates of home ownership.
  • Environmental threats included toxic chemical storage and contaminated soil in what one participant called “the black community experiment zone.”

In addition to these health threats, individuals told us that they, their families, and their friends in the congregation struggle with mental health and addiction issues, moral and relational problems, discrimination and lack of access to services, and unemployment.  Some also highlighted obesity and diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure.  Sermons in both settings focus on the immoral influence of media, especially music and music videos.  Adults pray for the safety of children on the streets and bemoan the lack of respect and values that lead youth to commit acts of violence.  Other sermon themes related to health at the mosque include sexual promiscuity, alcohol and smoking, men taking responsibility for women and family, “purifying your life,” and fighting injustice in “the system.”  While these themes may hint at different theological and moral frameworks or starting points for understanding the relationship of health and faith, our focus here will be on how people experience their congregation.


One of the major themes that emerged from our interviews and observations was “connection.”  Connection may mean many things, and many readers might find this an obvious theme, but it deserves greater attention.  In this article, I will focus on four dimensions of connection that members find in these congregations:  1) a sense of refuge and belonging, 2) a network of support in the midst of struggles or crisis; 3) a collective source of wisdom and experience for facing life’s problems, and 4) a means for reaching out and effecting change in the local community.   At the end of the article, I will also highlight some opportunities for improvement that members have identified.

Sense of Belonging

Members of both communities spoke of their congregations as a “haven”, a “refuge”, a “source of strength” that helped them cope with the rest of their lives.  Teenagers find refuge in the church from “disruptive” home lives (PD43), while adults find inspiration in being “part of something bigger than them,” where “somebody loves you and cares” (PD56). Refuge, strength, service and caring are recurring themes in the narratives of church members.

Mosque members talked about their congregation in terms of protection, repair, and strength.  Citing a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, one man emphasized that “there is protection in the Jama`at (gathered community),” to which his friend added, “the only thing that we have on this side [of heaven], all right, are each other” (PD48).  Another man described the mosque as “a triage unit … where people can come for repair,” to escape from “the unhealthiness that faces us today, the alarms and the police stations and the guns and violence and the greater war that’s going on outside” (PD52).  A middle-aged man who has struggled with a drinking problem pulled out his cell phone, saying that it “is almost full of Muslims I can call … this masjid is where I get my strength from” (PD25).  Knowing that one is a part of a group, that one belongs with others, is an important element in many of the members’ stories.

Belonging in the body

A congregation is a physical gathering of human bodies who intentionally share space and time with one another.  A psychologist who spoke at the church’s health fair explicitly invoked the theme of the Black church as therapeutic community.  She highlighted the emotional release of a congregation singing and clapping with the choir, of liturgical dances that brought tears to the eyes, and especially the loving embrace of older women in the church.  The veritable parades of handshakes for visitors and new members, the passing of the peace, the laying of hands on shoulders or heads in prayer; these are a few of the ways that bodies connect—with each other and with the emotional and spiritual aspects of congregants—in the church.  The service music and preachers’ voices periodically raise and lower the energy and animation of the gathered faithful.

The mosque’s worship is subdued by comparison.  Congregants rarely make a sound, above a soft whisper or cough; both motions and emotions are subdued and orderly.  The preacher (khatib) may occasionally raise his voice to emphasize a point, to which some may mumble a brief amen or Allahu akbar. The Qur’an is chanted in a style neither monotonous nor ornamented. Nevertheless, physical touch is a major form of connection.  Warm handshakes and salams are exchanged with everyone upon entering the prayer hall (musallah) of the mosque, until it is too full to make the rounds.  Men sit shoulder to shoulder, leg to leg, much closer than in conventional social settings.  The practice of salat itself involves men or women standing in lines, toes and shoulders touching.  The warmth of bodies rubbing up against one another, the sometimes awkward, semi-synchronous movement of bodies and breath, imparts a sense of transcending boundaries of race, ethnicity, and language.  With foreheads to the floor, the focus of the mind is individual, but the sounds of whispering, breathing, and the feel of others’ presence makes it simultaneously a collective bodily experience.

Scripture studies and common meals mark the calendars of both congregations.  The church holds regular Bible studies for adults, youth and children at mid-week and weekends, just as the mosque holds Qur’an teaching circles, Arabic classes, and discussion groups on weeknights and weekend days.  Coffee hour at the church between Sunday morning services, along with meals and activities shared by each of the church’s sub-groups; and monthly sisters’ and brothers’ overnight retreats and breakfasts at the mosque offer similar opportunities to “break bread” and enjoy socializing.  Distinct sub-groups in each congregation participate in these more intensive, intimate social settings.

Organizing connection

The church has an official system for organizing smaller groups of members.  When someone joins the church or comes forward with a special need during the service, the pastor assigns a staff minister to connect them with the people who can help them most.  “Class leaders” provide instruction, mentoring, and follow-up with new members and old, reporting to the ministerial staff.  Groups of men and women serve on boards that managing the business and spiritual life of the church.  Women connect with each other in the Missionary service society, and men in the Brotherhood choir; other choirs, youth groups and special ministry groups provide opportunities to belong; and as each group has a slate of officers each year, there is ample opportunity to exercise leadership in the church.  These sub-groups seem to be most often implicated in acts of caring for those with personal health issues in the congregation.  The sub-groups organize visits to sick and shut-in members of the congregation, as well as ministries to local nursing homes.

The mosque has a looser sense of organization.  The imam serves full-time but is only partially compensated.  The board of directors consists of twelve leaders, at least two of whom are women and all of whom are African-American or Afro-Caribbean and have been at the mosque for many years.  This core group seems to be both the primary initiators and participants, with new converts gathered in for support.  The imam, not unlike the pastor, has significant authority in approving new initiatives and enlists the core leadership to carry out the plans. Quite unlike the pastor, the imam has little administrative support.  Several initiatives seemed to have flexible or intermittent schedules, depending on recruiting skills or distraction level.  Individual members develop ad hoc initiatives for visiting the sick or for maintaining accountability with members who have recently “come home” from prison. It is this small-group and one-to-one support that most members cite as being key to their recovery and survival.

Network of Support

Lifting up a prayer

One of the more striking aspects of church life is the public recognition of achievements, the celebration of leadership, and the sharing of both opportunities and personal concerns.  The Sunday bulletin often announces both achievements and prayer concerns, and the pastor regularly asks people to share “praises”—such as community service awards, book publications, graduations, good grades, acceptance to college, wedding anniversaries and birthdays.

In nearly every gathering of the church, whether for Bible study, for a health fair, or a committee meeting, members share their concerns—sickness, emotional and relationship struggles, employment frustrations, anxieties about tests both educational and medical—and the group holds hands and prays for these individuals.  As one minister said, “Everybody prays, everybody prays, because I think that is our culture” (PD40).  Some Sundays, the pastor recognized someone who was grieving, or someone facing a serious surgical operation.  He asked that the entire congregation stand, stretch their hands toward the person, and join him in praying for comfort and healing.  Many worship services included an invitation to come forward and kneel at the altar for prayer.  Often several dozen accepted the invitation, and the kneeling bench was occupied in shifts of about thirty people.  Ministers prayed silently or aloud with some, and the kneelers often wiped tears from their eyes and hugged each other as they returned to their pews.  At a monthly healing service, led by one sub-group within the congregation, a minister prayed over the kneelers and laid hands on them with a handkerchief.  One woman who did not kneel at the altar recalled her own motive for attending:

There was a time when I was so sick that I didn’t believe I would get better, and so I figured, “Why pray?”  I didn’t see any prayers being answered, so I’m like, well, “Why pray?  Nobody’s hearing mine!” But then I would go to these services and people would pray for me, and so in my mind I’m like, “Oh well, I’m not praying but somebody’s praying for me. So that person’s prayer is going to be answered for me,” is how I rationalized it. (PD55)

In the collaborative workshop, participants shared with each other the power of faith as a health asset.  One woman from the church linked prayer and care.  She declared, “Through prayer, the body can be healed,” the stress of bad news reduced because you “know that you have a house of believers who believe like you, who will support you and hold you up and come to your rescue” (WK).  A lay leader, who did not like sharing his own health concerns or going to healing services, said that prayer was pretty much inescapable in the church: “Whether I want to let them know that I want them to pray for me, they’re going to do it anyways! It’s not going to hurt me; they’re going to pray for you anyways. They pray for me when I’m NOT sick” (PD42).

The emphasis on intercessory prayer is less publicly apparent at the mosque.  Members maintain, to varying degrees, their ritual prayer practices in the five daily prayers, personal petitions, and special prayers during Ramadan or on other occasions.  Their speech is often laced with pious phrases that include prayers for the Prophet and for the community of Muslims.  The imam occasionally announces after Friday worship that someone is in the hospital or that someone requests that “you make du`ah (petitionary prayer)” for him or her.  He rarely leads such du`ah in the assembled group.  Rather, individuals pray for one another individually.  One woman related a story of collective prayer during sickness:

There was a boy in our community, a young man, who was in a horrible car accident. It was so bad he ended up having to have part of his brain removed, broken bones, whole body.  Two of the others that were in the car died, and one other person survived. Everybody in the community—and from various different communities, not just one—came to the hospital and prayed for that young man. And he told his mother that he could feel the prayers, and he was completely unconscious. Once he was able to get back on his feet, he had to relearn everything—how to talk, how to behave, how to read, how to write—and he has now graduated from college. … God does answer prayers and he does respond to our engagement. (WK)

Prayer is an important element of religious life for both congregations.  In relation to health, and especially to health crises, both congregations encourage individuals to pray for one another and for themselves, and members of each testify to the power of prayer to heal.  As gathered communities, however, prayer is performed in very different ways.  The church uses specific rituals to “aim” or “focus” the collective power of congregational prayer (or of a gifted healer’s prayer) toward the person in need, while mosque members place more emphasis on regular prayer gatherings and an attitude of dependence on God.

Support in times of crisis

While public health and social scientists find the effects of prayer difficult to talk about in the secular medical language of quantifiable variables, they more freely use terms like “social support” or “social capital.”  Religious folks use terms like “connection,” “support,” “fellowship,” or “brotherhood/sisterhood” to describe a congregation of which they are a member.  People in both congregations illustrated their sense of connection with specific examples of direct aid that they had given or received.

A middle-aged woman had a nervous breakdown when her husband went to prison.  Members of the church mowed her lawn, cooked and cleaned, paid her mortgage and car payments, and picked up her children from school.  Men “enveloped” and “embraced” the children at church, she said, and the women “took care of me and they took care of home and the kids and nursed me back to some semblance of health,” continuing even after her husband came back home (PD55). When she had major surgery, she had similar support, adding that “for the first two weeks of being home I had food galore. The door bell would just ring and “Here’s dinner!” …  That really, really helped not to have to … worry about that kind of thing.  I had visits at home and people coming and praying and so that made a huge difference for me” (PD55).

Oftentimes, the women’s “missionary society” organizes this support.  As one elderly missionary described it, “Missionaries mean helping other people that is not able to help themselves.”  She described herself as having “always been a very independent person” who did neither “want nor need anybody to do anything … for me.”  Then she had a severe health crisis that involved five months in hospital and three months recuperating at home:

And my missionary people and my church members, oh my God!  They brought food and everything.  Paper towels and toilet tissue and everything, everything.  And they wouldn’t take…I wanted to pay them because I had money to pay them.  They wouldn’t let me pay them.  It was such good things that they were doing” (PD45).

Mosque members also visit the sick and elderly. While women also organized visits to Muslim women in the hospital via an email listserv, a group of men told me of a brother who “rallies the people on Sunday, and he will actually go visit sick Muslims, old Muslims at old folk’s home–the former Imam, [for instance].  He will go to where he is staying there … Giving him his haircut, cut his nails. … Cut his toe nails!  So he is the one [who] really rallies us” (PD48).  This brother describes the process as more organic, after the imam announces on Friday that someone is sick or in the hospital: “Collectively there is no organization or committee that’s intact that handles that, but I think we are doing a good, pretty good job individually” of coordinating visits (PD51).

In the mosque, many told us that people need support on a daily basis, not just in the midst of health crises.  Crises may be chronic, though, for many members who are homeless or struggling to “re-enter society” after serving time in prison.

“Many of the brothers prior to being released back into the community had a sense of ‘belongingness’ while inside the institution, … because it was there where most of them had their initial introduction to Islam … And in controlled environments things have to be structured.  So we have to do everything in our power, that at the very least that we are replicating, that microcosm out here” (PD48)

Mosque members repeatedly emphasize the “structure” that Islam and the mosque brings to their lives.

New life outside of prison begins with meeting basic needs.  Several described their common experience upon “coming home,” saying they were “embraced” by the brothers at the mosque, who helped them to find jobs and emptied their pockets:  “a brother said to another brother, ‘This brother just came home.’  All the brothers went in their pockets and gave me… probably, it added up to about $200… I knew nobody.  I knew no one…. But it was just because they had a relative connection to that relationship of coming home” (PD53).  Support continued, however, as one recently released young man reported that a brother gave him a ride home one night and showed up on his doorstep the next morning: “Come on, let’s hang out!”  This brother put him in the back seat with his kids, and they did laundry and grocery shopping, all the while talking about the Qur’an and how to live an Islamic life outside prison walls (PD48).  Many men told us how mosque members helped them to restructure their lives through consistent mentoring and companionship.

Others related how the mosque was a refuge at other crisis points in their lives.  One young man told how he sought out the mosque before dawn on a cold, wintry morning after a violent argument with his father:

I had a fractured rib, and my nose was bloodied, and my ear bloodied.  I actually crawled to the Masjid.  I literally crawled.  I was in major pain, and there was a doctor there.  And I haven’t even seen that brother again, but he was there that day, and he took me to the emergency room from it (PD52).

This young man also told how the imam and his wife allowed him to stay in their home overnight and helped him to sort out many problems in his life, including a drug habit.

As one mosque member summarized, “My experience is, watching not just this congregation but other religious organizations, from a listening perspective.  People are there to really hear your issues.  Hopefully, in some ways, you could … rally around the issue that you’re facing.  But I think a lot of it is from a listening and sharing therapeutic point of view (PD53).  Support for health in congregations involves prayer, material aid, mentorship, companionship, and listening ears.

Shared Wisdom and Experience

This kind of mentorship, listening and sharing is also important for conveying health information in these congregations.  A mosque member talked about difficult relationship issues:

Being married and having a close relationship with brothers here who are married and the imam who is experienced in marriage … When you have transitioned from a life that had no real rules, structure and discipline or even examples of how to function as a man … [it is important to be] able to tap into the imam or other brothers who have gone through challenges in their marriage.  Just to understand that what you’re facing, what you’re going through … it’s not a rarity.  … Being able to interact with folks who understand some of your own disposition and temperaments relative to this new structure in your life (PD53).

In addition to sharing struggles, members also exchange health information and experiences with treatments.  A sister at the mosque related that, through a long personal struggle with mental illness, “I have come to realize I really do need that medication” to “function.”  Another added that there are many sisters who are “stuck” in mental illness and “can’t function,” but that it is liberating to talk about it, “just really knowing that not only that is not just you; or that there are solutions, just like … for diabetes patients” (PD59).  A third sister spoke of her recent marital separation and her continuing struggle with bipolar disorder, alcohol and cigarette addictions, which was difficult to admit “because drinking and smoking is not something you would do in Islam.”  After speaking with the imam and other sisters, however, “it made me realize that so many people in the community, in Islam, in the world are struggling trying to do the right thing.  But they are battling their own private issues that they are trying to overcome.” (PD59)

Almost identical comments emerged from discussions about how the church affected the personal health of narrators.  For example, one man described saying to “the guys” in his choir group, “If I don’t seem like myself, this is what I’m going through.”  He described the marital problems he was having, and related that

A number of guys who have been married 30 or 40 years or so have come up to me and said, “You know what, you’re not the first guy to go through a rough patch in his relationship.  Here is what I would advise you to do.  … It’s a real comfortable family. And it’s guys that are anywhere from 20 … all the way up to people who are in their 60’s and 70’s. …  I feel like any one of those guys I can call on the phone and say, “Hey, I’m struggling with a particular thing, I just need somebody to talk with.”  …It’s not quite therapy but it’s the next best thing to it. (PD58)

One man explained that the men’s choir group held a prostate health fair.  “We need to schedule [another] because we have about six or seven members that either are receiving treatment, had treatment and they are all individual variations” (PD42).  Others described how talking to older members who had experienced prostate cancer or other illnesses motivated them to get preventive care and screening.  While the health and wellness committee sponsors an annual health fair and provides health education pamphlets on a regular basis in the foyer of the church, members describe these personal stories and connections as the most important for their own health practice changes.

The theme of connection in both congregations most often involves the terms family, brotherhood or sisterhood, a sense of sharing both problems and solutions for healthy living.  As one mosque member concluded: “Brotherhood is being able to … be around individuals who have faced the same challenges you faced.  So that there is a sort of scriptural and religious connection between you, your personality, your challenges and the word of God” (PD53).

Similarly, a man described being closer to his brothers in the church than any of his biological siblings (PD58).  A woman describes how her church has formed a family for her as well:

my kids have grown up in the church and they’ve gotten a lot of support in so many ways. They are closer to people in the church than they are to their own biological family. They have aunts, spiritual aunts.  There’s no bloodline there, but they’re closer to these women than they are [to] their own biological aunts. And the same for me.  I have sisters, but I don’t talk to my sisters, my biological sisters every day; but I talk to my spiritual sister every day. (PD55)

Notably, while women and men are not physically segregated in the church, most of the connection to which both men and women referred was same-gendered, such that men valued connecting with other men; and women, with other women.

Connecting to the neighborhood: outreach and change

Being a member of these congregations, and at least collectively residents of this neighborhood, involves being intimately aware of the health struggles in the community—and caring about them.  The church, through its ministerial and lay leadership, has amassed political influence, professional assets and economic resources to run its own programs and even to build its own community service center for the educational, economic, and social needs of the neighborhood.  The pastor describes this as an emphasis on the root causes of health issues in the community, rather than on specific disease conditions.  Church members run a food pantry, an after-school music program, a youth mentoring program, youth basketball programs, groups for at-risk teenage girls, and a senior care ministry.  Sub-groups sponsor neighborhood domestic violence shelters or nursing homes, adopt local and out-of-state schools as mission projects, engage with a gang violence prevention ministry; and many participate in denominational mission projects around the world.  Community groups also use the church space for 12-step groups.  The pastor summarizes the relationship to the neighborhood among the congregation, many of whom commute from the suburbs to church:

We do everything that we can to make it very clear that and I told the congregation when I first arrived and we have to see ourselves the church as a servant to the neighborhood. And the moment we no longer see ourselves as the neighborhood servant, that’s the moment that we no longer have the right to take up space in the neighborhood (PD41).

The mosque has attempted for years to maintain funding and volunteer staffing for a multi-service organization, the most visible and continuous manifestation of which is a monthly food distribution program.  The basement of the mosque was recently renovated to provide space for meal preparation and distribution twice a month.  “It is just not just [for] Muslims, it is the non Muslim community as well, everyone in the area.  … because what is going on in the economic area in the United States, people really, really do need like a lot of assistance” (PD59).  Less consistently available but equally important to many has been a religiously appropriate counseling service and occasional housing for the homeless.  The imam sees usury and debt as a high priority health issue, because it causes physical and mental stress for people in the neighborhood.  He is developing a no-interest savings cooperative for 101 people, so that members might make loans to each other for major purchases without violating Islamic finance principles.  Food and economic concerns are priorities for outreach in both congregations.

Both mosque and church leadership are aware that they are not the only health assets in the community.  They strive to be “connectors,” however, so that people who come to them might be referred to appropriate agencies, ministries, shelters and health centers where specific needs can be met by others.   One of the mosque leaders commented that

We don’t do so much, because we have services in the community and people are already plugged in. They don’t need that much.  [Health Plan] is there, and there are social services and agencies to go to.  Sometimes we direct traffic there, but for the most part the services are well known.  It’s just the domestic and mental problems sometimes that people need help with.” (PD27)

Several members of both congregations talked about the complementary nature of the religious and health systems in the city:  “If I’m sick in my body, the practical part of me goes and takes care of the physical body,” said a church member, “But I also better go and take care of my spiritual body as well, because they have to act in conjunction with each other” (PD43).  Others spoke of getting “all three” (spiritual, mental and physical) parts “in tune,” using different health resources (PD58).

In addition, both congregations work “ecumenically” with other congregations of their own broader religious traditions, as well as with local, national and international religious networks.  The mosque leaders perceive their connection to other local mosques with greater resources as an asset for the neighborhood. Both congregations make it a priority to develop leadership that will extend beyond the boundaries of the congregation itself.

Challenges and Areas of Improvement

One of the basic challenges for both congregations is finding both the financial and human resources to take on specific health initiatives.  Leaders of the mosque describe it as struggling to pay basic bills from month to month, to recruit consistent dues-paying members, and to mobilize volunteers with both the knowledge and organizational skills to keep initiatives going.  Members of the church often complained of “over-taxation,” with membership dues to sub-groups, regular offerings and several special offerings, in addition to a very ambitious capital campaign drive for the new community center.  Lay leaders made more than one announcement about a church activity for which volunteers were lacking, and complained about the burden that very few are carrying.  Regardless of size, then, these congregations share with many others basic financial and human resource capacity challenges.  But the challenges I wish to discuss are those that build on the types of connections that I have already discussed as assets of both congregations.

The Food Challenge

The first challenge involves an activity that is fundamental to connection in both congregations: shared meals.  In the neighborhood workshop, the concern that most animated both mosque and church members was the issue of healthy diets and access to nutritious food in the neighborhood.  Interview narrators demonstrated that they were familiar with medical and public health messages about obesity, diabetes, and hypertension in minority communities.  Many noted the wide gap between knowledge and practice, though, both for individuals and for the congregations.

In a church congregation where obesity is commonplace, where many identify diabetes and high blood pressure as prevalent health issues, the food that people share is often the subject of humor.   One minister explained that the church was trying encourage people to work out and to eat healthier.  As an illustration, he explained that the post-funeral repast (a congregational meal) no longer occurs at night, but rather after the morning burial, because fried chicken is “healthier at 12 noon than it is at 10:00 in the night.” When I asked about alternatives to fried food, he laughed loudly, “Don’t you come between the church and fried chicken.  That’s the holy bird, that’s a holy bird!” (PD41).  During a health fair, a speaker asked how people could control their Body Mass Index, one of the more slender female ministers called out, “Stay away from church meetings!”

Members tout changes in the food practices of the church, such as the rescheduled repast and the diversification of coffee hour treats.  Others still perceive major obstacles, though.  A member of the brotherhood commented, “I love [sister A.] tremendously.  But [she] can bake like there’s no person alive,” explaining that she does not believe in artificial sweeteners.  He saw it all as “a contradiction,” though:

When you’re having coffee hour and if you’re trying to promote health and wellness, and you know that in your congregation there’s a high propensity for high blood pressure and diabetes and other things, then you could have a coffee hour where there’s bagels instead of donuts, where there’s fruits instead of eggs.

This was so funny because [the preacher] was on this past Sunday talking about young kids going to McDonalds and stuff.  Then I went downstairs to pick up my son from Sunday school, and as I’m looking over there I see donuts and pastries and cakes.  I’m just thinking what kind of message are we delivering when we tell parents you got to make sure that the kids are getting their vegetables, we can’t be living on Chinese takeout, Dominos Pizza, whatever, and then for coffee hour we’re serving honey-dipped donuts and stuff?  (PD58)

When he tried to change the traditional menu for a Mother’s Day luncheon that the men’s group prepares for the women, which included “cheese grits, all kinds of ham and sausage, potatoes cooked in oil,” he was told in no uncertain terms, “this is what the mothers of the church like and what other people are used to”  (PD58).

At the mosque, while donuts appear on occasion, the men’s breakfast mostly comprised bagels, scrambled eggs, yogurt, and fresh fruit; during the summer, fish sandwiches were often available after Jum`ah prayers on Fridays.  The imam, his wife, a young male leader, and several women remarked on major dietary changes they were making, such as eating more fruit, reducing meat intake, and buying organic and natural foods.  Others admitted to struggling with “addictions” to junk food.  We noted that many of the female mosque members described themselves as “into alternative diets and natural medicines” as part of an alternative religious lifestyle:

Most of the Muslims sisters I have met have always had had that kind of alternative life where they would eat whole foods.  Honey was … part of the staple diet; honey and black seed, you know.  And just trying not to eat so much processed food.  … I think their diets have always been better.  As a result, they’ve been healthier which kind of helped…keep them out of the doctor’s office. (PD47)

The workshop group proposed that the congregations and the community needed both nutrition education and small-scale, local urban vegetable gardens.  From learning to read food labels to learning to resist advertising messages, participants talked about nutrition education in terms of “survival skills”:

Today, people have lost their survival skills.  Even when they go to the food pantries.  So they don’t know what to do with a lot of the stuff that they get and there’s nobody educating them.  We need to in our food kitchens invite people that we see, or our churches need to say to people, “I got some recipes for the food that was here. … You can eat this and you’ll be healthy. (Ch/WK)

Addiction and Mental Health: the Challenge of Stigma

Members of both congregations told us that they struggle with addiction to alcohol and drugs, with depression and bipolar disorder.  Members of both congregations also told us that their congregations attracted people who had mental illnesses, because of their openness: “They can attend here and not feel like a reject,” said one mosque member, but he added that they were usually tolerated or ignored, because “we have nothing in place to really even … talk about that” or help people (PD53).  Like the woman who said that she had trouble speaking “because drinking and smoking is not something you would do in Islam,” a young man who had recently given up marijuana, commented on “the quiet things” like “going through depression.  You won’t know that. … I can pray and all that but Allah wants us to help ourselves too, so. … If we’re not healthy mentally, you know, we can’t worship the way we need to worship” (PD47).

In church services, several members shared testimonies of their victories over addiction, though we did not hear any public testimonies of those in the midst of the struggle.  A woman at the church said that mental illness “seems to be the topic nobody wants to talk about, nobody wants to touch on it. And you know we have some generations that still whisper about it, and it doesn’t have to be that way” (PD43).  Others talked about the “silence” around depression in the church, even while ministers prayed publicly that “God knows what your troubles are.”  People told of women having to put on a happy face at church, even if your husband was beating you!

A woman at the mosque attributes the silence around mental illness to a religious stigma, “People have this idea that mental illness is something that is not believable.  If you pray hard enough, if you are doing the right thing…  If you are mentally ill, you are doing something wrong” (PD59).  A woman at the church echoes this complaint but hopes for better from her congregation:

A healthy congregation is one that certainly preaches and teaches about God, but one that also allows for the human side to be seen not shunned. I think a lot of times–and I say this from personal experience–people believe that if your faith is strong enough, then you shouldn’t be depressed.  Like “what do you have to be depressed about?  If you believe in God, then you shouldn’t have a frown on your face.  If you believe in God, then you shouldn’t worry that you have test results, that your doctor’s looking for cancer in your body … For me a healthy congregation is one that preaches and teaches about faith and the importance of it, but allows people to be human and to acknowledge, “I’m human. I’m worried.  Let me be worried, and validate my worries, and then say, “You know what? I know you’re worried, and I’m worried for you, and let’s just pray that!”  So that’s a healthy congregation. (PD55)

In both congregations, the conversations are happening on a small scale.  We heard members of each congregation providing counsel for others in their battles with addiction.  One described the mosque congregation as his Alcoholics Anonymous, “only better,” while a woman lamented the fact that there were no Muslim AA groups in town.  The church’s health and wellness committee conducted a congregational survey of mental health for the first time, but they are still trying to find a constructive way to educate the congregation about mental health.  Depression tops the list of issues.  As the psychologist at the health fair remarked, “Depression deactivates us as a people.  Getting treatment is a part of regaining an activism that can change things” (PD20).  Providing a safe space for people to share openly their illness and the connections to health resources may help congregations to bring healing within individuals and in the broader neighborhood.

Concluding Thoughts

In their book, Leading Causes of Life, Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray describe the complex networks of social connection that bind people through love and acceptance in communities as one of the “causes” of human life.  They urge individuals and those interested in “health” to pay attention to the things that cause life in communities.[6]  In this essay, I have illustrated briefly ways in which “connection” happens for folks in a mosque and a church in an urban neighborhood that many would describe as “in need.”  These congregations provide a sense of refuge and belonging, a network of support in the midst of struggles or crisis, a collective source of wisdom and experience for facing life’s problems, and a means for reaching out and effecting change in the local community.   Much has been written about faith-based communities as an “invisible caring hand” in US cities.[7]  Here I have highlighted the connections both internal and external to a congregation through which people develop the agency to care.

How is it that people in congregations learn to care?  How do the “caretakers” sustain their caring relationships?  How do congregations provide strength and hope when caring and support is long-term, frustrating and confusing, as is often the case of mental illness or addiction, physical and intellectual disabilities, and stigmatized or chronic disorders?  How do the social rituals of community connection, like eating together, connect to the causes of life for every aspect of our being?

The two congregations I have examined here are often neatly divided across “religious” lines.  While the particular theologies and ritual practices of the communities certainly make a difference in terms of the institutions, resources and tools with which to build connections, I have tried to outline ways that Muslim and Christian congregations share strengths and challenges in forming and transforming life-giving relationships in urban neighborhoods.  After all, we live just down the street.  Connecting urban faith communities by building on and sharing strengths may be a way of recognizing life and health as they emerge.


Bibliography of Works Cited

Bagby, Ihsan, Paul Perl, and Bryan Froehle. “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait.” 1-62. Washington, DC: Council on American-Islamic Relations, 2001.

Byng, Michelle D. “Mediating Discrimination: Resisting Oppression among African-American Muslim Women.” Social Problems 45, no. 4 (1998): 473-87.

Chatters, L. M. “Race and Ethnicity in Religion and Health.” In Religious Influences on Health and Well-Being in the Elderly, edited by K. W. Schaie, N. Krause and A. Booth, 215-37, 2004.

Chatters, Linda M. “Religion and Health: Public Health Research and Practice.” Annual Review of Public Health 21, no. 1 (2000): 335-67.

Cnaan, Ram A., and Stephanie C. Boddie. The Invisible Caring Hand : American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare. New York ; London: New York University Press, 2002.

Curtis, Edward E. Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend. “The Black Church as a Therapeutic Community : Suggested Areas for Research into the Black Religious Experience.” Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 8, no. 1 (1980): 29-44.

Gunderson, Gary, and Larry Pray. Leading Causes of Life. Rev. ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.

Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.

Marks, Loren. “Religion and Bio-Psycho-Social Health: A Review and Conceptual Model.” Journal of Religion and Health 44, no. 2 (2005): 173-86.

Taylor, Robert Joseph, Linda M. Chatters, and Jeff Levin. Religion in the Lives of African Americans: Social, Psychological, and Health Perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004.



[1] Linda M. Chatters, “Religion and Health: Public Health Research and Practice,” Annual Review of Public Health 21, no. 1 (2000); L. M. Chatters, “Race and Ethnicity in Religion and Health,” in Religious Influences on Health and Well-Being in the Elderly, ed. K. W. Schaie, N. Krause, and A. Booth, Societal Impact on Aging Series (2004).

[2] Loren Marks, “Religion and Bio-Psycho-Social Health: A Review and Conceptual Model,” Journal of Religion and Health 44, no. 2 (2005).

[3] Robert Joseph Taylor, Linda M. Chatters, and Jeff Levin, Religion in the Lives of African Americans: Social, Psychological, and Health Perspectives (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004); Michelle D Byng, “Mediating Discrimination: Resisting Oppression among African-American Muslim Women,” Social Problems 45, no. 4 (1998).

[4] Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, “The Black Church as a Therapeutic Community : Suggested Areas for Research into the Black Religious Experience,” Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 8, no. 1 (1980).

[5] The argument that Lincoln and Mamiya make regarding Black churches, that religious concerns and more secular concerns for social and political transformation are not highly differentiated, could apply equally to Black mosque contexts, according to Curtis.   According to Bagby’s Mosque Study, like their Black church counterparts, nearly half of Black mosques tend to rank high in terms of community service involvement.  See Ihsan Bagby, Paul Perl, and Bryan Froehle, “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait,” (Washington, DC: Council on American-Islamic Relations, 2001); Edward E. Curtis, Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002); C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990).

[6] Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray, Leading Causes of Life, Rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009).

[7] Ram A. Cnaan and Stephanie C. Boddie, The Invisible Caring Hand : American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare (New York ; London: New York University Press, 2002).

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