Editor's note: UsAgainstAlzheimer’s sat down with the Rev. Cynthia Abrams, director of Health & Wholeness at the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society (GBCS), to learn more about faith-based advocacy, why The United Methodist Church (UMC) has formally adopted Alzheimer’s as an advocacy issue, and how she provides spiritual guidance to her congregants coping with this disease. UsAgainstAlzheimer’s and GBCS founded the Faith United Against Alzheimer’s Coalition (FUAAC), a cooperative effort to mobilize all elements of the faith community in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
UsAgainstAlzheimer’s:Why are faith leaders an important voice in driving public-health messages?
Abrams: Faith leaders are trusted messengers in the community. This deep trust encourages people of all backgrounds and faiths to seek spiritual guidance on a host of challenges such as health concerns and passing-of-life issues. We also are entrusted with starting tough conversations and seeking justice and equality in all its forms. Not the least of these is relief from disease and suffering.
UsAgainstAlzheimer’s: Why is health advocacy a central pillar of The United Methodist Church?
Abrams: The United Methodist Church (UMC) has worked since its inception to improve public-health access for all regardless of one’s ability to pay. Our commitment stems from our theology, which rests on three pillars: abundance, community and humanity.
- Abundance because God’s vision is for all people to thrive, be well and live fully in our personhood.
- Community because we don’t live in isolation. We are connected to everyone else, and we have a responsibility for and to each other.
- Humanity because we are created in the image of God. God values who we are, and we have a great accountability to put no human construct above humanity. At our core, we believe that we must connect our personal faith with action to make this a better world.
We work with other faith communities to provide witness, to educate and to advocate for policy action on a myriad of health issues at the local, national and global level. Our call to action is for greater awareness, greater resources, greater diversity in clinical trials, and greater assistance for people who struggle to pay for health services. Some notable successes that reflect our extensive footprint and strong track record on public health include the passage of the Affordable Care Act in the United States, and the global campaign to stamp out malaria.
UsAgainstAlzheimer’s: Why Alzheimer’s? Why did your agency formally adopt Alzheimer’s as an advocacy issue?
Abrams: We are committed to the community. Alzheimer’s affects virtually every community — in developed and developing countries alike. I am regularly contacted by congregants about how they and their families are touched by this disease. These conversations have taught me that there is not a single community that can escape it.
Alzheimer’s affects virtually every community — in developed and developing countries alike.
Though we have just begun this work, we are championing a bottom-up approach that will empower people with the tools they need to build a network of care that transcends borders and promotes education, cutting-edge research and clinical-trial recruitment.
UsAgainstAlzheimer’s: How do you talk to your congregants impacted by Alzheimer’s?
Abrams: I am an American Indian and grew up on a Seneca Nation reservation. My grandmother taught me that I am a part of a family: A family of God that connects me to everyone. I am inspired in my daily work by this notion of connectedness despite the differences among us, especially when I pray with those from all walks of life suffering from Alzheimer’s.
When I visit congregants to speak about this disease, it is a very sacred time. I am there to listen and to show them the depths of God’s love. My approach is to lead a conversation about hope and promise that comes from rebirth into eternal life. My favorite passage to convey this message is Jeremiah 29:11:
It tells us that God is with us always and has a plan. Even in times of great despair, in times of exile and in times of suffering, God promises a future that has yet to come. This focus on optimism may not seem empathetic to those facing the long, slow and painful decline that is Alzheimer’s. But I believe that hope as captured in this passage brings great solace and reminds us of our strength to endure the road ahead because God is with us every step.