That’s the Spirit

A Las Vegas medical clinic shows that faith, science and tolerance aren’t such strange bedfellows after all

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In a small health clinic on East Sahara, behind exam-room curtains, a nurse is praying for a patient. We just ask that You bless him, and bless his family, and help him heal …

At this free clinic for the uninsured called Operation H.O.P.E., you can get health care with or without prayer. It’s optional. The clinic was founded by a Christian, Dr. Elliot Shin, who funds it partially out of his own pocket and partially with the help of donations—such as this small, rent-free strip-mall space provided by Trinity Life Center’s City Impact Center.

The medical staffers are employed at doctors’ offices and hospitals elsewhere, and donate time here on Tuesday mornings and Wednesday afternoons. Some of the staff are Christians, but others are Muslim or atheist. This doesn’t matter to Shin, who started the program in 2009 “to love people,” he says, “not to proselytize.”

Faith and health care have been set at odds again on the national political battlefield as the Christian right opposes President Obama’s mandate that all employers, including religious employers, provide coverage of contraception. And while matters of institutional conscience and government reach ought to be debated, we shouldn’t let it draw sweeping cultural lines between faith communities and health care.

Once again, in a tragicomic race to be seen as the most culturally conservative, leaders on the right are misrepresenting the views of large swaths of the faithful, painting all religious people as against everything from gay rights to science education to women’s health and birth control. It bears repeating that not every Christian, nor Catholic nor Jew nor Muslim, interprets his or her faith that way.

Despite the Catholic Church’s longtime assertion that the faithful must forego condoms and birth-control pills in favor of a “natural law” that simply burdens women and the poor, many believers are able to maintain their faith while living lives that include family planning, respect for women and assistance to the poor.

The numbers speak for themselves. The Centers for Disease Control’s 2008 National Study of Family Growth found that 62 percent of sexually active American women between 15 and 44 were using birth control and that 99 percent had used it at some time. What’s more, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women use some form of birth control not approved by the church, such as condoms or birth-control pills.

Reality doesn’t jibe with rhetoric. In fact, as religious groups are being pitted against policies meant to increase access to health care, we’re losing sight of some of the richest teachings in many religious traditions, including Catholicism: helping the poor and caring for the sick. Would that we could focus on that spiritual calling rather than antiquated controversies exploited for political gain.

At Operation H.O.P.E., poor patients are treated without a fee, but asked to “pay it forward.” They’re urged to help someone else in the community in some way and write a letter back to the clinic about it, essentially spreading goodwill, with or without mention of God. Many such handwritten letters hang on the wall in the clinic:

In exchange for my visit on April 12, 2011, I have paid it forward in the following ways:

Took an elderly woman with no car to get medications and run errands on 2 separate days, also took her to lunch to get out of her house.

Drove a friend to California to clear up a warrant to get a job.

A focus on community goodwill does not stop the clinic from meeting the corporeal needs of patients. In addition to providing a variety of general-practice treatments, Operation H.O.P.E. is preparing to open an OB-GYN office.

“I do not endorse premarital sex, but, at the same time, I’m realistic,” Shin says. “When a 16-year-old comes in and she already has a 3-year-old in her hand, we will provide birth control.” For 20 years, Shin has considered it his spiritual mission to provide health care to the poor in several states. He also works in emergency care for Southwest Medical Associates.

“I’ve seen what really happens. It’s very rare for a Christian doctor to say this, but people should leave religion out of the conversation and examine the problem. … I’ve had to do too much damage control, so I spend a lot of time on prevention. I’m too realistic to ignore birth control.” Everybody has a different take on the intersection of faith and healing—from those who believe prayer can prompt healing, such as Shin, to those who believe that medical science and faith are independent forces. But it’s unfortunate for influential religious leaders, in spite of the real-life challenges of the modern faithful, to use religion to oppose preventative health care that may save people from sexually transmitted diseases or the serious consequences of unplanned pregnancy. Religions get as tarnished in this framework as overreaching political policies.

At the Operation H.O.P.E. clinic, a man tells me he came here specifically because he heard that they would pray for him in addition to treating his diabetes. But a few minutes later, a woman with chronic headaches tells me that she declined to be prayed for, because she doesn’t believe in it. She said the nurses still treated her well, and she would return here if necessary.

And Shin said she would always be welcome.