Faith communities promote 'safe spaces' to discuss health issues

By agency reporter
January 19, 2012

A World Council of Churches (WCC) health consultation on the theme “Safe Spaces - transforming faith communities”, has been held from 16–18 January 2012 at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva.

“Churches should not shy away from discussing health issues. The more we remain in denial, the more we end up promoting a culture of silence,” said Dr Sr Elizabeth Vadakekara from India, representing the Medical Mission Sisters in London.

“We need to have open and inclusive dialogue on mental and physical health issues, so that we can create safe spaces, where communities can express their concerns in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust,” she added.

The event brought together twenty-five participants, representing churches and religious agencies from around the world, with experience in a variety of fields, including healthcare delivery, gender issues, human rights, advocacy against gender based violence and HIV/AIDS.

To challenge the taboos associated with disease, to sponsor confidential places in which sensitive issues can be explored without judgment and to equip churches in creating safe spaces in their communities, the consultation was initiated by the WCC Health and Healing programme in collaboration with Women in Church and Society and Youth in the Ecumenical Movement.

Participants discussed a wide spectrum of issues, ranging from mental health, cancer, death, stigma associated with diseases, gender based violence, abuse and sexuality. Various case studies were shared and participants analysed the complexities and difficulties communities face in dealing with health issues.

They stressed the need for creating safe spaces within families, congregations and communities. They also included government and leadership, essential to building healthy communities through positive policy-making and implementation.

The gathering proposed an analytical framework for self-assessment of the safe spaces in communities and churches. They also proposed guidelines to assist faith communities to become inviting, inclusive and mutually accountable.

The participants raised various ethical and theological perspectives on dealing with the creation of safe spaces. They pointed out the potential for education and training in existing church settings, which include groups for youth, women and men, Sunday schools, seminaries, interdenominational and inter-religious spaces.

“Addressing health related issues can be very divisive for faith communities”, explained Dr Manoj Kurian, WCC programme executive for Health and Healing.

Therefore, he said, “It is vital to have an open and inclusive approach in addressing such issues, which can help prepare the ground for positive transformation of faith communities.”

The meeting managed to bring difficult issues to the table for discussions, such as sexual abuse within families, rape and human sexuality.

Nicqi Ashwood, a participant from Jamaica called this event an accomplishment. She said, “Such dialogues put more responsibility on the churches to be a space of trust and accountability, which promotes physical, psychological and spiritual safety.”

“Churches have to be a space where the disfranchised can be supported with compassion, and a process of positive transformation is possible,” said Ashwood, who works for the Caribbean and North America Council for Mission.

The consultation also produced specific guidelines for a strategic process promoting safe spaces within faith communities.

Safe spaces in faith communities are vital for healing and a path in our journey towards a world of justice and peace. Therefore, this initiative will also add to preparations of the WCC 10th Assembly, which will address the theme, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace” in Busan, Korea in 2013.

* WCC programme for HIV-competent church:


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