A Christian Calling for Public Health Practice
It’s National Public Health Week and to celebrate, Dr. Heather Sipsma, director of the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at Gordon, shares why she’s shifting the narrative from gap to overlap: While many perceive a fundamental gap between Christianity and public health, she sees a critical overlap.
By Heather L. Sipsma, Ph.D.
“WELCOME HOME” the banner read, hanging high above the street, anchored by the residence halls on either side. Looking up, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of new students and their families, I was struck with a profound sense of joy and peace. Though I did not know the Lord as I do now, I look back on that moment during student move-in day in my first year of college as the beginning of him revealing his love and his purpose for me. In fact, over the next four years I would put my faith in Jesus and discover the field of public health—an area in which I believed I could make an important impact while loving others and serving the Lord.
Though I can look back and see God moving in my life and shaping me for a career in public health, I did not recognize it at first. In fact, I did not know what “public health” was until a took a course entitled “Global Public Health” at Johns Hopkins University. Over the next few years, I continued to explore public health and seek out courses and experiences that confirmed my interest and excitement. I also conducted independent research at a hospital in Haiti evaluating their pediatric nutritional rehabilitation program. This hospital was the same place where I had visited on a service trip a few years prior. As I returned to the hospital where I served—this time as a scientist—I began to realize that these were not two separate entities. In fact, science and service, public health and faith, were more intricately connected than I knew. And I have spent the past two decades digging into that overlap.
Over time, it has become clear that many people, including Christians and non-Christians alike, perceive a fundamental gap between Christianity and public health. Public health may be seen as “liberal” (accepting and advocating for any and all ways of life), whereas Christians may be perceived as “conservative” (intolerant of lifestyle choices outside traditional Christian norms). Though there may be valid reasons for these stereotypes, I still contend there is important overlap. The goals of public health actually can—and arguably, should—align with living in response to Christ’s calling.
Caring for Communities
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that the first and greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” And, he continues, the second is as important as the first: to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–39). In Luke’s account, when Jesus is pressed to explain who exactly is our neighbor, he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, who stopped along his way to care for the one in need. Similar verses, such as Proverbs 31:20 (“She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy”) and Galatians 5:13 (“…serve one another humbly in love”), continue the call to love one another. To me, an essential component of loving our neighbors is caring for their health, and According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the ultimate goal of public health is just that: “to protect and promote the health of all people in all communities.” So, we begin to see public health as a fundamental component of the Christian faith.
Responding to a Call
Though the field of public health is very broad, its focus on improving health outcomes across all groups has resonated with me personally, and I have experienced public health as an inextricable part of Christ’s calling for my life. One area God placed on my heart is that of maternal and child health. In Psalm 139:13–14, David highlights God’s good and perfect design for each one of us, writing, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” These verses are often used to underpin belief in the sanctity of life, including pro-life positions in the area of abortion. However, years ago, I was struck by how little support is received by mothers who choose to keep their babies, especially among those in the midst of challenging circumstances. I saw a huge opportunity to love my neighbor by caring for them in crisis and became passionate about preventing adolescent pregnancies and supporting adolescent parenthood.
My initial step, while in graduate school, was to focus my efforts on preventing adolescent pregnancy. Though pregnancy is often a blessing, experiencing one as an adolescent can be associated with several poor outcomes, including growth restriction for the baby, failure to complete schooling for mom and dad, unstable romantic relationships among parents, and poor economic means to support a family. Helping individuals delay pregnancy until they may be better prepared to support a family is one way I felt called to love God’s children. As a result, my research sought to explore the behavioral and family patterns that can often lead to adolescent pregnancy. For instance, for my dissertation, I investigated the impact of future expectations on adolescent risk behavior. Knowing that an adolescent’s expectations for their future strongly predicts their behavior gives us—as families, educators and community health practitioners—powerful tools to shift the narrative of these individuals. Parents, in particular, have a critical role in setting up these expectations that influence youth behavior. This research therefore emphasizes ways in which communities can walk alongside adolescents to help guide their course and protect them from less desirable outcomes.
Later, I shifted my work to supporting adolescent parenthood and found another passion of mine: to reflect God’s design for good in this world. For instance, God created mothers with the amazing ability to provide nourishment for their babies with breastmilk. It is not surprising, therefore, that breastfeeding tends to confer important benefits for both mom and baby or that a newborn’s eyesight is best approximately 8 to 12 inches away (the perfect distance for focusing on a mother’s face while feeding). The beauty in his design has been inspiring for me. As a result, I spent several years focusing on breastfeeding promotion efforts, particularly among adolescent mothers, since the benefits of breastfeeding are often greater for this group of mothers. As part of my research in this area, I was also able to emphasize the role of the baby’s father in supporting breastfeeding, thus highlighting the importance of both young fathers and mothers in caring for their children. I have also explored links between breastfeeding and mental health, showing that, oftentimes, breastfeeding can reduce feelings of postpartum distress. Much of this research I was able to share directly with community health practitioners and health care providers to improve their understanding of adolescent breastfeeding and the ways in which they may better support breastfeeding among their young patients. Overall, this information provides us with tools to love our neighbors and help them achieve better health outcomes for themselves and their families.
Closing the Gap
Ultimately, the overlap of public health with the Christian calling is clear to me. We can love our neighbor by helping protect and promote health, and vice versa. Through Gordon’s new MPH program, I am thrilled to help students recognize this overlap—as they grow to be servant leaders in public health—and close the gap.
Learn more at the MPH info session on Wednesday, April 6 at 7 p.m. >
Pictured above: Dr. Sipsma (left) with Presidential Fellow Serafina Zotter ’23 at a health professions seminar at Gordon College.