This excerpt from The Mother & Child Project originally appeared here.
When I watch mourners in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, and many other countries walk down the road behind the wooden casket of a mother and child held high on the shoulders of men in the village, I am reminded again, This is not a cause. This is an emergency.
Pregnant women all over the developing world ask two tragic questions: “Am I going to die?” and “Who will take care of my children?”
How can women be asking these questions when they are young and full of life?
There is a compassionate mandate for mothers to live and for children to survive—and thrive—in the arms of their mother. One can judge the morality of a country by the way it cares for its women and children. If there ever was something worth fighting for, keeping mothers and babies alive and together tops them all. But—
The statistics of maternal and infant death are gut-wrenching, vivid, and real. One in thirty-nine women in sub-Saharan Africa are dying during pregnancy or childbirth. There is a moral mandate to provide accurate information and the resources necessary for life while honoring a woman and family’s cultural and faith values. Through no fault of their own, 222 million women have limited ability to influence the timing or spacing of their pregnancies, leaving these women and their children vulnerable.
When a woman’s cries and wailings are heard, the numbers stop being just statistics and become the stories of real people. Numbers are numbing. As one Rwandan woman told me, “Numbers are statistics. Numbers are statistics with the tears wiped off.”
But there is hope, and the answer is to keep mothers alive by equipping them to have pregnancies timed and spaced in ways that promote health, including prenatal care, a skilled attendant at birth, and a host of other supportive interventions, so that the mothers and fathers can care for their children. Because every child deserves a family.
The keys to information and transformation lie in a frequently overlooked source. For families to receive what they need, they can go to the church, which becomes an outpost not just for spiritual health, but for physical health as well.
Recently, I was working in Rwanda alongside Juliette, a health volunteer who trains church members to, in turn, become trainers volunteering in their communities. Although from different parts of the globe, Juliette and I both are part of the PEACE Plan movement, an initiative of Saddleback Church of Lake Forest, California, where Pastor Rick Warren has launched 20,000 ordinary members of the church to travel globally. To do this, he has empowered and linked churches in 197 countries. Using a train-the-trainer approach, the PEACE Plan has equipped more than 500,000 ordinary people in church pews—or wooden benches—at the most grassroots levels to identify, prioritize, and act on problems in their own communities through the local churches.
Juliette, along with another trainer, simply walks to seven homes—some of them up to an hour away—to talk to women about pregnancy, about the value of timing and spacing pregnancy, directing them to tools that are in keeping with their Christian faith.
When Juliette ducks through the piece of fabric that hangs at the front door of each home she visits, she is comfortable and credible. Armed with a teaching plan and genuine compassion for her neighbors, she listens and teaches basic hygiene principles, HIV prevention, and healthy pregnancy.
Volunteering four hours a week, Juliette has reduced the maternal mortality rate in her neighborhood. She is an expert, even though her formal education ended before the fifth grade. Early on, Juliette taught me about dying mothers, dying babies, and the indescribable pain of both. I always listen when she speaks. She proves that when the church is involved, information is accessible to the local community. The church is indispensable in terms of access to health care training and in terms of reliability and accuracy of message.
Juliette had my attention when she said, “Maybe one of the reasons we don’t name our babies for one month after birth is that we’re not sure they will survive.” Juliette spoke stoically, as if her storehouse of tears had been emptied at the graves of too many. I swallowed hard. She continued to teach from a well-crafted lesson plan that was both accurate and personal.
“Our bodies are tired and weak. Today we will be talking about pregnancy and how to get healthy before getting pregnant and how to make sure our bodies are ready so that our babies can survive.” The lesson plan was clear, and fifty trainers—both women and their husbands—had come to hear it.
“There are medicines and methods to help you. We must be more intentional in preparing our bodies for our babies, for their sake and for ours. I am a Christian, and I use pills to help me. There is nothing wrong with using techniques or tools. I’m not interfering with God’s will if I take medicine. When there is information and resources for timing and spacing of pregnancies and I withhold it because I am afraid of offending others, I am telling people they can die.”
Then Juliette taught the class a biblical principle that is empowering and life-changing. She spoke about stewardship. “Every gift we have comes from God. God also gave me ways to be pregnant. He gave me eggs, and I’m responsible for them.”
The idea of stewardship—of being accountable to God for the gifts he has given me and seeing scientific knowledge as a gift he has given to influence my life practices—is not new. All truth is God’s truth.
This is the type of training that equips lay people to deliver the message in churches all over the world. At least two things stand in the way of helping women and children survive and thrive through healthy timing and spacing of children, yet there is a solution that is underused and fully available everywhere. Every woman and family needs this: Accurate knowledge and resources that honor a woman and family’s cultural and biblical values, and a distribution channel that is accessible and trusted to deliver the information and resources.
One of the reasons women do not have what they need is that they can’t access it. I have seen villages where there is no post office, school, or hospital, but there is a church. And this is the hope. Churches can provide accurate information closest to the people who need it.
Alongside the suffering, there are churches filled with people who are willing and able to make a difference. There is a group of people in the faith community who can tackle any problem at a grassroots level. Mobilizing ordinary members in churches everywhere to train others brings information, tools, and hope. Referrals are made to tertiary settings when the challenges are complex. For timing and spacing of pregnancies, church-based grassroots education and interventions launch an idea to scale-up possibilities. Life and mind-set change rarely happens in a government office, but it can happen in a church.
The church is the greatest untapped source of information and hope in the twenty-first century. And today 4,800 Rwandan trainers teaching church-based classes and making home visits in Rwanda provide proof that the church is the distribution giant ready to serve.
Churches are located in communities where women and children are needlessly dying. Churches are a trusted source of information. Churches are accessible, available, and influential in communities. It’s time to look to the church for help in solving the problems of maternal and child health.
Elizabeth Styffe, RN, MN, PHN, is the Director for HIV&AIDS and Orphan Care Initiatives at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. She and her husband have seven children, including three adopted from Rwanda.
For more information on how you can get involved, email HIV@saddleback.com or call 949-609-8555.