Whether it’s the neighborhood barber talking to his customers about prostate cancer prevention, or a pastor educating congregants about COVID-19 vaccines, trusted community figures can give a major boost to health education efforts. In recent years, Evolent Health Services has collaborated with a large network of faith leaders in the Chicago area, where we support more than 435,000 Medicaid beneficiaries, on a variety of health outreach initiatives in historically underserved areas.
Rev. Leslie Sanders, pastor at Hope Presbyterian Church, has helped to mobilize the faith community around these efforts. He recently spoke with Katie McKillen, Evolent’s regional president of market operations, about how houses of worship can act as a critical link in supporting community health, and why they have lately focused on mental health.
What role do you see the faith leaders playing to support health, specifically in Medicaid?
We can play a very important role because we are the trusted voices in our communities. So many people lean upon their faith leaders for all kinds of advice, beyond just spiritual guidance. For example, in late 2012, when the State of Illinois obtained a federal waiver to expand Medicaid eligibility in Cook County, the faith community was heavily involved, making our congregations aware of the availability of Medicaid and educating them on how to apply for and access Medicaid benefits. As a trusted voice, we helped with outreach and signed people up by the hundreds of thousands. This expansion gave members an opportunity to have high quality health care, which they had never had access to before.
What are some of the best practices for engaging faith leaders-in efforts to improve Medicaid members’ health?
First, you cannot teach what you don’t know. The first and most important step is to make sure that the leaders in the faith community are informed on all aspects of Medicaid and how it can benefit people in our communities. Second, we—the leaders in the faith community—need to have the tools to pass information on to our church communities, so that they, in turn, are empowered with knowledge to share with other people. Our reach is magnified when a church member shares information with her grandchildren, cascading the knowledge gained. The third ties back to being a trusted voice in the community. By keeping them informed about, and building relationships with local providers, we can provide trusted information to our members about where to seek care.
What are the biggest opportunities where faith-based leaders can make an impact on members’ health?
There are so many needs in our communities. We need to eat better. We need to focus on diabetes. We need to focus on high blood pressure. The pandemic highlighted so many health disparities. But I think the biggest opportunity today is to draw attention to the mental health crisis that's so prevalent in our communities. COVID and being locked in has brought to the forefront the need to address mental health. That’s one that’s going to take the whole village. It’s going to require that the faith community take another look at some of its own practices and how we approach mental health.
What steps have you taken to promote greater awareness of mental health?
Recently, we worked with Evolent on a few things building up to World Mental Health Day, which was observed on October 10. Weeks before this date, we gathered faith leaders with mental health professionals and community activists to inform them about the mental health crisis and educate them on resources for their communities. We then asked these faith leaders to speak to their congregations on Sunday, October 9 about the importance of taking care of our mental health. Through these events, we hoped to accomplish three things.
I have this saying: “you can’t fix it until you face it.” So, as a faith community, the first thing we we’ve got to do is face it. We have to say that this is a mental health crisis. It has nothing to do with one’s spirituality. It has to do with one’s mental well-being. It is there, it is real, and it’s not going anywhere.
The second thing we are working to achieve is empowering these faith leaders to help their congregations. Through this series of workshops, we are working to empower people and give them the necessary tools and references, so that they can say to people who need it, here's the help that you can receive.
The third thing we are hoping to accomplish is dealing with the taboo that has existed around seeking help for mental health in our community. We want the faith community leaders to help people understand that it's not their fault. It's the circumstances around them that are putting them in this space. That’s one of the challenges that we are facing, and we are hoping that through this series of conversations, we can help move the needle. Just as we lead people in our communities to getting healthy food through Medicaid, we can also help lead our people to a better mental health state.
Rev. Leslie Sanders Sr.
Rev. Leslie Sanders Sr. is the senior pastor of the Hope Presbyterian Church in Chicago where, for more than 30 years, he has promoted community service and outreach. A native of Memphis, Tenn., he received his call to ministry at 18 years of age at St. Peters Baptist Church. Pastor Sanders studied theology at Christian Brothers College in Memphis and earned a Master of Theology degree from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. An honorary Doctor of Divinity was bestowed upon Pastor Sanders from Mid-South Theological Seminary of Indiana. In 2010, recognizing the disparate economic opportunities faced by those who lack access to modern information technology, Pastor Sanders founded HOPE TEC. The not-for-profit organization offers public computers and technology training, essential life skills training, and employment readiness training programs to residents of disadvantaged communities.