Lake Junaluska Peace Conference Explores Health Care


 By Melanie Threlkeld McConnell for Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center

Cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease. We know these leading causes of death by heart. But what about the leading causes of life? What are they and how can faith communities use them to help people live healthier lives, make communities more vibrant, and ultimately make the world a more peaceful place?


An international panel of experts on global health will discuss those issues at the 2014 Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, "Faith, Health, and Peace: Seeking the Basic Right to Good Health for All God's Children," set for March 27-30 at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, North Carolina.


Early registration ends Feb. 15. Partial scholarships are available for full-time college and seminary students. Register by calling  800-222-4930 or visit


The interfaith conference will feature six guest speakers from across the globe who will talk about their work in developing countries, the United States, working with mothers' and children's health and the role faith communities have in combating disease, violence and poverty, often the causes of poor health, said Wannie Hardin, a retired Methodist minister and a co-chair of the Peace Conference design team. The conference will also feature local speakers, workshops and panels, including a presentation by practitioners of alternative spiritual approaches to health, which will be moderated by Rabbi Phil Bentley of Hendersonville.


"The purpose of the whole conference is to talk about world peace," said Hardin, who lives at Lake Junaluska. "Health issues and the lack of good health care around the world can be contributors to the lack of peace. So, many of the situations that contribute to poor health are things that stand in the way of peace. Clean water, proper nourishment, proper food, and sanitation, housing and proper shelter. All of those things contribute to poor health and often are found in unstable environments, and that's true around the world."


This is the sixth conference -- the first was held in 2008 -- and is composed of leaders of different faiths, a directive established by Wright Spears, the "grandfather of this conference," who first brought the idea of a peace conference to his fellow ministers during the time of the Iraqi War, said Garland Young, a retired Methodist minister and chairman of the Peace Conference committee. Spears was concerned that the church had been too silent on the issues of war and violence.


"During the planning and the carrying out of the first conference it became obvious that world peace was not something that Christians were going to be able to pursue themselves, but that it had to be done in cooperation with other faiths, in particular the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Islam and Christianity," Young said.


Among the speakers will be local physician Sameera Ahmad, M.D., a Muslim, who will speak on women's roles in Islam and the Islamic perspective on health. She was recommended by Ahmad Abu Amara, a member of the Peace Conference executive committee and the design team, and who also is Muslim. "I've been working for many years on interfaith groups and promoting the commonality of the communities," said Amara, who is on the faculty of the College for Seniors at the University of North Carolina Asheville. "All of us are a creation of God and what we believe in our faith is personal."


Rabbi Bentley (retired), a member of the Peace Conference Committee and a lifelong advocate of interfaith ministry, said he brings a different perspective to the discussion of faith and health, one that sees "humanity as God's partners" and that for "every illness God created, He created a cure."


"In Judaism, we are God's hands. If we don't do what is Godly or Holy, it's not going to get done," he explained. "We believe that God finished creation after the sixth day and put the world in our hands."


Bentley, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest and largest organization in the United States devoted to working for peace, justice and nonviolence, said the Peace Conference allows people of different faiths to better understand each other. "In Jewish tradition, we have a very strong tradition in medicine and we share that with Muslims. Our belief is that the community must provide health care for everybody, and that tradition goes back to ancient times," he said. "We are having an extra panel with a nationally known Christian Scientist who is a health care practitioner, a Cherokee medicine man, and someone who provides holistic health care in Asheville so people can see there are very different approaches to health care."


The idea of faith communities working to improve world health is not a new one, said Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, presiding bishop of the Raleigh Area of The United Methodist Church and one of this year's Peace Conference speakers.


"Faith and health are at the heart of the Wesleyan way of life and ministry," Ward said. "John Wesley [the founder of Methodism] was fascinated by the intersections of faith and health. This was more than an avocation. The profound connections informed and shaped the Methodist movement."


This year's keynote speaker is Dr. Christoph Benn, director of External Relations and Partnerships Cluster for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, in Geneva, Switzerland. Benn is a medical doctor with a master's in Public Health from John Hopkins School of Public Health and a master's in Religious Studies and Ethics from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.


Other speakers include:

  • Joshua Dubois, former director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships during President Obama's first term
  • Dr. Gary Gunderson, vice-president of Faith and Health Ministries at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, NC
  • Dr. James Cochrane, professor in the Department of Religious Studies and senior research associate in the School of Public Health and Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town, South Africa
  • Dr. Henry Perry, founder of Andean Rural Health Care, and senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
  • Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, presiding bishop of the Raleigh Area of The United Methodist Church.

The book "Leading Causes of Life: Five Fundamentals to Change the Way You Live Your Life," was a core resource for establishing this year's theme, Young said. The book was co-written by Gunderson and Larry Pray, who is one of the conference workshop leaders. The book urges readers to frame the leading cause of life through the lens of their own experience.


"Life has a language that allows us to talk to each other-deeply and practically-across many barriers that usually divide us," Gunderson writes. "Of course, everyone writing and reading about life has a stake in the subject. I'm talking about the life of the whole neighborhood and the whole community where we find our own lives. The key is changing the focus of conversation from death to life."


The Lake Junaluska Peace Conference is an ongoing response to God's call to peacemaking and reconciliation. Affirming the community of Abrahamic faiths, the Peace Conference seeks to work in partnership with Christians, Jews, Muslims and members of other religious traditions to advance the work of reconciliation and peace.  


Melanie Threlkeld McConnell is a freelance writer, former AP newswoman, editor and media consultant based in Waynesville, North Carolina.