When my wife and I were expecting our first child, since we are both Ashkenazic Jews, my wife’s OB/GYN sent us for genetic counseling. There was a chance our child could have had Tay-Sachs or cystic fibrosis, and when her doctor urged us to get the bloodwork done, we didn’t even really think about it. We just did it, complete trusting her knowledge and judgment.
But if a doctor in Alabama told an African-American to get “genetically tested,” it’s likely she would have a very different feeling about that request. Indeed, the word “research” or “experimentation” would likely send their antennae up instantly—thanks to an ugly piece of history. That’s because for over 40 years, members of the scientific and medical establishment performed medical experiments on African-American males against their consent as part of the horrific Tuskegee Experiment. Someone coming in as a “scientific expert” to do “research” would obviously meet a lot of resistance.
And that’s why the work of Dr. Pamela Payne-Foster is so powerful. She is a professor of Community Medicine/Population Health at The University of Alabama School of Medicine, and her work focuses on combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic among African-American males. It’s a crisis—as she notes, 1 in 16 black men will be diagnosed with HIV/AIDS at some point in their lives, while in comparison, 1 in 15 black men over the age of 18 is incarcerated. And yet almost no one in her community is talking about it.
Almost certainly, this is in large part due to the understandable wariness in the Southern African-American community to the scientific and medical establishment—a likely lingering result of those Tuskegee Experiments.
So rather than framing HIV/AIDS as a medical issue, she frames this question as a social justice and civil rights issue. There’s a long spiritual history in Southern African-American churches in fighting for social justice, so in order to help the community embrace science, Payne-Foster enlisted twelve pastors to educate and destigmatize HIV/AIDS. She realized that she could have all the information, all the knowledge, and all the ways to help people … and it would be totally useless if the audience wouldn’t listen to a “scientific expert.” Instead, she recruited the religious and spiritual messengers that the audience could trust, and who knew had their best interests at heart. (See also this TEDx Talk.)
By having a religious messenger who could use spiritual, justice-filled language, the message got through. As these pastors spoke about how to educate their congregants about HIV/AIDS, there was a significant reduction of stigma and increased awareness of this epidemic. By speaking in language that was resonant, and by using a messenger that the listeners could readily trust, Payne-Foster slowly but effectively reached a skeptical audience, and helped them embrace science a little bit more.
Messenger trumps message
Payne-Foster’s work is part of a larger initiative run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) (which is also one of Sinai and Synapses’ closest partners). Their job is to advance science and help people engage with it through dialogue, conversations, and relationship-building across disciplines and communities. One of their signature programs, entitled Engaging Scientists, aims to expand both the number and kinds of people who can enhance collaboration on some of the most crucial scientific and medical questions we face.
As part of this initiative, I was honored to have been on a panel with Payne-Foster, as well as with Drs. Altaf Saadi and Caitlin Schrein, as part of a public event at the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus—one of only six institutions selected for this project. And as these three brilliant panelists spoke about how they connect their work to their own personal backgrounds, what struck me was when it comes to science, the messenger is often more important than the message—and that it’s crucial to diversify the number of messengers.
We often get frustrated because people don’t change their minds due to facts. But our beliefs, our community, and our identity are stubborn things—as they should be. If we don’t find deep roots for ourselves, then we careen from one existential crisis to the next. But if we feel safe and trusted, then and only then we can slowly accept new ideas, new perspectives, and even new ways of acting in this world.
“Science” and “religion” don’t exist in the ether—they are played out in real-life questions, with real-life impact. And while science can often help give us the facts, religion can be a powerful and trusted way to communicate it.
By thinking not just about what we say, but also who says it and how, we can change our story to make our lives healthier—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.