My father died Feb, 11, 2022, in the presence of family, but in the care of strangers. He was in memory care for his dementia. Although we were with him 12 hours a day, family members were limited in what we could do. We could not provide his medications, treat his symptoms, or offer a meaningful prognosis. We were not trained physicians, nurses, or caregivers, so we had to rely on strangers. They were, to a person, professional, compassionate, caring, and competent, but they were strangers nonetheless. Prior to his admission, they did not know my dad or us, and we did not know them. This is more often the case these days than not in the context of contemporary health care.
Prior to 1880, in what seems like another world, few people had even heard of a hospital, much less an assisted living community or memory care. When family members got sick, they were cared for by their kinfolk or a neighbor. If there was a doctor nearby, he might visit the home as needed, but he might be miles away. Only the largest of cities—Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston—had a hospital. With the growth in population in the United States and the development of medical technologies, however, more hospitals were needed.
As Charles Rosenberg shows in his volume, The Care of Strangers, The Rise of America’s Hospital System, in many ways the modern hospital owes its origins to Judeo-Christian compassion. Evidence of the vast expansion of faith-based hospitals is seen in the legacy of their names: Good Samaritan, St. Vincent’s, St. Luke’s, Mt. Sinai, Presbyterian, Mercy, Baptist, Methodist, and Beth Israel. These were all charitable hospitals, some of which began as foundling hospitals to care for abandoned children.
Similarly, in Europe, great hospitals were built under the auspices of the same tradition. Indeed, an ancient French term for hospital is hôtel-Dieu (“hostel of God”). In 1863, the Société Genevoise d’Utilité Publique called on Swiss Christian businessman Jean Henri Dunant to form a relief organization for caring for wartime wounded. Thus, the emblem of the Red Cross was codified in the Geneva Convention one year later. In Britain, Dame Cicely Saunders founded the hospice movement by establishing St. Christopher’s Hospice in the south of London in 1967.
In his impressive history, Medicine & Health Care in Early Christianity, Gary Ferngren observes:
The Christian understanding of the imago Dei, viewed in light of the doctrine of the Incarnation, was to have four important consequences for practical ethics that became increasingly apparent as Christianity began to penetrate the world of the Roman empire (p. 98).
Those consequences included:
- The impetus for Christian charity and philanthropy.
- The basis for the believe that every human life has absolute intrinsic value.
- A new perception of the body and indeed of the human personality.
- A redefinition of the poor.
The concept of the church’s care of “the poor” argues Ferngren,
was basic to the founding of the earliest hospitals. The hospital was, in origin and conception, a distinctively Christian institution, rooted in Christian concepts of charity and philanthropy. There were no pre-Christian institutions in the ancient world that served the purpose that Christian hospitals were created to serve, that is, offering charitable aid, particularly health care, to those in need (p. 124).
The “care of strangers” is an extraordinary legacy of the Christian tradition. Caring for those who are ill is foundational to an acknowledgement of every individual being made in the image of God, an expression of Christian hospitality, and an extension of neighbor love. These are virtues both deep and wide in Christianity. After all, the apostle John said, “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17); and James reminded his readers that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
To be crude, it’s one thing to aid a family member in the bathroom; it’s something else entirely to do so for a stranger. Over and over again, I asked my dad’s caregivers why they did what they did. Every one said it was a calling. They felt called to serve in such a sacrificial way those who could not care for themselves. And more often than not, they confessed that it was their love of Christ and love for those he came to redeem that was their greatest motivation.
I thank God for the rich legacy of Christian caregiving we have been entrusted by our forefathers and foremothers. Their service has shown us what it means to love God by loving our neighbors (Luke 10:25-37). Most of all, I am for those selfless strangers who were called to care for my dad in his time of greatest need. In so doing, they faithfully upheld the inherent dignity given to him by his Creator and gave our family an invaluable peace of mind that Dad was in good, kind, and caring hands.