In recent days while I have been confined to and working from home, I have found myself wondering how people of faith responded to health crises in the past. The flu pandemic of 1918 keeps coming to my mind because of the way it brought people’s lives in our nation to a screeching halt.
What were people at that time praying for and singing? How did people work together to address the needs of those who could not work and lacked the financial resources to care for themselves when they were confined at home? Is there anything we can learn from the history of how churches and other religious communities dealt with previous health crises?
Activities Were Moved Outside
Flu spread quickly in 1918, partly due to the close quarters of soldiers and their travel during World War I. Early on, university and other school classes, religious services, and many other activities moved outside. When the government banned public gatherings in response to the pandemic, pastors and priests of churches called upon their congregations to pray for the sick, for all people in the nation to work together, and for health care professionals.
Alan Taylor, a senior editor for The Atlantic, gathered together photographs in 2018 to memorialize the centennial anniversary of that catastrophic event. You can see the images here. Taylor remembered that at that time the flu “killed more than 50 million—and possibly as many as 100 million—people.”
Religious Women Interrupted Their Daily Routines to Serve as Nurses
Mary Ann Thompson and Sara Bolten, nurse educators in the Louisville area, published an excellent article in 2016 on the role religious women in Kentucky played as nurses when they were called to serve at Camp Zachary Taylor. Over 40,000 soldiers were stationed at the camp and thousands contracted the flu.
Thompson and Bolten tell the story of how nursing saved people’s lives in an era without antivirals or antibiotics. Father Regis Barrett, a Roman Catholic army chaplain, recruited women from seven orders in Louisville and across the state. The orders included Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Dominican Sisters of Peace, Ursuline Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, Ursuline Sisters of the Congregation of Paris, Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration, and the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross. Many of these nuns had long histories of serving as nurses during epidemics in the state, but others were forced to learn a new skill and change their daily routine. For some, their duties ordinarily consisted of teaching.
Women from differing denominational backgrounds—Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, AME Zion, Anglican, Lutheran, and more—and across the nation interrupted their lives to serve as nurses in this way. The Louisville City page of the Digital Influenza Encyclopedia that you can find here includes more stories about the importance of nurses in the flu pandemic.
Black Nurses and Other Health Professionals Collaborated with Black Women’s Organizations and Churches to Confront Health Care Disparities in that Time
Many commentators have pointed out that the Coronavirus pandemic reinforces a fact that we already knew: inequality in access to health care threatens public health. The New York Times published an editorial that emphasized the injustice particularly for immigrants of what they call “health care for some.” Infectious diseases are democratic “and have a knack for penetrating and exposing … false dichotomies. Already, citizens who are underinsured or uninsured are being slammed with medical bills that they can’t afford when they seek testing and treatment for the virus. Unsurprisingly, experts say that many of them are bound to avoid such care as the outbreak rages on. If quarantines become routine, tens of millions of low-wage workers, many of whom don’t have health insurance or paid sick leave, will not be able to stock up and stay home.” Disparities in access to and treatment for health care are persistent problems in the U.S. and were just as evident in 1918. Black churches and nurses played key roles in educating the community and exposing racist assumptions informing access to treatment and health care.
Vanessa Northington Gamble, a professor of Medical Humanities at George Washington University, highlights the inequalities in access and assumptions white health professionals made concerning the racial inferiority of African Americans in her essay entitled “’There Wasn’t a Lot of Comfort in Those Days’: African Americans, Public Health, and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.” “The color line,” a concept articulated by W.E.B. DuBois, defined the boundaries of places and spaces where black and brown people were allowed to enter, live, learn, eat, worship, and be treated for health concerns during the Jim Crow era. At the turn of the 20th century, sociologists such as DuBois began to document the poor health status of African American communities and to refute theories of racial inferiority. Medical schools and training centers were established for the purpose of training black health professionals, particularly doctors and nurses.
Black health professionals, particularly nurses, worked along with women’s organizations, churches, and religious leaders to educate African American communities regarding health and good hygiene, promoting events such as Health Week, and expose inequalities. In response to the flu pandemic, churches encouraged families to worship together in their homes and held open-air services. Churches also mobilized volunteers to cook at food centers, schools, hospitals, and nurseries and to clean homes or aid families affected by influenza. The critical need for nurses during the flu pandemic ultimately forced the U.S. military to drop its ban on black nurses serving in the Army Nurse Corps.
Holding These Stories With Us
Keeping stories like this in my mind during this unpredictable and anxiety producing time helps me because it grounds me in a much longer and larger story where others dug deep and found the energy and sustenance they needed to interrupt their lives, change their course for some time, and call for change even in the midst of crisis. I hope you will also find it helpful to hold these stories with you during these days and discover the energy to tell some of your own. If praying is something that you can do, I invite you to lift up health professionals in the midst of this crisis. The prayer below is inspired by one written for doctors and nurses by Walter Rauschenbusch that he published in his book Prayers for the Social Awakening in 1908.
A Prayer for Health Professionals in the Midst of a Crisis
We are grateful, O God, for health professionals whose work does not allow them to be confined for the sake of their own health and may place them directly in harm’s way. We are thankful for their willingness to disrupt their own lives, ability to fight the impulse to rest, their patience, and their knowledge of science, medicine, and compassionate care as they seek to bring relief to those bound in their beds due to illness. In times of health crises human frailties become ever more real, may all of us hold an abiding sense of the value you place upon life. Inspire within all of us the desire in these unpredictable and chaotic days, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you. Help us to always see ourselves as part of a larger web of life, not to subordinate the health of our communities to money, or to challenge systems that divide care on the basis of nation, race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, or class. Great Holy One in our midst, help us to feel your presence among us and bring us together. Amen.
 Alan Taylor, “Photos of the 1918 Flu Pandemic.” The Atlantic (April 10, 2018). Accessed online at https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2018/04/photos-the-1918-flu-pandemic/557663/
 Mary Ann Thompson and Sara Bolten, “‘They Buckled on the Armor of God’: Kentucky Catholic Sister “Nurses” in the 1918 Flu Pandemic.” American Catholic Studies Volume 129 #4 (2018): 91-105.
 “With Coronavirus, ‘Health Care for Some’ Is a Recipe for Disaster,” The New York Times (March 6, 2020). Accessed online at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/06/opinion/coronavirus-immigrants-health.html