Main Menu

Peace Conference to focus on 'leading causes of life'

Peace Conference to focus on 'leading causes of life'

LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. -- 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 peaceful place?

An international panel of experts on global health and faith, including Joshua Dubois, former White House spiritual adviser to President Obama, 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. 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 leadership speakers from across the globe who will talk about their work in developing countries and the U.S. with mothers’ and children’s health and the role faith communities have in combating disease, violence and poverty. These issues often lead to 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 care, moderated by Rabbi Phil Bentley of Hendersonville.

Peace pole at Lake Junaluska
Participants in a past Peace Conference at Lake Junaluska gather around the "peace pole." Photo from Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.

“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.”

Dr. Christoph Benn, director of External Relations and Partnerships Cluster for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, in Geneva, Switzerland, is the keynote speaker and will open the session at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 27, at Stewart Auditorium. Benn is a medical doctor with a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a master’s in religious studies and ethics from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

President Obama’s “pastor in chief,” Joshua DuBois, will speak at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 29, at Stewart Auditorium. DuBois served as leader of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships during President Obama’s first term, spearheading the Obama Administration's work on faith-based and community partnerships, fatherhood, religion and other anti-poverty strategies. DuBois left the administration in February 2013 to author “The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings that Inspired President Obama,” a book of devotionals based on the ones he sent to the president.

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, presiding bishop of the Raleigh area of The United Methodist Church, will give the closing speech at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, March 30. Ward is a North Carolina native and graduate of Duke University and Duke Divinity School. She was elected a bishop of The United Methodist Church and appointed to the Mississippi Conference in 2004, where she is believed to have been the first woman to lead a mainline denomination. She returned to North Carolina in 2012 to serve as bishop of the North Carolina Conference.

The Peace Conference—this is the sixth, the first was held in 2008—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.

Rabbi Bentley (retired), a member of the Peace Conference Committee, is a lifelong advocate of interfaith ministry and said he appreciates how the conference brings people of different faiths together for a common cause.

“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.

"Faith and health are at the heart of the Wesleyan way of life and ministry.”

-- Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, 
   North Carolina Conference

As a Jew, he said, his perspective on the relationship between health and faith is one that sees “humanity as God’s partner” 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 will moderate a panel discussion on alternative health care treatments, a panel that will include “a Christian Science health care practitioner, a Cherokee medicine man, and a holistic health care provider from Asheville, so people can see there are very different approaches to health care,” he said.

Also among the conference participants 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, who also is Muslim.

“I’ve been working for many years on interfaith groups and promoting the commonality of the communities,” said Amara, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina-Asheville College for Seniors. “All of us are a creation of God, and what we believe in our faith is personal.”

The idea of faith communities working to improve world health is not new, said Bishop Ward, who has served on mission teams in the United States as well as in Central and South America, Africa, and the Middle East.

“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.”

Other leadership speakers include the following:

• Dr. Gary Gunderson, vice-president of Faith and Health Ministries at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, and co-author of “Leading Causes of Life: Five Fundamentals to Change the Way You Life Your Life”;

• 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; and

• Dr. Henry Perry, founder of Andean Rural Health Care and senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Gunderson’s book, co-authored with Larry Pray, one of the workshop leaders, was a core resource for establishing this year’s theme, Young said. The book urges readers to frame the leading causes 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 based in Waynesville, N.C.