16 Mar Caring Cultures – Book Review
Journeying Toward Wholeness
Susan J. Dunlap.
Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009
241 pages, paper, $24.95.
Reviewed by David Lee Jones, ThD
Assistant Professor of Congregational Care
Doctor of Ministry Director
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Austin, TX
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In Caring Cultures: How Congregations Respond to the Sick, Susan Dunlap breaks new ground by moving away from solely individualistic models of care by focusing on how three congregations from vastly different socio-economic, ethnic, cultural, ecclesial, and theological backgrounds understand sickness and respond to it.
Dunlap clearly states the book’s objective this way: “This book is devoted to describing congregations as repositories of meanings from which individuals consciously or unconsciously gather illness meanings or interpretations” (13). Her thesis is:
Congregations are repositories of wisdom about how suffering can be overcome. They are bearers of wisdom from sacred texts, founding forebears, and living saints who not only speak words of wisdom but also embody them in their lives. … It is my firm conviction that congregations have much wisdom to share with one another. As congregations from different traditions enter into the places of suffering together, and hear stories, beliefs, and accounts of responding to suffering, the wisdom residing in each congregation will be enhances (3).
Dunlap wants congregations of various traditions to share their beliefs and practices of caring for the sick with other congregations in a spirit of mutual learning, one from the other. With this in mind, Dunlap studied the distinctive care practices of three congregations in her home southern city of Durham, North Carolina by employing extensive historical research, ethnographic methods of participant observations and directed interviews, focus groups, the collection of artifacts, and practical-theological reflection in order to offer “thick descriptions” which she openly admits are colored by her own theological background (Presbyterian; M.Div. and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary), and social location. The three pseudonymed congregations are: Healing Waters Church (A small Africa-American congregation in the Holiness Tradition); First Downtown Church (a 650 member chiefly anglo-European Presbyterian church where Dunlap is a member); and Our Lady of Durham (a Roman Catholic Hispanic (chiefly Mexican) congregation which is part of a larger Catholic parish).