Drew University Hosts “Creating Compassionate Communities: Leadership, Spirituality, and Wholistic Care”

An interdisciplinary symposium organized by Drew’s Medical & Health Humanities and Drew Theological School


Keynote speaker the Rev. Dr. David K. Brawley T'21

March 2024 – Drew University hosted “Creating Compassionate Communities: Leadership, Spirituality, and Wholistic Care.” The symposium gathered scholars and experts in care, ethics, and theology for a learning experience designed to expand the vision and knowledge of compassionate communities to a broader public health realm by exploring their potential and challenges.

The day-long event was organized and sponsored by Drew’s Medical & Health Humanities program, Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, Drew Theological School, University of Humanistic Studies, and Atlantic Health System.

Over 150 in-person and virtual attendees heard from such interdisciplinary and scholarly speakers as keynote speaker the Rev. Dr. David Brawley T’21, lead pastor at St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn and founder of the MAAFA Suite; Joke van Saane, president of the University of Humanistic Studies; Carlo Leget, director of research and care ethics at the University of Humanistic Studies; Jonathan Golden, director of Drew’s Center on Religion, Culture, and Conflict (CRCC) and associate teaching professor in religious studies at Drew; Yvette Vieira G’15, senior manager, palliative care and healthcare ethics at Atlantic Health System; and Cynthia Orsini C’00, certified social worker.

“The compassionate communities model offers a paradigm shift in public health and care, with the potential to transform the way we care for individuals facing health challenges throughout their lives,” said Merel Visse, program director and associate professor of Medical and Health Humanities at Drew. “However, its success hinges on holistically integrating all available treatments, support services and informal networks. The compassionate communities model is a groundbreaking approach to healthcare that has the potential to revolutionize the way we treat patients, but in order for it to work, we have to take a holistic approach to treatment that encompasses all aspects of care.”


Professor Jonathan Golden

Van Saane explored the paradoxes of leadership found within European compassionate communities, specifically a shift in the power balance from a leader to a group or the community, coupled with a strong desire for security and authority. “Leadership is not about a person as a leader, it’s about the dimension—the interrelation between the person, the leader, the group, and the followers.” Further, she explained there is a paradox of connection—a strong need for connection and security, often shown as a fear of uncertainty and death. “Diversity is not a problem, diversity is a gift,” she said. “You need to be clear on the group and objective of the group.”

Medical & Health Humanities doctoral candidates Vieira and Orsini introduced compassionate community models. Support systems that build upon existing communities, often found in large cities, establish a formal structure with policies that guide institutions like businesses, government agencies, and schools in identifying and reaching out to vulnerable populations. Other models are based on a more traditional approach, centering on a strong sense of community citizenship, such as neighbors who live close together and organize support networks for those in need. This model emphasizes communal care and relies less on formal structures. 

When these models meet, compassionate communities are designed to provide assistance to those who are seriously ill and approaching end-of-life, as well as helping with social and community experiences surrounding death, bereavement, and grief. Vieira identified the need to expand compassion community care to include those dealing with social isolation, trauma, discrimination, abuse, to name a few. 

Orsini educated the audience on NORCs, a building, neighborhood, or community that has a large proportion of older adults living in residences that were not built or designed for the aging population. NORCs typically evolve naturally over time, developing when individuals move into a building or neighborhood and age in place over years. New York City is the location where the NORC model was shaped, with the first established in 1986 through private funding. Today there are approximately 60 NORCs in New York City. 


The event hosted over 150 in-person and virtual attendees

Brawley, whose keynote presentation was titled “Community as Medicine for the Medicinal Qualities of Being Together in Community,” took attendees through St. Paul Community Church’s impressive 40-year campaign of rebuilding community in the East New York and Brownsville sections of Brooklyn. “We have been in community, but also building community,” said Brawley. “For us, that’s where healing happens—it happens in community.”

Brownsville was in disarray in the late 1960’s, described as a ghetto. One of the first rebuilding projects the church implemented were basic yet essential infrastructure improvements, such as street signs. In the early 1980’s, the Nehemiah Housing Program was born, providing affordable homes and apartments in East New York and Brownsville by utilizing unused or abandoned land.

St. Paul is at the forefront of neighborhood and economic development. Together with Metro-IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation), they have built nearly 5,000 affordable homes and apartments in Brooklyn over the past 40 years. “We’re building people who build buildings,” said Brawley. “People who have equity have better outcomes for their families and in health. Their lives are changing because the community is changing.”

“Many of the folks in my community didn’t think about their health because they’re thinking about their rent.”

Their newest housing development project, Spring Creek Nehemiah, is built upon a former landfill site. “The community saw a landfill, but through imagination, they saw homes. How do you see beyond the garbage to see the glory?”

Brawley earned his Doctor of Ministry at Drew, where his research focused on the intersection of social justice and sacred memory. ”Social Justice and sacred memory produces healing, brings us into community, and shows the value of each and every one of us.”


Professor Merel Visse with Yvette Vieira G'15

Golden suggested expanding and applying the compassionate communities model to peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Using Blood Sunday in Northern Ireland and conflict in Israel and Palestine, Golden shared examples of community building and support as a means for survivor healing. “You need an entire community to be able to contribute to the healing and the ability to move on,” he said. Through an assessment of needs, the framework of compassionate communities can exist to support peacebuilding by exploring existing interventions, assessing community capacity, and identifying needs. 

Leget presented his research on “Navigating Loss and Grief Across the Lifespan: an Interdisciplinary Perspective.” Aloneness and connectedness are both human needs, while loss and grief are the other side of love. “Navigating loss and grief is an invitation to face the ultimate concerns in life and death and find our way out of the sadness,” he said. His model has been published and is available for download here.

Amanda Block, founder of GRACE, shared her work on meeting community needs with community resources to enable good faith and success for vulnerable and underserved neighbors. On the Thursday after the Symposium, a selection of people volunteered at the GRACE by distributing groceries to over 200 individuals in Summit, New Jersey. 

Two case studies were presented: Colleagues Dr. Abdul Mondul, Alex Beth Schapiro, and Laura Hawkins from Atlantic Health System gave an overview on the many facets of Overlook Medical Center’s Integrated Multi-Dimensional Approach to Care in Summit, New Jersey. Highlighting the importance of teamwork and collaboration, they showed how care throughout the continuum of illness involves addressing physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual needs and to facilitate patient autonomy, access to information, and choice.

Pat Weikart T’00,’24, director of the Healing Tree, shared her ongoing work supporting pediatric patients and their families who are managing sickle cell disease. She highlighted the differences between treatment and care, treatment is about transactional care, care is about the relational encounter where one is fully present, listening and responding to unmet needs that restore human dignity and meaning. 

The day closed with Thomas Dooley, Program Manager of Humanistic Medicine at Overlook Medical Center, sharing a collective poem that captured the powerful mood of the day, and opening an inspired space for future conversations.

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