Event Recap: Paul Farmer

On February 11th, Paul Farmer came to HDS to discuss his new book, In the Company of the Poor, written with Gustavo Gutierrez. Drawn from the extensive and innovative dialogue between Dr. Farmer (medical doctor and founder of Partners in Health)  and Father Gutierrez (the father of liberation theology), the book explores the common ground between the two thinkers’ respective careers in global health and liberation theology.

Dr. Farmer was joined onstage by Professor David Carrasco, historian of religion, and Lauren Taylor, MDiv candidate and public health researcher. Their discussion examined the theological roots of Christianity's preferential option for the poor, as well as the practical challenges of implementing such a worldview in the global economy.

Lauren Taylor began by noting the confusion of her colleagues in public health when they learned that she was studying in divinity school. For her, this was a logical extension of her public health work: “I began to understand that ministerial skills were important in the study of health care,” she says, acknowledging the close connection between medical science and religion.

Paul Farmer's interest in liberation theology (a religious movement that emphasizes the dignity and rights of the poor as a central tenet of Christianity) began after the assassination of Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero's commitment to the poor and his espousal of liberation theology had made him a marked man; his demands for a preferential option for the poor threatened those in power. At the time, Dr. Farmer was working in Haiti, and struggling to find a way to respond to the poverty and human suffering he found there.  Father Guttierrez's belief that "Poverty is not a condition or misfortune...it is an injustice." resonated with the young Paul Farmer. Eventually, liberation theology's emphasis on keeping company with the poor would lead to the founding of Partners in Health.

Dr. Farmer noted that he and Father Gutierrez – despite their many differences – are united in their commitment to the accompaniment of the poor. Religion lends to medicine a holistic appreciation of humanity that allows physicians to fully practice their craft. This is commitment to humanity is reflected in the practices of Partners in Health; rather than making short-term donations, they are committed to building up the health care infrastructure of the countries where they operate and developing community-based care systems . For example, the vast majority of their employees are citizens of the countries where PIH’s hospitals are located.  Their strategy works; in Rwanda, life expectancy has doubled and infant mortality has drastically decreased.

Well over 400 audience members attended the talk, including Partners in Health members from Rwanda, Chiapas, and Haiti.