‘What the world needs now is Hugs, Hugs, Hugs!’ Thanks to Zamir Khan, that’s easier than ever.

Clicking on this image will take you to the VidHug.com website right now.


Canadian Software Engineer Zamir Khan Is Helping Millions of Families to Hug Again

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“What the world needs now is: Hugs! Hugs! Hugs!” media entrepreneur Howard Brown told me as he urged me to check out the popular new service: www.VidHug.com. Founded just before the COVID pandemic at the urging of a small circle of friends and family living in Canada, VidHug now is exploding around the world with more than 4 million hugs delivered so far.

“We all need a good hug after more than a year of isolation,” Howard said as we worked together on the editing of his upcoming memoir, Shining Brightly. Howard’s upcoming book is full of dozens of ways you can brighten the world—one act of kindness at at a time. “I practice what I preach and I found this super-easy-to-use online service, VidHug.com, to help me send a few more hugs out into the world even in the midst of this pandemic. People absolutely love the videos we’ve created on this service. They’re overwhelmed when they see the VidHug the first time—and I’ve found that they like to view these hugs again and again. Whenever they’re feeling lonely, that VidHug is right there for them.”

Howard’s creation of personalized VidHug videos is mentioned in his book as just one example of his own outreach to friends and loved ones. So, Howard and I resolved to track down VidHug’s founder, Zamir Khan, and schedule a Zoom interview with him. Adding to our interest in meeting Zamir is a book co-authored by Howard’s wife, Lisa Brown. It’s called Now What? A Guide to the Gifts and Challenges of Aging. From the very first chapter of that book, “isolation and exclusion” are identified by researchers worldwide as the No. 1 threat to health and wellbeing as we age. In Lisa Brown’s section of that book, she emphasizes the healthy benefits of taking part in public service as we age. Given their own writing about personal connections, both of the Browns have become big fans of VidHug.com.

Zamir Khan: ‘People feel better after sharing’

Zamir Khan

When we explained our idea of publishing a story about VidHug in an email to Zamir, he scheduled an hour of Zoom time with us.

In our interview, I told him: “Zamir, did you know there’s real scientific research that says making meaningful connections with other people is a ‘social determinant’ of health? It’s clear from reading about you on your website that you’re doing this because people enjoy this experience.”

“And, right now in the middle of a pandemic it’s also a perfect entrepreneurial project,” Howard added.

“But, one thing we wanted to ask you is: Are you following the public-health research about the effects of isolation?” I said. “We think there’s a strong case to be made that meaningful contact like this actually contributes to people’s health and wellbeing. Are you following those studies?”

“In general, of course, I know that people enjoy what we’re enabling them to do,” Zamir said. He explained that public health research is not his specialty, but welcomed our making that connection from the team of authors who produced Now What?

“I don’t want to misrepresent the data,” I cautioned. “No researcher has specifically tested the health benefits of your VidHug.com—although, maybe someone will study it someday at the rate your online service is growing. But, the overall finding is that meaningfully connecting with people on a regular basis will tend to help them live happier and longer lives.”

“Well, I am glad to have you making that connection with what we do,” Zamir said.

We also immediately mailed him a copy of Now What? Collectively, we are trying to find allies to spread the message—in this era of deep divisions—that there’s healthy power in authentic human connection.

How Zamir Discovered the Power of a Virtual Hug

Zamir discovered that power himself when he created an online video montage for his own mother’s birthday, inviting family and friends to send him short video clips of their messages for the birthday girl. Given Zamir’s professional background as a software developer for sophisticated medical devices, he understood how to gather digital files, edit them, create a colorful montage and post it online.

That was the very first and only VidHug several years ago. Today, after hundreds of thousands of VidHugs from around the world, Zamir has published that “origin story,” which begins:

I pressed play and watched with bated breath. We were all sitting in the living room of my home, including my wife, our young children, and my parents. Everyone’s stomach was full after having celebrated my Mom’s 70th birthday at a delicious vegan restaurant (her choice!). The MacBook placed on her lap was about to play a video that I had painstakingly spent many days to put together. Looking back, I had no idea (a) how emotional her reaction would be and (b) that I had started on a path to building VidHug.

Corine, my mother, undoubtedly like someone in your own life, is notoriously difficult to buy gifts for. She doesn’t have material wants and spending a lot of money is a surefire path to her disapproval. If you ask her, she’ll tell you that she doesn’t need anything other than your love, presence, and maybe a hug. 

If you care to read the rest of Zamir’s origin story, this link will take you to his website.

The First Key Is Ease of Use

Everybody knows how to hug. It’s as simple as opening and then closing your arms.

“A VidHug should be simple, too,” Zamir said in our interview. “In fact, we keep updating the service all the time based on user comments. That’s our concept really: Anyone should be able to do this.

“When I made that first VidHug, it was so popular that I had lots of people asking me to teach them how to make these—or even to do this for them. I didn’t have that much time. I thought: I just should build a way for people to create these videos without having to understand all the software. As I went, I envisioned this: Think of my aunt who is not a technical person and certainly isn’t interested in becoming a power user. If I could help my aunt create something like this with a few clicks, then she’d certainly want to do it.

“To this day, we keep telling ourselves: If we can make this even simpler—we will.”

“Yeah, I can testify to that,” Howard said. “Your users don’t need to know all the technical magic that’s built into the software. They just want to create a VidHug and, for most people, that’s got to be very easy. Your service definitely is user friendly.”

The Second Key Is Self Expression

“The other goal we have is: ‘Joyful connections made easy’,” Zamir said. “Or, because some of these connections are for more serious or somber occasions, we also say, ‘Meaningful connections made easy’.”

On his website, Zamir lists the most popular occasions for VidHugs:

  • Holidays—so many opportunities!
  • Birthdays—and anniversaries
  • Weddings—lots of opportunities to support the loving couple
  • Business—especially onboarding videos to greet remote staff
  • Schools—perhaps to welcome children back to school or to celebrate a special school event
  • Memorials—celebrating the lives of loved ones

“The power of these little video clips is that you’re seeing each person—or group of people—speaking to you from wherever they’ve turned on their camera,” Zamir said. “Even if their message is just 30 seconds or so, that’s a much more meaningful connection than the typical note you find on Facebook.”

Far and away, Facebook remains the most popular platform for sending greetings at milestones that pop up in users’ lives.

“But think about how a typical Facebook birthday greeting happens,” Zamir said. “That happens just because it’s automatically built into your profile. Your birthday pops up and people may acknowledge that, but usually most of them are as basic as three letters: HBD. Typing three letters to mark someone’s birthday doesn’t qualify as a meaningful connection. But, going on video and talking for even a few moments to the other person—that’s really expressing yourself.”

Even after the Pandemic, Isolation Still Will Be a Challenge

It’s true that VidHug.com is a pandemic success story, Zamir acknowledged. The numbers tell the story.

“We were getting a few hundred visitors per day before the pandemic,” he said. “By May 2020, we were getting more than 100,000 people visiting each day—and recording 30,000 videos per day. When this idea started, it was just me. Now, we now have a team of seven and the VidHug.com you see today is the product of our developers and customer support staff.”

The pandemic solved the entrepreneur’s greatest challenge: discoverability. How does anyone even know you are offering a product? With enforced isolation, millions of people suddenly were Googling for solutions—then sharing their discovery widely across social media.

“So, yes, we are growing because of the pandemic,” Zamir said. “But the thing we all have to acknowledge is: There was isolation before the pandemic—and there will be isolation after the pandemic ends.

“What has motivated me all my life is simply trying to do work that will make our world a little better place,” he said. “When I was working on the software for sophisticated medical devices, I had the satisfaction of knowing that my work did have a positive purpose. But the impact was distant and indirect. I was contributing to a device that a salesperson had to bring to doctors, who might use it and eventually someone would be helped—but it was not an impact that I ever could see. I was quite removed from the positive results of what I was doing.

“But today, I can see the positive contributions these videos are making every day. That’s why I still like to do some of the customer support myself, because it connects me with the users of our service. I’ve heard so many stories of people telling us how these video messages helped them to get through some very tough days.

“You might think that our service is mainly used for happy times like birthdays or holidays, but I’ll never forget a woman who told me about her father who was so ill that it was clear he would not be leaving the hospital. So, the family used VidHug to share farewell wishes and the hospital’s chaplain sat down in the room and watched the VidHug with him.

“When you hear a story like that, you realize that this isn’t just a business. This is a real privilege to become a part of these families’ lives.”



Care to Read More?

In our special We Are Caregivers section of ReadTheSpirit, you will find an excerpt from the opening pages of Now What? That passage begins to explain the central challenge of isolation, which millions of us experience even without pandemic restrictions. If you have interest in this new book—or in organizing a group discussion of it—please email us at [email protected]

Have you established a memorial? A sacred place in your heart?

Four Roadside Memorials

Roadside memorials take many forms. (Photos for public use via Wikimedia Commons.)


Memorial Day commemorates those who died while serving in our armed forces—but this special day also inevitably reminds us of other losses we’ve experienced. It’s healthy to pause and ponder the way we make sacred room for these memories.

One half-mile south of the Occoquan River on I-95 in Virginia, one of the busiest corridors in our nation, is a place lodged in my memory and heart. The roadway is different now. What was then four lanes, divided by a grassy hill, has become eight lanes of concrete, ramps, guard rails and, of course, speeding cars and trucks.

Decades ago, I was the founding pastor of a new church in a planned community adjacent to I-95. Four of us in that community—three clergy and one paid fireman—did most of the fire and rescue runs during the daylight hours from Volunteer Fire Co. 10. Many of our calls were in response to accidents on I-95. To this day, I never drive that highway without remembering the spot of two runs we made.

One was filled with sadness—one with joy.

A doctor and his wife had recently bought a Winnebago Camper. She and her teenage son were driving north on I-95 in the camper while her husband followed in another car. On a curve over a steep hill, she lost control and the camper toppled over the guardrail and down the hill, bursting into flames. A young marine jumped from his car and pulled the burned son to safety but was not able to save his mother. Our arrival on the scene was to provide transportation of the victims and support for the father who was crumpled in shock and sadness. The son was flown to a burn-trauma center. There are no markers, and the landscape has been altered beyond recognition, but deeply seated in my mind’s eye is the trauma and sadness of a family’s instant transformation.

There is a memorial in my heart for the family as well as for the caregivers, the first responders, who served them well.

And, then the other memory follows.

It had not rained for three weeks in late August and the road had developed a film of oil. During a sudden rain storm, a north-bound 18-wheeler hydroplaned and the truck toppled with its wheels pointing north and the whole vehicle lay horizontal across all lanes.

One more amazing detail. A Ford Mustang had slid under the truck’s trailer as it toppled, with only the hood sticking out between the wheels. The rest of the car was crumpled under the trailer. When rescue teams arrived, we assumed no one was alive in the Mustang. Someone crawled under the trailer and tapped on the door of the crushed car.

Someone tapped back! Amazing! How to get to them? The rear trailer door was opened to reveal a full load of green tomatoes. Folks poured out of the blocked cars and began unloading the tomatoes onto the median strip. Special saws cut out the side of the trailer, the top was lifted off the Mustang, and four adults and two children, all pocked from broken glass, emerged from the vehicle.

I cried. What a miracle. There are no markers and the landscape has been altered beyond recognition, but deeply seated in my mind’s eye is the joy of that miraculous moment.

Across our land are countless markers left by families and friends to remember loved ones lost in traffic accidents. Roadside shrines of all descriptions dot the landscape as memorials, but for many, like myself, the memorial is carried in our minds and hearts—and the site is never passed without a moment of remembrance.

I write this to lift up each of our sacred moments of remembrance and to also express gratitude to the caregiver and first responders, be they professional or volunteer.

Memorial Day is a fitting occasion to remember those who died in our armed forces. If you have a chance to speak to a veteran this weekend about brothers or sisters lost in battle—their stories are likely to be quite specific about the location of the loss. By acknowledging the person and place—by remembering and sharing our stories like this—we are setting aside sacred space in our hearts.

THE REV. DR. BENJAMIN PRATT is a pastoral counselor with 30 years of experience working with men and women facing a wide range of stresses and tragedies. He also is one of ReadTheSpirit’s most popular columnists on a wide range of issues. Learn more about his books in our bookstore.

The Benjamin Pratt interview on ‘Short Stuff from a Tall Guy’

COVER Benjamin Pratt Short Stuff from a Tall Guy full cover proof

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

“You hold in your hands a human heart,” writes Day1 radio host Peter Wallace in the preface to Benjamin Pratt’s new book, Short Stuff from a Tall Guy: Wisdom Gleaned from Life’s Daily Journey. “It is the heart of a minister. A caregiver. A storyteller. It is the heart of a fellow sojourner on the path to a richer, fuller, more meaningful life.”

“As I read it,” Peter continues, “I couldn’t help but feel that I was having a heart-to-heart conversation with this beloved brother, Ben Pratt. Ben reveals himself within and between these lines in a multitude of wise ways—and in so doing, helps each of us see ourselves more clearly as fallible human beings yearning for meaning and love and grace and purpose in life. Sometimes finding it, oftentimes losing it, but always grateful for it when we experience it.”

In her foreword to the new book, popular Buddhist writer Geri Larkin points to the courageous compassion that Ben Pratt tries to foster among his readers.

“At a time when crime stories are topping best-seller lists, here is a book that offers an entirely different experience,” Geri writes. “Each story, anecdote and poem offers an antidote to the negative messages we get pummeled by on a daily basis by popular media.”

Instead, Geri writes, Ben “invites us instead to pause, to notice, and then appreciate the more heroic aspects of each other—our ability to sympathize, to provide comfort, to openly mourn loss, to genuinely and openly love everyone.”

At ReadTheSpirit, we highly recommend this book for anyone who already is a fan of works by Peter and Geri—or books by writers such as Barbara Mahany, Judith Valente, Robert Wick, Richard Rohr, Shirley Showalter and the Knuths. If any of those writers already is among your favorites, we guarantee you’ll recognize Ben’s latest book as a brother in that family of writers. Beyond the book’s value for individual readers, Ben Pratt is a popular speaker and retreat leader and many of the stories in this new collection will spark lively discussion in your class or small group.

(To learn more about Ben, visit his author page within our online magazine—or his author page within Amazon. To order his book, click on the cover image with this interview.)

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Ben Pratt. Here are …


DAVID: In recent years, Ben, you’ve written weekly columns that have been widely shared across our own website, the website of the Day1 radio network—and other online newsletters, too. You’ve heard from countless men and women about the ways your true stories touch their lives. What’s at work here? How are you able to take small stories from your own life and connect with so many readers?

BEN: That amazes me and it always pleases me to hear from readers. Apparently, by sharing these stories from my own daily journeys, I encourage people to think about meaningful experiences in their own lives and their relationships with other people.

Earlier in my life, I served as a pastor and wrote primarily for preaching. Usually, I got responses like: “Good job, pastor.” Short comments like that. But, I still remember a day when someone told me, “Listening to you preach today, I thought you must have been in our house this week.” That kind of response shows a much richer, deeper connection with people. I want to be speaking and writing in ways that connect with people where they’re living.

My effort now is to put my own musings and experiences into words so that I can help trigger such thoughts in other people. And the comments I get now, after a new column is published, often describe that kind of connection. Through what I write, I’m with them where they live.

DAVID: You refer to the stories in this book as “Wisdom Gleaned from Life’s Daily Journey.” You don’t describe these stories in terms that are typical in inspirational books. You don’t call these “meditations,” for example. They’re true stories from your daily life. Why do you describe it that way?

BEN: I don’t think of myself as a person who meditates in the formal way. A couple of times I have been part of groups that were training people in meditation, but somehow that never fit into my life. I find thoughts and images and insights coming to me when I’m playing in my garden, or mowing my lawn or even vacuuming the house.

DAVID: In your writing, the images often come before the words, right?

BEN: That’s usually how my writing begins. Eventually, those images form into words and the writing evolves.

My prayer life, too, is much more about images, putting myself where other people are and experiencing images. We have to pay attention to what is happening around us in life. We have to keep our eyes and ears open.

DAVID: That’s a frequent teaching by Geri Larkin, who wrote the foreword to your book. Geri likes to remind people to “Pay attention!”


BEN: One prayer that I pray each day is known as the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace …” With that prayer to start your day, you’re never out of a job. There are always moments in which we can be of service, love, caring, forgiveness, hope.

That way, each day can be a pilgrimage.

DAVID: That’s a key theme in your writing—that our most important spiritual experiences usually don’t take place inside the walls of a church.

BEN: Within the church, we usually are preaching to the choir. We’re evangelizing the already evangelized. I’m much more interested in speaking to people in their daily lives—even though many of the people I encounter may be outside what we might think of as a formal faith community.

I don’t want to speak in traditional religious jargon. I want to talk about the real stuff we experience in our daily lives.

DAVID: So, let me pose the question another way: What’s a really good day for you?

BEN: (Laughs!) “A really good day?” Oh my! Well, a good day is when I laugh a lot, when I have meaningful interchanges with people: people I know and love—as well as strangers.


Benjamin Pratt Short Stuff color flyer thumbnail

WANT TO GET YOUR FRIENDS EXCITED ABOUT READING THIS BOOK? Click on this thumbnail of a full-color flyer for Ben Pratt’s new book. You’re free to save, share or print out that flyer and show it to friends. This book is ideal for a series of small-group discussions. Ben is a veteran teacher, speaker and retreat leader.

DAVID: Talk more about meeting strangers. You actually dare to talk to strangers—something most of us don’t risk doing on a daily basis.

BEN: Well, you have to be intentional about this, I think. Sometimes I get intentional about the quick encounter with a clerk at a register. I’m very quick to read the name on their name-tag—and I thank them by name. The encounter might be as simple as that.

There are many ways to start a conversation. I find tattoos fascinating. People tend to either love tattoos or hate them, but these often are amazing pieces of artwork that tell important stories from people’s lives. If someone has an obviously visible tattoo, I’ll often ask about it—I’m interested in the story.

These moments make the day delicious.

DAVID: Delicious!? Strangers are scary, aren’t they? It’s tough to convince people to speak to someone they don’t know.

BEN: I don’t think that way.

First, I don’t think of the people I encounter each day as strangers. I always trust that there is some bridge we can walk across to connect. Sometimes, we need to build the bridge as we’re walking across it toward each other. That means we need to listen carefully to the people we encounter.

If we allow the world to move us toward fear of the people all around us each day, then we’re in bigger trouble than anything we may fear. I always anticipate a connection—and that lets me meet each new person with a simple smile. And, we go from there. Sometimes, it’s just the smile.

DAVID: I like the fact that you ask about small details you notice in the people you meet. I’ve often found that’s a great first step in connecting. Someone who snaps on a lapel pin before leaving the house is hoping that people will see it. If a person has a book under his arm as he’s waiting somewhere—he usually will welcome a question about what he’s reading.

BEN: I believe that all of us, on one level, want to be noticed. Now, we do have to be careful about over-reaching. (Laughs!) My children sometimes have told me I can overdo this! But, we’re talking here about appropriate conversation: Simply saying hello to people. Smiling. Asking a simple question—because you’re really interested in their stories.


DAVID: Readers of this book will quickly discover that you don’t make yourself the hero of these stories. For years, you worked as a pastoral counselor. You’ve been a teacher and retreat leader. But, in these stories, you’re not instructing readers. Instead, these stories invite readers to take a moment and think about their own lives—with you as a friend in the process.

BEN: Here’s a way to describe it. I know that I never will conduct a symphony. If I’m fortunate, I might be able to serve by playing the triangle at the very back of the orchestra.

I live my life like that. Near where we live, there’s a rotating shelter hosted by a number of churches—providing places to come find a warmth, safety and a good meal. I volunteer in that program. I show up and help serve the meals. I’m just one of the people in the background of that program. And, when I volunteer, I always find that I learn from the people who come into the shelter—as much as they will ever learn from me.

Small things do make a difference. This is the third book I’ve written and I’ve contributed to a couple of other books. And I’m amazed at all the people out there who have written to me to say that I’ve touched them with my writing.


DAVID: Why tell stories? Every week, ReadTheSpirit online magazine publishes a couple dozen new stories by a wide range of writers—often including a new story by you, Ben, if we’re lucky that week. We keep doing this, because we think it matters to send these stories into the world. Why are we so drawn to telling stories?

BEN: If we hope to truly know ourselves, and then let others know us, that basically happens through our story. It’s important to know our story and to be honest about it. For people of faith, we are people of a story. All of the major religious traditions are rooted in story.

The other night, my wife and I visited some long-time friends for dinner. Before dinner, it was one friend’s turn to say a prayer. But, he surprised us. He said: “Instead of a prayer tonight, I’m going to tell you a story about my grandchildren. And, after I tell a story, I want each of you to tell a story from your families.”

I’m still thinking about what he did and said. “Instead of a prayer … I’ll tell you a story …” I think: That’s a beautiful way to pray together.

I do know this: Ask people to tell you their story—and you’ll never meet a stranger.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Interfaith Cooperation Brings Health and Hope

Interfaith Health and Hope Coalition conference in Detroit

PHOTOS (From Top): Two scenes from the one-day conference sponsored by the Interfaith Health and Hope Coalition. Then, the Rev. TIMOTHY AHRENS, pastor of First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Columbus, Ohio; KELLY HERRON, executive director of Cabrini Clinic in Detroit; MELISSA DaSILVA, director of operations for Advantage Health Centers; MARCELLA WILSON, president of MATRIX Human Services; RENEE BRANCH CANADY, chief executive of the Michigan Public Health Institute; the Rev. Dr. URIAS BEVERLY, director of the doctor of ministry and the Muslim chaplaincy programs at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary; and TOM WATKINS, president of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. PHOTOS by Joe Grimm of the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Religious and health-care leaders gathered in Detroit for a one-day conference to discuss collaborating more closely as they serve needy families. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, I was at the heart of that gathering as moderator for the conference’s lineup of speakers.

That’s where our publishing house wants to be: connecting men and women with diverse religious and health-giving resources. Why? Because, as ReadTheSpirit expands to publish many new kinds of books, our core mission remains: publishing information that builds healthy communities.

In this column, I will tell you more about the inspiring conference in Detroit, but first—you’re also sure to be inspired by these resources …


The annual one-day conference was hosted by Michigan’s Interfaith Health and Hope Coalition. The coalition involves many groups, but it’s 2014 gathering was chiefly sponsored by the St. John Providence Health System. Dr. Cynthia Taueg represented St. John, which has a long history of promoting Faith & Community Nursing and St. John also is part of an innovative Healthy Neighborhoods program in Detroit.

Addressing the crowd, Dr. Taueg said improving neighborhoods begins with improving individual lives: “We understand that you can’t have healthy communities without healthy people.”

As a lifelong Detroiter, Dr. Taueg said, “We’re at a crossroads in Detroit. By the time I finally transition from this life, I want people to say: Oh, you’re talking about Detroit? I know that’s one of the healthiest places in America to live.”

To achieve such a grand goal, Dr. Taueg said, health systems must work with faith communities. Throughout the day, Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy talked with the crowd about the importance of promoting expanded health-care coverage and getting congregations more involved in caregiving partnerships, overall. Also, Taueg was joined by leaders from other health-care programs who talked to the crowd about current challenges in meeting their larger goals.

The Rev. Timothy Ahrens, pastor of First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Columbus, Ohio, talked about his own public campaign for expanded health coverage in Ohio.

Faith leaders must play a role, he urged. “You represent hope. Your imaginative faith brings hope alive. Your brain and spirit—wired to hope—allow others to grab hold when the waters of despair are sweeping over them.”

Kelly Herron, executive director of Cabrini Clinic in Detroit—known nationwide as America’s oldest free clinic—said that religious groups need to continue supporting free clinics. Even as medical coverage expands nationwide, many men, women and children will continue to need help.

“We’re the safety net for the safety net,” she said.

Herron also urged religious leaders to help members in their communities navigate the complex new layers of health care. She described how her clinic is helping clients to register for health coverage, but signing up is only the first step.

“As they are approved, our patients cry. They’re so happy. They are overwhelmed,” she said. “Then, they ask us: ‘Now what?'” Countless men and women are coming into health-care systems this year for the first time. Many of them have no experience accessing doctor’s offices, hospitals and pharmacies. Congregations can share helpful information to smooth this often rocky transition.

Melissa DaSilva—director of operations for Advantage Health Centers, which specialize in linking government programs especially with people who are struggling with homelessness—told the crowd that health care is more than a matter of dispensing treatment.

“Health care is also about helping people to achieve wellness by obtaining a housing wage and affordable housing,” she said.

As DaSilva urged participants to think broadly about health and caregiving in their communities, many heads nodded and pens scratched notes about her recommendations. Other speakers echoed her broader vision of the challenge shared by health care systems and religious groups.

Marcella Wilson, president of MATRIX Human Services, talked about the MATRIX method of linking a wide range of programs to help men and women move out of chronic cycles of poverty. It’s not enough simply to treat a medical condition, or provide a shelter, or serve food—or provide any one response disconnected from others, she said. Helping people climb out of poverty requires many kinds of partnerships. She urged faith leaders to find out how they can contribute to such efforts, wherever they are based.

This is hard work, Wilson told the crowd. “As leaders in a city with desperate need and boundless optimism, we need to remember that vision without backbone is hallucination!”

Renee Branch Canady, chief executive of the Michigan Public Health Institute, echoed Wilson’s and DaSilva’s appeals for broad vision in meeting the needs of people living in poverty. Canady’s nonprofit advocates at all levels—from local communities to Washington D.C.—on behalf of collaborative programs to build healthier communities.

“I don’t want my grandchildren to still be having this conversation,” Canady told the crowd. One way to inspire the hard work of forging cooperative new programs is to tap into our deepest values, including the values within faith communities. “We must invite our values to the table with us,” she said.

Adding to the list of issues that congregations can address, Canady said one challenge religious groups might tackle is easier access to everyday, healthful activities. An example: Many neighborhoods don’t have safe and barrier-free areas where residents can go walking each day.

“We must look at the built environment around us,” she said. “If we want people to get exercise by walking more, then we have to provide places they can walk. We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Can people walk around your neighborhood?”

The Rev. Dr. Urias Beverly told the crowd about the deep roots of these issues in the Abrahamic faiths. Beverly is the director of the doctor of ministry and the Muslim chaplaincy programs at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit. He also serves as professor of pastoral care and counseling,

“Health and religion have been wedded as long as there have been men and women on the earth,” Beverly said.

Tom Watkins, president of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, closed the conference by reminding faith leaders that mental health issues are an essential part of congregational caregiving.

“There is not a zip code in the United States that is not touched by the mental health care system,” Watkins said. “And if your own family and friends have not been touched by mental health issues—then it’s only a matter of time before someone you know is a part of this.”

He urged religious leaders to go home and spread the word: “Without quality mental health care—you don’t have quality health care.”

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)


Clearing boulders: In our culture, forgiveness is a surprise ending

No, that's not the central character in our story today. But looking at real-life boulders like this one helps to tell this story. (Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for these images.)

No, that’s not the central character in our story today. But looking at real-life boulders like this one helps to tell this story. (Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for these images.)

A Truly Counter-Cultural Story


“Sue the doctor!”

That’s what friends and family urged my father-in-law, Donald Bosserman, to do after we discovered a mistaken diagnosis would end his life. How could this happen!?! There was no way to save him now. We wanted revenge.

I know a lot about “Revenge,” the action of hurting another in return for the wrong done to me, and “Avenge,” the verb that describes inflicting retribution or exacting satisfaction in such cases. We all know those words, because they are the fuel of our popular culture.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

In recent years, my book about the spiritual lessons behind Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels has taken me into discussion groups far and wide. My focus is on the way Fleming crafted the novels to portray his hero as pursuing the seven, modern, deadlier sins that Fleming was convinced posed the greatest evils in our age.

One night, following a talk on Fleming and Bond, a man came up to me and wisely observed, “I know your 007 book is based on Ian Fleming’s literary tales and not on the films, but have you noticed that the recent Bond films—and almost all action films these days—are rooted in one theme: revenge?”

He was spot on. We are hurt in so many ways, season after season, and our culture tells us: The solution is revenge.

But there is an alternative story—think of it as a possible surprise ending—after all the tales of vengeance on TV, at the movies and in the front-page headlines that dominate our culture.

In more than 30 years with my father-in-law, he taught me this lesson. First, Donald taught me about clearing boulders. In the latter years of his life, he and his wife lived in Pennsylvania on a wooded lot filled with trees and boulders—land that once was riddled by bullets and bombs in the pivotal battle of our Civil War. They lived less than a half mile from the Eternal Peace Light on the Gettysburg Battlefield.

Donald delighted in landscaping with trees, plants and boulders. He was always rearranging, and each time I visited, at least once a month, there were boulders to move—60, 100, 300 pound boulders. We strained, grunted, pushed, leveraged and laughed them to fit his new vision. Then we would sit on the boulders, sweating and drinking and talking about the ups and downs of our lives.

With refreshed energy, he then would jump up and say we needed to split and rack some wood for the fires, as fall was not far off.

The last months of Donald’s life were discouraging, difficult and degenerative. We were there every weekend as he declined in a nursing home. Donald’s doctor had misdiagnosed his illness as ulcers, not colon cancer. Once the correct diagnosis was made it was too late and the decline precipitous.

That’s when friends and family started talking about a lawsuit against the doctor.

I told Donald about this, but he wouldn’t stand for it. He called a couple of us to his bedside where he said unequivocally, “I will not rest peacefully in my grave if my family pursues any action against the doctor. He is human. He made a mistake. It was not intentional. I have forgiven him. If any of you continue to live with resentment or seek revenge, it will ruin your lives.”

And then he said, “Resentment is a closet full of rusty swords. If you don’t forgive; if you persist with resentment and think of vengeance, you will impale yourself on those rusty swords.”

Is it any wonder that I admired and loved him more deeply at that moment?

As Johann Christoph Arnold, the great peacemaker, puts it: “If I don’t forgive, I am a bound person. I am consumed by the person who has hurt me. I am consumed night and day by him. If I forgive, I let go of all that. I do myself a favor by forgiving.”

My father-in-law knew that. Yes, resentment is like a closet full of rusty swords.

Or, like a great big boulder we must clear to see life’s beauty again.

Thanks to LD Pedersen for sharing this photo of a huge boulder at the edge of an Iowa corn field. No other comment is needed here.

Thanks to LD Pedersen for sharing this photo of a huge boulder at the edge of an Iowa corn field. No other comment is needed here.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

As Advent begins, borrow a football strategy: We>Me

Photo courtesy of Martin Davis.

Photo courtesy of Martin Davis.

By congregational consultant Martin Davis

(Read more about Martin Davis’s work at the end of this column.)

On Thanksgiving, after the last touchdown is tallied and the leftover turkey is tucked into the refrigerator, you’re going to head to church on Sunday to celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. Christmas is upon us! And that means every church in America is thinking about how to turn once-a-year visitors who attend on Christmas Eve—the biggest church-sampling opportunity each year—into more-regular attendees.

How do you plan to reach people this Advent? The strategy I’m going to share with you today springs from a slogan used by my son’s undefeated, championship-winning middle school football team. Let me tell you about “We > Me.”

Before this championship season started, my son’s coach developed a rallying cry, as most coaches do each year. We’ve seen a lot over the years, but I particularly liked this one: We > Me. The resonance with football is obvious. It’s a team game—no one player can be responsible for winning and losing. Everyone must pull in the same direction. Win or lose, you’re in it together.

The same is true when converting occasional attendees into regular members of your community. Winning these people over requires your church pulling together in the same direction. Both in terms of message, and in terms of the tools you use to communicate it. In short, you have to ask: How do “We” communicate to those who come to us?


Welcoming and connecting with visitors begins with examining your current communications and what they say about who you are and how you talk together. As Advent is this coming Sunday, let’s leave the bigger questions for January and instead examine three simple things you can do to find out if you’re communicating to your visitors as “We” instead of “Me.”

COLLECTING VISITOR INFORMATION: Whatever you use to collect information about visitors, are you asking about them and their needs—or pushing your agenda? Compare a “We” visitor’s card versus a “Me” visitor’s card:

  • ME: Your card or welcoming volunteer asks visitors if they want a call or email or pastoral visit; if they have a church home; if they have a prayer request. For visitors, the first two sound like what they are—member solicitation; can we recruit you? The third is asking for very personal information before they even know you.
  • WE: Your card or welcoming volunteer points them to ways to help others during the holiday season—food delivery, wrapping presents, singing in a special choral event, etc. The message? We are a place that serves, and we need and value your special gifts.

SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN: Newcomers frequently bring children. Are you prepared?

  • ME: Shuttling the kids from their parents as quickly as possible for the sake of worship decorum. Or shuttling them out the door after the first 15 minutes of worship.
  • WE: Let the families decide. If they wish to stay together, be prepared from them in worship, in Sunday School, and in-between. If they wish to move their separate ways, make sure you walk them to where they need to go—don’t expect signs to do all the work. The message? We take care of one another.

PREACH IT (EFFECTIVELY)! Don’t be afraid to say who you are, and who you are about, from the pulpit.

ME: Sermons as usual. The message? If you aren’t from here, figure it out.

WE: As actors exaggerate their movements and volume on stage, so should ministers exaggerate who the church is. The message? We care enough not to assume you will figure it out. Take extra time to explain the worship service as it unfolds, point out how to follow the music and readings, talk about what the church is doing in the community. Loop back to what I mentioned above—that “We” message you’re delivering as you welcome visitors.

All for One

These three simple steps will allow you to speak and greet as “We.” Is it more effective? Do some simple math and find out. Did a greater percentage of new guests return in three months than they did last Advent season? If they did, you have a lot to build on. If they didn’t, why didn’t they? Did the message match your members’ actions? If you don’t know, keep better data so you can compare next Advent’s results.

Whether you “win a championship” and get lots of new members, or struggle through a tough season, you will do it together. And learn more about who you are as a community. Either way, We > Me will yield a much stronger team.


ReadTheSpirit works closely with nationally known church consultant and media expert Martin Davis. We publish occasional columns, sharing his wisdom with our readers—and we are working on a couple of 2014 book projects Martin is assembling, so stay tuned! Right now, you may find some of Martin’s past columns valuable …

Your Newsletter May Shock You—and These Possibilities Will Excite You: Martin writes about the transition to e-newsletters and lessons you’ll want to learn for making your e-newsletter more useful.

4 “Secrets” to a Successful Website for Your Congregation: As Martin lays out the issues, these “secrets” make a lot of sense!

Sorting Fact from Fiction in Church Growth & Social Media: Martin’s trademark style is to cut through the hype and quickly bring readers some common-sense steps toward successful communication.

Care to contact Martin Davis? Visit his Sacred Communication website to learn more.

 (Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

The Bernie S. Siegel interview on ‘The Art of Healing’

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Dr. Bernie Siegel stands in a rare circle of pioneers who still are guiding today’s army of spirituality-and-health advocates. So, it’s big news that Bernie’s latest book, The Art of Healing: Uncovering Your Inner Wisdom and Potential for Self-Healing is available in time for holiday shopping. If you already own some of his books, then today’s interview will underline the unique nature of this new book. Among other things: Hey, it’s fun! This new book is packed with lots of material about Bernie’s long-standing work on visualization, symbols, drawings—and good humor.

Ancient inspiration: The faith-and-health connection stretches back thousands of years to the founders of the world’s great faiths and to the physicians of ancient Greece and Rome. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Muslim leaders were pioneers in founding hospitals. The first major Islamic hospital was established in 707 in Syria—with Christian assistance. In Europe by the later Middle Ages, Christian religious orders drew on both ancient Roman and newer Islamic ideas to establish their own hospitals. Flash forward to 18th-century America and Shakers were among the many new religious movements to connect health and religion. By the late 19th century, advocates like Seventh-day Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg were changing the way all Americans thought about food, faith and health.

A new wave of scholars: It should have come as no surprise, in the late 1970s, when famous journalist Norman Cousins dropped the first of his bombshell books about the importance of what amounted to spiritual awareness, coupled with nutrition, in combating serious medical problems. Among Cousins’ famous words of advice? Teach yourself to laugh! And, in Bernie Siegel’s new book, there’s a whole section on that discipline of humor. (Care to read more right now? Our weekly WeAreCaregivers section has an excerpt of Bernie’s chapter on laughter.)

Of course, Cousins was greeted with skepticism—and even scorn from some critics who felt the brilliant Editor of The Saturday Review had lost his mind. What those critics didn’t understand was the ancient connections under-girding Cousins’ insights—and the growing circle of spiritual pioneers among serious scientists. By the 1980s, Harvard’s Dr. Robert Coles was publishing landmark studies of the moral and spiritual lives of children, complete with interpretive drawings—much as Bernie Siegel recommends to readers in a fresh way in this new book. Soon, Dr. Larry Dossey was writing about the relationship between faith and wellness, as well. In 1986, Bernie Siegel risked his own career by publishing his most important volume, Love, Medicine and Miracles: Lessons Learned about Self-Healing from a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients.

One key distinction in this new wave of scholars—including books by Coles, Dossey and Bernie Siegel—is that these experts are not selling any specific religious creed. They’re not “faith healers.” In fact, all of them, including Bernie Siegel, warn that some religious doctrines may actually be barriers to healing.


DAVID CRUMM: There are a lot of faith healers out there and I want to clearly distinguish your work, for our readers, as standing in a long tradition of serious, scientifically based inquiries into the healing power of spiritual disciplines. So—before we get to the fun stuff—let’s start with your critique of some religious leaders. For example, you’re outspoken in criticizing various popes from the 1800s to today for, all too often, condemning the newest medical advances out of hand. In your view, there is too much of a conservative backlash against scientific developments—coupled with an unfortunate tendency to say that suffering is the will of God.

Dr Bernie S Siegel MD author of The Art of HealingDR. BERNIE SIEGEL: Let me use an interview with Billy Graham as an example. I remember this because his response was so striking to me. He was asked, “Does God want me to have cancer?” And Billy Graham’s first words were, “Not necessarily.”

DAVID: To be fair to Billy, he tells people that they need to take care of their bodies. He tells people that they should pray and follow a doctor’s advice—and he does both of those things himself. But your basic point is on target: Billy has strongly emphasized the importance of praying to God for healing—and he isn’t as clear as you are about the need to seek out the best in medical care.

BERNIE: Well, when Billy Graham was asked that question and the first words out of his mouth were, “Not necessarily,” I thought: That’s wrong! The answer should have been a clear, “No.” He should have said, “No, God doesn’t want you to have cancer.” In that interview, he went on to tell people that sometimes God uses disease to wake us up. And, that’s encouraging people to have that old guilt response to illness—the blame response. To me, that’s not what good religion should be telling people. We need to start by telling people that God built healing potential into everything. We need to say clearly: Disease is not a punishment.

DAVID: You’re right. There still is an over-emphasis on guilt and blame in many of the common religious responses to illness.

BERNIE: I look back to Maimonides, who gave us a lot of good advice. Here’s an example: Let’s say you go to your house of worship and, when the services are over, you walk into the parking lot—but you can’t find your car keys. Does that mean God wants you to walk home? No, most people don’t believe that. They go back and search everywhere for their keys. Well, Maimonides said the same thing about healing: “If you’ve lost your health—look for it.”


DAVID: You’ve explained that your study of religion and spirituality is not aimed at conversion or preaching—but is a part of your broad scientific inquiry into connections that can help people.

BERNIE: I always say I live by my experience, not by beliefs. I keep learning. I have studied religion to help understand the lives and the experiences of my patients. A sentence that changed my life was when a patient said to me: “I need to know how to live between office visits.” That got me started on this whole process of helping people learn how to live.

This is practical. I call this whole process: looking for common themes. If I discover something that’s helpful to a person, and then I encounter this same thing in someone else’s writings—perhaps in a novel or in the Bible or in some other writings—then I can see a larger connection. I am continually observing the world, continually reading, too. And in novels, plays, books, and images people are putting out into the world all of these things that they have observed about the world. When we can make connections in what we are observing, then we can begin to realize truths that are being spoken to us.

DAVID: When you and writers like Norman Cousins and Larry Dossey began publicizing these ideas, there were lots of detractors. Now, there’s a lot of research about the role of emotions and relationships in healing. In other words—today, you’re on what seems to be more solid ground with readers. Is that fair to say?

BERNIE: Years ago, remember, nobody thought that a support group could possibly help anyone. Now, we know that support groups truly do help people. Relationships benefit our health. Yes, there now is a lot of good research behind this. We’ve studied a lot of things that, when I started, nobody was advocating. For example, we know that, for many people, even having a dog in the house can positively affect your health.

We now have studies that show how loneliness affects genes and the control of our immune functions. So, we now know that loneliness is a factor in disease. When we begin making connections, it may not be science at that point—but we can do research over time and some of the connections we make may become science.

I talk about making the invisible visible. Years ago, Ernest Holmes wrote about this.

Here’s an example: From the Bible, we know that God speaks in dreams and images. Today, many people know that there is value in using images, including drawings and dreams, to learn more about what are bodies are saying to us. You may think that your body can’t speak to you—but it actually can speak to you when you go to bed at night and you dream. Your body can create many images for you. We know that, in this process, colors may have meaning. Images have meaning. One thing I love about this new book is that I was able to reproduce so many full-color drawings in the middle of the book. You can really see what I’m talking about in that section of the book on patients’ drawings.


DAVID: In your career as a pediatric surgeon, you often used techniques that I associate with Dr. Robert Coles and others—giving children a pack of crayons and asking them to draw pictures for you.

BERNIE: Drawings can reveal the truth for that person. I did a lot of children’s surgery and, yes, a child would say a lot to me through these pictures. We’ve got 70 full-color pictures in the book and I explain them. One thing I would ask a child is: Will you draw your home? Will you draw your family? One of the pictures in the book was drawn by a child with cancer. She draws this long sofa and her family is sitting there with arms wrapped around each other. We can see that there’s another space on the sofa—there’s room for the girl, but instead she’s drawn sitting on a chair, separate from her family. This child is saying, “I don’t get enough time with my family.”

I showed this drawing to her family and that made a big difference. They told me later: “Thank you for your help with that drawing, because we devoted a lot more time to her.” Using drawings often let me get in touch with inner wisdom. We have an intuitive, unconscious awareness of what we need, but often we’re not able to express it. This girl’s drawing told her family something very important about their relationship.


DAVID: You’ve got a whole section of your book called Laugh Out Loud. I think it’s one of the best portions of the book—in fact, it’s a good reason to buy this new book even if you’ve got other Bernie Siegel books already on the shelf. I really like the way you explain the importance of laughter and good humor in general. And, you point out that this isn’t just a matter of good intentions—this really can lead to improved health.

BERNIE: This is not beyond science. There is chemistry behind what happens within a person during laughter. When people are battling a disease, laughter helps.

DAVID: Let me read a couple of lines from that chapter in which you salute Norman Cousins: “In Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Norman Cousins wrote a fascinating account of his self-induced healing-by-laughter from a diagnosed condition, ankylosing spondylitis. When his doctor gave him a 1-in-500 chance of recovery, Cousins checked himself into a hotel, watched Candid Camera tapes, and laughed, day after day. Choosing to use humor as his medicine, rather than react to his fear and do nothing, is the sign of an optimist—a survivor.”

BERNIE: I have made laughter a part of my therapy as a doctor for a long time. Imagine doing surgery on children every week, which was my specialty. I found that laughter was very distracting. When you laugh, you can’t be afraid. I did this in lots of ways. I would play nursery rhymes in the operating room and the whole room would relax because everybody in the room would regress as we listened.

DAVID: This kind of pioneering work you have pursued for so many years—it took a lot of courage. You and Norman Cousins and Larry Dossey—everyone in this field—weathered a lot of criticism along the way. But it’s a basic part of your own spiritual orientation that pushes you onward, right?

BERNIE: Here’s a workshop question I’ve used through the years: I ask people, “If you could be God for a day, why would you want to be God?” And some people will say: So I can do this. Or, so I can fix that. But the ultimate response? The best answer to my workshop question? It’s when people say: “So I can understand: Why?” That’s the ultimate question we need to keep asking: “Why?” That comes from the Baal Shem Tov and many other great spiritual teachers. We are here to live and learn—to keep asking: “Why?”

I just keep working with people and learning—and that’s why I like the word “potential.” We mentioned Ernest Holmes before and this comes through in his writing, as well. He asked the question in The Science of Mind: “What if Jesus was the only normal person who ever lived?” Of course, Holmes had to be smiling when he wrote that. He was writing about potential. We need to be helping people to reach their potential. We know that, when we give the human body the message that we really do want to live—that we want to restore injury and live—the results are amazing.

It’s so important to remember: When you’ve lost your health—keep looking for it.

Care to read more?

In our WeAreCaregivers section, this week, we’ve got a short excerpt from Bernie Siegel’s chapter ‘Laugh Out Loud.’ You’re sure to enjoy it!

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)