Faith and health may not be as attached to each other as the thigh bone is connected to the knee bone, but they are linked, La Crosse health expert Brenda Rooney says.

“Most mornings, we put on our (work) name tags and don’t think about our other name tags,” Rooney said Wednesday during a talk at English Lutheran Church in La Crosse, where she is a member.

Addressing the topic of “What Does Faith Have to Do With the Health of Our Community?” provided the opportunity to blend “my career and the significance of what I do here,” said Rooney, co-director of Gundersen Health System’s Community and Preventive Care Services Department.

Rooney’s presentation was part of the La Crosse Interfaith Leaders Coalition’s monthly Community Conversation program.

Praying is a healthy pursuit, just as working to improve the community’s physical health has a prayerful aspect, Rooney said.

The Coulee Region’s faith communities contribute mightily to health initiatives, including the La Crosse Medical Health Science Consortium, she said.

Religious health assets include both tangible and intangible facets, she said.

Tangibles include factors such as hospitals/clinics, support groups, traditional healers, participating in choir, religious education, rituals and social networks among congregations, Rooney said.

The intangibles Rooney listed include prayer, resilience, motivation, health-seeking behavior, advocacy, sense of meaning and belonging and social capital, as well as issues of trust/distrust and faith, hope and love.

Religious motivations are part of the driving force in efforts that helped spawn Wisconsin’s law to make public and business places smoke-free, as well as making 365 rental properties in La Crosse County smoke-free, she said.

The religion-health connection is particularly apparent in the smoke-free rental properties because the vast majority of lower-income people are renters, she said.

Religious factors also helped spur Onalaska’s host drinking ordinance to discourage underage drinking, Farm2School programs to teach children that food comes from farms and not store shelves, the popularity of farmers markets, worksite wellness programs, efforts to provide housing for homeless individuals and other efforts for the common good, said Rooney, chairwoman of the consortium’s Population Health Committee.

Despite improvements, what Rooney described as “wicked problems” remain, including obesity that has decreased but remains a concern, tobacco use that has declined but continues to burn and stress, particularly among college students.

Also speaking was Matthew Bersagel-Braley, associate professor and chairman of Viterbo University’s Servant Leadership Master’s Program, who said religious institutions have social capital that can be spent to boost health.

For example, when the World Health Organization began addressing the problems associated with HIV, it helped that religious leaders helped remove the stigma associated with the virus to improve health outcomes.

Similarly, singing in a choir may not seem to be connected to health, but it releases endorphins that are healthy, Bersagel-Braley said.

Churches often have assets that are hidden because they are not necessarily recognized as contributing to the community’s health, such as meal programs or the Onalaska United Methodist Church’s hosting of a Youth Mental Health First Aid training program on Feb. 18, he said.

The event provided time for attendees to discuss such connections, with examples including:

The Franciscan Spirituality Center’s sponsorship of programs on meditation, yoga and listening. “They are not necessarily faith-based, but they are spiritually based,” said Alice Holstein. “Sometimes we don’t realize what an asset the FSC is.”

Strong Seniors programs meet in several different churches, bringing people together for health and well-being, another participant said.

Other examples of churches’ social capital going to efforts that promote physical health include the fact that Christ Episcopal Church in La Crosse formally partners with The Salvation Army on a financial and volunteer basis, First Lutheran Church in Onalaska has a clothes closet specifically for teens and WAFER President Taylor Haley is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in La Crosse.

Such activities become places where faith and health intersect, Rooney and Bersagel-Braley said.