Alexander Rödlach, PhD, SVD, associate professor of anthropology and psychiatry, discovered the importance of his field while serving as a missionary in Zimbabwe. Now, as a medical anthropologist, his ministry has changed a bit – but it is still ministry all the same. Those letters “SVD” behind his name indicate that Rödlach is an ordained priest in a Catholic missionary congregation, the Divine Word Missionaries. Founded by a German priest, this order brings services and the message of the Gospel to the poor in places around the world.
Following his ordination, Rödlach was tasked with starting a new parish near Bulawayo, an urban center in Zimbabwe. He had studied theology and learned one of the local languages, but something was still missing from his toolbox. Pastors immersed in a culture different from their own need ways to help them understand that culture, he realized. Anthropology, he explains, “trains you to observe and analyze,” and pastors who learn those skills can tailor their ministry to the people they serve.
The unique perspective that anthropology provides to missionaries and pastors, he found, is also key for anyone involved in health care. That’s what led Rödlach to medical anthropology, which seems to complement his natural curiosity, compassion and faith. Every project is guided by a profound question – “Is what I’m doing useful to alleviating human suffering?” For him, it’s about examining what happens at the intersection of faith, health and culture. “I am interested in health and healing, and I am a priest,” he says. “For me, this closes the circle.”
Culture and Community
After completing his training in medical anthropology in the U.S., Rödlach returned to Zimbabwe to tackle one of the complications he’d observed. When deeply ingrained cultural attitudes confront modern health challenges, some things get lost in translation. He worked closely with a local administrator in the public health system to research how cultural perceptions of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis affected patients’ responses to services. His findings corrected some of the false assumptions of program directors. They changed their practices accordingly, helping more patients get treatment. Though in some ways he was an outsider looking in, he had observed the culture and worked with insiders to ensure a response that was both effective and empathetic.
In Omaha, Rödlach trained his research lens onto a rather unassuming health care environment: faith community nursing. A colleague told him about a group of nurses and other volunteers that provided free health care for those in need in the evenings at its downtown church. Rödlach wondered if these volunteers, working in an informal setting with few resources, could really have an impact.
Through a grant from CHI Health, Rödlach surprised himself when he found that these services indeed had an impact on the physical and social health of participants. Services like free blood pressure screenings alerted individuals to health issues that otherwise might have gone undetected – saving money on ER visits, saving time spent in the hospital, and allowing earlier treatment, leading to better health outcomes. One theme that emerged through the project was the importance of community – when people participated in health activities as an extension of their faith community, they were motivated to hold each other accountable and to support each other.
For and With Others
For Rödlach, community is part of all of his research. “I don’t just cook up something in my office and say, I want to study this,” he emphasizes. “Rather, I join a community and we partner, we develop a project together.” Anthropologists call this “participatory action research” – wherein researchers and community members bring their respective skills and expertise together for the betterment of all.
In one example, a pastor from Lexington in rural Nebraska called Rödlach on the phone. When the meatpacking industry opened plants in the town, immigrants and refugees moved to the area to fill many of the job openings. Suddenly, the demographics of the once-homogeneous small town changed. In this unprecedented climate, the pastor wondered, how should we plan for our church’s future? Rödlach, his colleague the Rev. Renzo Rosales, SJ, and a team of 10 undergraduate students went to Lexington and stayed with families to learn about their community and conduct extensive interviews. The research yielded answers that were equally challenging and simple: In sum, the parish should focus on building a community with their new neighbors before trying to plan what services the parish might provide in the future.
Rödlach’s work shows that empathy and compassion can complement scholarly rigor. Locally, he continues to work on research with the Karenni people, refugees originally from Myanmar, some of whom have been resettled in Omaha. He employs the same participatory action research approach, working closely with community members to understand their values, concerns and hopes. His latest research aims to identify ways in which social factors predict successful resettlement for refugees.
Competence and Compassion
From urban Zimbabwe to rural Nebraska, how do anthropologists engage with such different cultures? Rödlach stresses the importance of cultural competence – individuals “can never know about every culture, but we can learn skills that help us deal with similarities and differences” within and among cultures. In fact, Rödlach recently co-wrote a publication for missionaries who, like him, have found themselves immersed in a new culture for the first time and in need of guidance.
Still, Rödlach says his main goal is not to speak primarily to his peers. It’s about making anthropology part of the conversation about alternatives in health care, education and politics. It’s changing health policy for the better. That includes educating the next generation. Working with students is part of his ministry, too: “If we can show students that we are part of something larger than ourselves, that our choices are not one-dimensional, we help students become better global citizens.”
Learn more about Rödlach’s scholarly background in his expert profile.