The debate over the validity of faith and prayer-facilitated ‘healings’ has taken place for centuries. The Christian church, arguably the pillar of most Black communities, is a place where support is given to the ailing and their families. However, some parishioners take the faith-driven words of their pastor and translate hopeful messages into ultimatums, i.e. believing that to visit the doctor regularly means to forfeit your trust in God. They daily ignore their symptoms and rely solely on their faith.

In May of this year, Jacqueline Crank and Ariel Ben Sherman were found guilty of neglect in the death of Jacqueline’s daughter Jessica in 2002. The fifteen-year-old Tennessee girl developed a tumor on her shoulder after she, her sibling and her mother moved into a living facility with other parishioners from their church and Sherman – their “spiritual father.” When Jessica’s tumor was noticed, Sherman advised Jacqueline to rely solely on prayer. In this case, Knox News reported that any medical intervention would not have prevented the teenager’s death. In Tennessee, state law allows a parent to choose faith over medicine provided that parent is adherent to the doctrine of a “recognized church or denomination,” though the law is unclear on what constitutes a “recognized” religion.

However, some parts of the country are far stricter when reliance on faith healing results in death or increased suffering for a child. In 2011, Oregon Live reported that a premature baby born to Dale and Shannon Hickman was anointed with oil, as his parents waited for divine intervention on his behalf. Baby David lived less than nine hours and the Hickmans were subsequently charged with second-degree manslaughter.

The same year, another Oregon couple, Timothy and Rebecca Wyland, was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 3 years probation for refusing proper medical care for their infant daughter. The reason– they were members of the Followers of Christ Church, a faith-healing institution that strictly shuns conventional medicine. While many can attest to the power of prayer, studies show that leaning on faith and faith alone to heal can be quite dangerous. According to the American Cancer Society, in “172 cases of deaths among children treated by faith healing instead of conventional methods…Researchers estimated that if conventional treatment had been given, the survival rate for most of these children would have been more than 90 percent…”

At the Wyland’s sentencing, the judge’s statement sums up the harmony that needs to occur between prayer and prevention: “Your prayers should complement, not compete with proper medical care,” said Clackamas County Circuit Judge Jeffrey S. Jones.

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