Our Roots: The Boston Healing Landscape Project

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Over the past forty years, the medical landscape of the U.S. has changed in radical ways. All major cities and many rural areas now include not only biomedical resources, but also culturally diverse and often religiously based approaches to healing. In Boston, for example, Vietnamese monk shamans, Haitian mambos and oungans, Episcopalian healing services, Cuban santeros, Puerto Rican espiritistas and Pentacostal faith healers, African American root doctors, Irish charismatic priests, and Chinese herbalist-acupuncturists are all within blocks of each other, and of some of the leading biomedical teaching hospitals in the nation.

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The Boston Healing Landscape Project, located in the Department of Family Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, has since 2001 been examining how the therapeutic landscape of the U.S. has changed in corresponding ways. This richly textured world of healing represents the new face of culturally and religiously grounded complementary and alternative medicine in America. It confronts the medical community with the challenge of shaping a positive response to the multiple approaches to healing being pursued by patients and their families. The Boston Healing Landscape Project has documented examples of these changes, with Boston as its field site. We study, too, how these traditions are changing on American soil. We explore how their presence is transforming our understanding of religions, medicines, and healing in the United States.

To date, we have focused on the African Diaspora communities of Boston, although we have begun to map other cultural communities as well. The Boston communities of African descent include African Americans, immigrants from Haiti, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Brazil, as well as from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Cape Verde, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Sudan, and other African countries. These communities are religiously diverse, representing such traditions as Catholicism, different Protestant denominations, Islam, traditional African religions, and Buddhism. Within each of these communities and traditions, new and old ways of healing are cultivated alongside biomedical care.

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Through the collaborative engagement of a group of physicians, religion scholars, anthropologists, sociologists, students, and community intellectuals and practitioners, we work across disciplinary boundaries toward a vision of health care that draws on the best insights of each of these groups, to transform practice.

What we learn is being integrated into education across the curriculum at Boston University School of Medicine, with the objective of contributing to cross-cultural understanding in the world of healthcare. It has been integral to the curriculum of the Masters Program in Medical Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Practice through the school’s Division of Graduate Medical Sciences. The MACCP also grows out of the methods that we at the BHLP employ in our work.

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We believe that what we do represents the unprecedented introduction of a highly focused approach to the applied study of world religions into the training of medical anthropologists, advocates, and clinicians. We envision the emergence of educators and practitioners better prepared to move across boundaries, negotiate interventions and outcomes, and serve as cross-cultural interpreters enriched by each other’s insights and experience. Our data is also being disseminated to broader public arenas through this website, reports to the communities being studied, national conferences, and published work, where we hope that it will also contribute to the work of scholars of religion, medical anthropology, and public health.

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