A public health response

By Jason Miller

November 25, 2019

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On Nov. 10, 2019, two Mennonite church youth groups in Newton, Kansas hosted a Sunday lunch fundraiser. Two congregations brought together freshly roasted pork, baked beans, a few salads, and a variety of desserts.

Overnight, a few folks who had experienced ‘gastrointestinal distress’ spoke up on the church Facebook page. “Did anyone else have the same experience?” Talking about diarrhea with your church family isn’t the most comfortable conversation, but the victims were immediately taken seriously, and people began to develop an appropriate public health response.

After the appeal on Facebook revealed a clear pattern indicating food poisoning, but no obvious culprit, church leaders took additional actions:

  • One leader emailed the other church to warn them of the problem and to see if anyone got sick in their congregation.
  • The church’s health team reached out personally to the most vulnerable and likely to be at risk—the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
  • The church office made a public announcement: “After assessing the number of folks who experienced symptoms of food poisoning , the decision was made yesterday to report the concern to the county health department. The Harvey County Health Department has referred this issue to the state health department. The Kansas Department of Health would like a stool sample to test to help determine the cause. Many thanks and wishes for your good health!”
  • Later in the week, the church office followed up with a second announcement: “As part of the investigation into Sunday’s food poisoning event, the health department would like anyone who attended the meal on Sunday to fill out the questionnaire below regardless of whether you got sick or not.”

As the process rolled out over the next week, attention focused first on care and support for the victims, and then the priority shifted to preventing another food poisoning episode like this. In the midst of the expressions of concern, the topic never turned to, “Whose fault was this?” Informal conversations and the investigation revealed several potential areas of concern:

  • “Was the meat properly cooked?” The Kansas wind may have made it difficult to keep the fire hot during the hog roast.
  • “Was the meat and other food stored properly?” The refrigerators in the church kitchen have been struggling to maintain cold temperatures recently.
  • “Were the ovens hot enough when the meat was reheated?” The finicky church ranges seem to have a mind of their own.
  • “Is the dishwasher properly sanitizing?” Maybe something got passed around on water glasses or other church dishes.

The investigation continues, but some actions are already being taken to help prevent this from happening again. Church leaders approved buying new kitchen ranges with reliable ovens, as well as a selection of thermometers for checking temperatures. The refrigerators will be watched closely and replaced if there are any issues. The health team will evaluate food safety procedures with the hospitality team, and everyone will happily participate in any necessary training to learn how to prevent this problem in the future.

Food poisoning and ‘gastrointestinal distress’ are facts of life and could happen again, but this example represents a very good response to a public health concern. As a result, it is much less likely to happen at either of these local congregations in the future.

Imagine if Bethel College, BCMC, or KIPCOR had used this kind of public health response when they were notified that there were multiple complaints of sexual violence by Ted Mueller. Imagine if church and college leaders chose to take this approach today. What would that look like? This is not to imply that diarrhea and sexual violence exist in the same category, but rather that the leaders in these situations choose the tone and the priorities of their institutions’ responses. The church leaders in the food poisoning incident prioritized the perspectives and needs of those who were most affected and most vulnerable. Protecting the institutions came later.

There is no perfect response to sexual violence, no one-size-fits-all approach. Responding to sexual violence, especially in a situation with the history, complexity, and conflicts of interest like the one involving Ted Mueller, takes experience and expertise. A public health response is just one of multiple good models for responding.

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?

Luke 15:4

Things to look for:

  • Do leaders believe the victims? Because of the strong research on the myth of false allegations now available, we believe the reports of victims. Our confidence is built upon substantial empirical (not anecdotal) evidence that indicates a 92-98% likelihood that persons reporting are telling the truth. Read more of that research here and here.
  • Does the response focus on victims, especially the most vulnerable? Does every statement and action make it easier for victims to tell their stories and receive care?
  • Are the statements and actions focused on transparency and finding the truth? Victims of food poisoning aren’t interested in what your lawyer thinks about diarrhea. The churches in the story above could have chosen to focus on avoiding lawsuits, in which case their responses would have looked dramatically different.
  • Are experts involved in the response? Pastors aren’t trained to respond to congregational food poisoning, and college presidents aren’t trained to respond to sexual predators. Are the experts trusted by the victims, survivors, and their advocates?
  • Is there an investigation, with the goals of figuring out what went wrong, correcting the mistakes, and preventing the problem from happening again?
  • At the end of the investigation, is there clear communication, which must include these three things?:
    • Genuine acknowledgment and apology for any institutional negligence and/or wrongdoing.
    • A pledge to do better.
    • A plan, based on input from survivors, for moving forward.

For a recent example of an excellent response from a Mennonite educational institution, modeling many of these points, see “AMBS response to Hilary Scarsella,” by Pres. Sara Wenger Shenk, June 11, 2019.

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