By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Two years ago, Arthur Johns of Charlotte, North Carolina, was paying a heavy price for indulging in his mother-in-law’s deep-fried dinners and rich desserts. At 6-foot-2 and 476 pounds, the 51-year-old relied on blood-pressure pills and insulin shots to keep him alive.

“The Dick Gregory Diet, SlimFast: everything you could think of doing, I tried it, but nothing stuck,” Johns said. “The one thing I never did was to pray about it, to ask God to direct me to stay consistent, to work out, to change my eating habits, and have the sense to rest.”

Today he’s 200 pounds lighter and insulin-free. His blood pressure is under control, too. He’s done it with a three-pronged approach: improved diet, more activity, and an acclaimed church-based program that uses faith and friends to keep him on track.

“You have other people who practice the same things, share the same beliefs, and want to bring people back to God,” Johns said. “And you all realize you can’t do it if you’re unhealthy, out-of-shape, or out-of-breath.”

His church, Ben Salem Presbyterian, is one of 85 Mecklenburg County churches enrolled in a county-funded initiative called Village HeartBEAT. It uses friendly competition to drive down heart disease risk factors among Hispanics and African Americans. Strong results earned Village HeartBEAT a $25,000 Healthiest Cities award in January. Last year, more than half of its participants lost weight, reduced blood sugar levels, and lowered blood pressure, said Melicia Whitt-Glover, program evaluator and CEO of Gramercy Research.

The success of Charlotte’s faith-based approach is being noticed. It’s now part of a prototype that the World Council of Churches is developing for use among faith communities worldwide. It’s also part of a burgeoning movement in the United States to make disease prevention a larger part of church life.

“There is great potential in mobilizing church communities into a global movement that promotes healthy lifestyles and disease prevention,” said Dr. Mwai Makoka, program executive for health and healing at the WCC, via email after visiting Charlotte to observe Village HeartBEAT in February. “Health talks and health activities should be part and parcel of the life of churches.”

Behavioral changes are essential, experts say, for thwarting common killers such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Cultivating change is never easy. It’s especially difficult when culturally cherished foods lead to clogged arteries and medical institutions are not well-trusted to intervene. But promising research shows that churches can make life-improving and life-saving gains when other types of institutions fail.

The needs are urgent in America, where 37 percent of adults are at heightened risk for disease due to obesity, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hispanics are almost twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with diabetes. African-Americans experience higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes than whites, according to an October report from the American Heart Association. They also die more frequently from heart attacks and strokes.

“We need to find ways to create a culture of health in the African-American community and prioritize a healthy lifestyle to prevent heart disease,” said Dr. Mercedes Carnethon, associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, in a statement.

Such cultures of health can take root in churches, according to AHA reports and academic studies. In 10 studies, 70 percent of interventions among African-Americans in faith-based settings resulted in weight loss, according to a 2014 research survey in the journal Obesity Reviews.

“We have to meet people where they are,” said Kelsie Lancaster, a New York University nutritionist and lead author of the Obesity Reviews article. “It’s worth putting more funds in to try to scale it up” and expand successful faith-based programs.

But in many religious traditions, health ministries still struggle to gain traction. The Episcopal Church is no exception. It has no national staff dedicated to physical health ministries. Episcopal Health Ministries, a volunteer group to support health programs in congregations, shut down last April for an indefinite term to seek a new structure and funding model. EHM did not respond to requests for comment.

What’s more, Episcopal congregations have not traditionally focused on health, according to Scott Stoner, co-founder of Living Compass, a wellness ministry that provides training and other types of support for individuals and congregations.

To focus on health and wellness ministries “is something that’s relatively new in the Episcopal Church,” Stoner said. “In some ways, we’re filling a vacuum.”

Recently more health ministries have been emerging. But figuring out how to meet local needs remains a work in progress.

In La Porte, Texas, a hardscrabble city of 33,000 southeast of Houston, St. John’s Church launched the Living Compass Wellness Center last year after a survey found city residents would appreciate new supports for healthy living. Now cooking demonstrations teach kids and parents how to prepare nutritious meals. A fitness program introduces adults to yoga, dance, and tai chi, among other activities to encourage movement. All programs are either low-cost or free.

Six months in, the center’s afterschool program is well-attended, in part because it builds on a 20-year tradition of offering free afterschool care at St. John’s. But new types of programming have been slower to resonate. Sometimes the church offers a health-related class and no one shows up.

Health-related programming “isn’t deeply reaching into the community because, contrary to our experience of data-gathering, the uptake on the offerings does not quite parallel the request,” said the Rev. Viktoria Gotting, rector of St. John’s. But she expects participation to increase with time.

“We are getting started in a depressed, depleted, marginalized refinery Port of Houston community where this kind of thing represents a cultural shift,” Gotting said. “We expect it will take a while, and we’ve just not been at it long enough.”

Other churches’ initiatives often build on a parish nursing model. Nurses, who often belong to the congregation, provide basic health services such as blood-pressure screenings in a parish setting. Among their goals is to detect health conditions that had previously gone undetected.

It is not always a tough sell. When St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California, has offered annual blood-pressure screenings since the 1990s, with monthly screenings since 2014; the parish’s volunteer health ministry set up sidewalk tables to raise awareness of the opportunity. Since then, word has spread. A cancer workshop was packed. Those who need to become more active have social supports, including a walking group.

“A lot of people don’t like to have a whole lot of information about their personal lives written down,” said Omowale Fowles, president of the health ministry at St. Paul. “In having the church sanction this in a positive way, it does encourage those who would be less likely to want to go . They go simply because the church or the pastor says, This is a good thing.”

In the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, a new push is underway to drive down risk factors among Hispanics. Earlier this year, a new bilingual coordinator was hired to lead the campaign. And for the first time in about 10 years, the diocese convened a parish nursing training conference in March to equip churchgoers with nursing backgrounds.

The focus is on reaching out to families, including farmworkers, who are underserved by America’s healthcare system. Many are at heightened disease risk because of culturally conditioned, high-cholesterol diets. Learning to eat differently while still honoring cultural heritage can be part of their parish lives, said Roxanna Stevens, co-coordinator of health ministries for the diocese.

But, she adds, people need to hear the message from those of their culture for it to engender lasting change.

This became clear when a California health-outreach program asked if it might achieve better results in a parish setting. A Hispanic nun led the program at a local parish, and women were the first to embrace it. Then their husbands started joining them at nutrition classes.

“Everybody in that community started looking at eating differently and exploring different ways to exercise,” Stevens said. “We discovered that the only way for that to work is to have [a leader] from the Hispanic community who is well-respected.”

In Charlotte, health ministries have caught fire with $200,000 in help from Mecklenburg County, which creates resources such as free gym access and training for parishioners to lead health workshops. Participating churches assemble teams of 10, plus four alternates. They benchmark their biometric risk factors (blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight readings) and try to make the biggest gains for their team in 16 weeks. Clergy and fellow parishioners cheer them, strive to improve their own numbers, and take part in community fitness events. This year’s tally of 85 participating churches is up from 28 last year.

Johns said he benefits from being part of an accountability group and having friends constantly encourage him.

“You have somebody behind you saying, Did you work out today? What did you eat? Did you drink water?” Johns said. “Every Sunday, when my minister sees me, he says, Man, you lost more weight! You look awesome! That’s a good feeling.”

Such encouraging dynamics are by design. At Rockwell African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Charlotte, Pastor Jordan Boyd says positive reinforcement makes the difference. Parishioners hear from the pulpit how honoring the body honors the Creator. In testimonies, they hear brothers and sisters tell how they feel better after shedding pounds. For Lent this year, everyone is giving up the one food they find most appetizing. If they stumble, Boyd does not frame their setback as sin.

“The old-school thought of the church was that sin was the driving force to make people change,” Boyd said. “But now I’ve seen that same kind of message drive people into a depression where they just throw their hands up and say to heck with it. So now we keep saying, You can do it! You fall down, no problem. Get back up. Keep trying.”

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