Ministers' group strives to heal East Baltimore ills

March 22, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

The Rev. Melvin B. Tuggle Jr. insists that East Baltimore preachers always have delivered sermons as eloquent as anyone's and that their congregations have been just as strong as any. But, he says, the politically powerful pulpits were on the west side of town.

"Most of the clergy in East Baltimore went along with the decisions of West Baltimore preachers," says Mr. Tuggle, pastor of Garden of Prayer Baptist Church.

Not anymore, he says.

Mr. Tuggle, 44, and other ministers of his generation in East Baltimore decided to take charge five years ago after becoming distressed by surging poverty, crime and inadequate health care among many of the 151,000 people living in the area's 44 census tracts.

After a meeting with Councilman Carl Stokes, they formed CURE -- Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore -- as "the voice of God in the community." In its five years, CURE has used political muscle and persuasion to open three health clinics, provide breast-cancer screening for more than 900 women and assemble a safety patrol armed only with walkie-talkies and the word of God.

Its seven-point master plan seeks to spread evangelism, education, economic development, improved health, counseling, prison ministry and crime prevention in its communities.

The group has forged a relationship with Johns Hopkins Hospital. Mr. Tuggle says the world-renowned research institution had isolated itself from a community starved for medical care. Now, Hopkins' Center for Community Health Promotion brings the institution's resources to CURE programs.

Dr. Diane M. Becker, director of Hopkins' Center for Health Promotion and a co-founder of the CURE health program, which is called Heart, Body and Soul, says the East Baltimore community around Hopkins had mistrusted the hospital. But she said the institution needs the community and recently has made a concerted effort to reach out to its neighbors.

"We don't want to be a fortress," Dr. Becker says. "And I think this institution has made major steps outside of its boundaries to work with the community."

Hospital supplies volunteers

She says the hospital supplies 24 medical students and four nursing students who work as volunteers in CURE facilities to complete their course requirements.

The Heart, Body and Soul project has emerged as the most visible part of CURE. The program is controlled by ministers at 150 East side churches who help spread the word about the health services. It is operated with Hopkins' resources.

One beneficiary of the health-care program is Mary E. Allen, a 55-year-old diabetic who gets her blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked at CURE's Oliver Prevention Center. The facility has a sterile-looking health room and small waiting area in the Oliver Multi-Purpose Center, staffed by nurses and counselors.

Mrs. Allen says she and her husband cannot afford health insurance.

"I appreciate this," says Mrs. Allen, whose home is within walking distance. "Sometimes I don't feel too well, but not bad enough to go to the hospital, so I come here for a checkup. If you come here and you've got a problem, they will help you some kind of way."

Dorothea Mayo, 68, says she also comes to the center because of its convenience. When she can't get to the doctor for health screenings, she says, "This is the next best thing."

Those words please the Rev. Marshall Prentice, president of CURE, whose organization began its health mission after seeing figures showing high cancer rates in East Baltimore.

At the Oliver Center recently, nurse director Kellie E. Hall took a woman's blood pressure while another nurse tested the cholesterol level of a middle-aged man.

Mr. Prentice says counselors advise patients and persuade them to return to the centers regularly to monitor their health. The program, which has obtained more than $6 million in grants and awards in five years, has 32 staff members, 16 trained neighborhood health workers and 300 trained volunteers.

"What we've discovered is that if we can educate people about their problems we can prevent a reoccurrence of those problems," says Mr. Prentice, who is soft-spoken except when he's delivering fiery sermons to his congregation at Zion Baptist Church. "People won't have to go back to the emergency room."

CURE operates health fairs at churches. In addition to blood pressure and cholesterol tests, it furnishes a range of services that includes screening or care for vision, diabetes, tuberculosis and substance abuse. It also provides immunization to children.

The Heart, Body and Soul project has provided breast-cancer screenings to 906 women and is trying to find money for prostate cancer tests.

Last month, the health project was selected from a pool of 65 applicants worldwide for an award from the San Francisco-based Healthcare Forum, which honors community efforts to improve health and quality of life.

Campaigned against Norplant

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