Churches target diabetes

Health

April 03, 2005|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

The people at St. Stephen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Essex believe their church and other black churches have been called by the spirit to break diabetes' destructive grip on the black community.

Therefore, while St. Stephen still offers that old-time religion - with hymns to warm the soul and a Bible-based message to quench the hunger for spiritual knowledge - its health ministry might also throw in advice on healthy eating and exercise during the service.

"We believe in the total development of a person," says St. Stephen's pastor, the Rev. William Gray III.

"It's not good enough to be spiritual and not take care of the temple God has given you," he adds. "What has been recommended and proven to be best for people's health becomes critical."

That mindset is being shared in churches throughout the Baltimore area, as the cornerstone of the black community is once again coming to the community's defense, using sacred and secular means to combat a disease that, according to the American Diabetes Association, afflicts 2.7 million (11.4 percent) of all African-Americans 20 years of age or older.

Many churches are working in conjunction with the Baltimore-based Maryland office of the ADA, which has programs geared toward African-Americans, including presentations and seminars designed to be held in churches.

"It's a way of reaching out to the life centers of the African-American community to discuss the seriousness of diabetes," says Ben Hunter, program manager of diversity outreach at the ADA Maryland office.

Diabetes affects the body's ability to produce or respond to insulin, a hormone that allows blood sugar to enter the cells of the body to be used for energy.

A healthy diet and exercise are key to preventing and controlling diabetes, which is often the precursor to other serious conditions, such as heart disease, blindness and kidney failure. Yet, a third of African-Americans who have the disease do not know it, the ADA says.

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"People have had this diabetes, but [in the past] it was something you lived with, expected and accepted almost," says the Rev. Robert S. Davis, former pastor at Celebration Church in Columbia, which is now led by his son, Robbie Davis.

For the senior Davis, 65, the diabetes message hits home: Not only does he have the disease, but nine of his 10 siblings have been afflicted - including five sisters who died from diabetes-related illnesses.

The ADA has made it a point to appeal directly to ministers to help spread the word about diabetes, knowing that efforts to reach a congregation without first getting its minister's interest would be futile.

"The way the black church has functioned, the people have pretty much geared themselves to the belief that if the pastor is not pushing it, it's not worth their time," says Davis Sr. "[Getting churches involved] calls [for ministers] to be open to hear and to be involved in these kinds of health issues."

Many ministers make the matter a priority at their church. On Diabetes Day, a 10-minute general presentation about the disease given by a church member who is trained by the ADA.

The ADA's Hunter says that 27 Baltimore-area churches have participated in Diabetes Day since last year. He says that after churches hold a Diabetes Day, which is not a fixed date, the ADA encourages them to implement a program called Project Power, which offers ways to combat diabetes daily.

The program consists of four modules, each to be addressed separately.

"Power Over Diabetes" offers a better understanding of the disease and teaches ways to care for someone with the disease.

"Fit for the Master's Use" stresses importance of physical activity.

"O Taste and See" gives tips on healthy eating.

"A Clean Heart" explores the link between diabetes and heart disease.

The ADA requires that Project Power be administered to churches with at least 125 members, with a minimum of 25 members attending each session.

"The hardest thing is to get a group of people together," says Hunter. "Churches will tell you that it's hard enough to have people come together for church meetings."

Still, many churches are committed to administering the programs.

The Ark Church on East North Avenue held its Diabetes Day two months ago and was scheduling follow-up events. It also plans to distribute a brand of food for people with diabetes: Glucerna snack bars and shakes.

"Let's be honest: People will come as long as you're giving something," says Evelyn Palmer, a member of the church's nurses ministry.

St. Stephen held its Diabetes Day on March 13. It will begin Project Power in July or August.

Celebration Church will have its Diabetes Day on April 10, then begin Power Over Diabetes.

The Columbia church has also begun a health ministry called Good for You, which was initiated in part by church member and wellness instructor Kim Turnbo - a 13-year breast-cancer survivor who changed her diet after her cancer was diagnosed, then shared her interest in healthy eating.

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