Faith Healing

Doctors are turning to churches for help education the blakc community about health risks such as diabetes and heart disease


The church, long a bedrock for movements in the black community, has been called upon once more to deliver the people. The promised land this time is one where blood pressure and cholesterol levels are down, doctors are visited regularly and new cases of chronic illnesses are kept to a minimum.

Recognizing the pulpit as a means to mobilize large numbers, doctors and health organizations are seeking to educate congregations about diseases that disproportionately affect blacks.

The prevalence of high blood pressure among U.S. blacks is the highest in the world, for example, and they have twice the risk of a first-time stroke as do whites, according to the American Stroke Association. More than 3.2 million blacks older than 20 have been diagnosed since 2002 with diabetes - a rate nearly twice that of whites, says the American Diabetes Association. Of all racial and ethnic groups in the United States, blacks have the highest mortality rate from all cancers combined, according to the American Cancer Society.

In collaboration with religious leaders, the Association of Black Cardiologists recently held its Baltimore SuperWeekend, part of an eight-city national tour. An event at Security Square Mall on a Saturday included free screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, weight and body mass index. Activities continued at several Baltimore-area churches the next day, when pastors delivered mini-sermons about health.

One who brought up health was the Rev. Ronald C. Williams of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. "We kind of put emphasis on it anyway," he said in a phone interview, "because of my wife and her diet."

Williams' wife, Cindy, is a certified fitness instructor and personal trainer who taught an aerobics class at the association's SuperWeekend. The church also offers a "praisercize" class through its dance ministry and teaches a healthy cooking class every year.

Programs on heart disease include St. Agnes Hospital's yearly outreach, Red Dress Sunday, held at churches in February to increase awareness among black women. The American Diabetes Association recently held a summit of Baltimore's black leaders, many of them from churches, to address what it considers to be a diabetes epidemic. The ADA focuses its African-American Initiative on partnering with churches for Diabetes Day and Project Power, a program that assists churches with ways to integrate diabetes awareness into the daily lives of their members.

More than 40 churches participate, said Shawn McIntosh, associate director of the Maryland affiliate of the association. McIntosh hopes to get an additional 30 involved next year.

The state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene aids local faith-based groups through its Health Care Disparities Initiative, which targets several diseases, including HIV/AIDS and cancer.

The initiative receives tobacco restitution funds for its cancer and tobacco use programs.

Their grants are given to community-based minority organizations or those serving minority populations in the state. Five recipients this year were faith-based organizations with grants ranging up to $25,000.

"If you want to get to a community, you have to get to the faith-based," said Arlee W. Gist, deputy director of the state's office of Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Morgan State University's National Center for Health Behavioral Change also addresses health disparities with the $600,000 it received in 2002 from the WK Kellogg Foundation, which focuses on quality of life issues for communities in the United States and abroad.

Center director Dr. Jay Carrington Chunn bases his HIV Prevention Sundays program primarily in black churches.

Lopsided rates

Statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control indicate that blacks accounted for half of the new HIV cases in 2004, although they make up only 13 percent of the population.

During HIV Prevention Sundays, pastors are encouraged to preach about ways to protect against HIV and to distribute test kits, Carrington Chunn said.

More churches are being pushed to connect with health organizations for the benefit of their members. The Rev. Leonard Edloe, a pharmacist from Richmond, Va., gave a presentation for the American Stroke Association two weeks ago at the National Baptist Convention in Baltimore urging fellow pastors to set up health ministries such as the one at his Antioch Baptist Church.

"Too many of us spend hours in prayer for members of our churches and conferences who have had strokes," he said. "Just like God, we want to meet you right where you are, and we want to give our brothers and sisters all over this great nation the tools to help prevent stroke."

Risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

Since hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases are often genetic, strokes can run in families. Edloe lost his mother and uncle to stroke; his father-in-law was also a victim.

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