2 Baltimore churches challenge each other in health throwdown

A friendly competition between pastors of Baltimore's Empowerment Temple and Bethel AME has turned into fitness inspiration for both congregations

  • Rev. Jamal Bryant, of The Empowerment Temple, joined members of his congregation in a fitness bootcamp.
Rev. Jamal Bryant, of The Empowerment Temple, joined members… (Colby Ware/Photo Special…)
January 11, 2012|By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

It all started with a little bit of good-natured trash talk between the pastors of two of Baltimore's most prominent African-American churches.

The Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple "fell off the wagon" and confesses he wasn't exercising as much as he should. His trainer used that to pump up another client, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III of Bethel AME Church, telling him he was in better shape than the much younger Bryant.

Reid, feeling a little confident, and Bryant, his ego bruised just a bit, then threw out a fitness challenge to one another: Your church against mine. May the best congregation win.

And that's why 40-year-old Bryant, 60-year-old Reid and members of their congregations are spending three days a week in grueling, hourlong sessions led by Monte Sanders, who trains the two pastors as well as Ravens players Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. They do running drills across the gym, jump rope until their shoulders ache and work their abs until they burn.

At the end of 21 days, they'll see which congregation lost the most weight and is the fittest. There's talk of possibly extending the challenge to 90 days. There are cash prizes and, of course, bragging rights.

"I told my members we may have to take it easy on the golden girls of Bethel," said Bryant, whose church attracts a younger, hipper crowd.

The pastors say that along with the good-natured competition, they are addressing serious health problems in the African-American community, which suffers from higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and other ailments than the general population. In Baltimore, 1 in 4 deaths are from heart disease, and it's one of the reasons why the average African-American has a life span five years shorter than the average white person, according to city health statistics.

"Health should be a part of our mission," Reid said. "We want to get to people before they develop heart disease or kidney failure and have become overweight."

Reid and Bryant are hoping to motivate their members to reverse those trends while building a little camaraderie between the two churches.

"If the congregation is not healthy, they will not be able to serve," Bryant said. "It is critical that the church be on the front lines."

Tanya Green-Deshields, a retired teacher who lives in Baltimore, was inspired by the challenge. She was sitting in the pews of Bethel during services one Sunday when the challenge came up.

"As Reverend Reid kept talking about weight and health, I was like, 'Yes, I need to do that,'" she said.

The 64-year-old said she is about 60 pounds overweight and has had two defibrillators implanted in three years. Name a diet, and she has probably tried it — cabbage soup, low carb, and an extreme calorie-restrictive eating plan called the stewardess diet. She has become easily bored in the past with walking a track and other exercise regimes. She hopes that working out with fellow church members will help keep her motivated.

Antonio Walker would like to lose 15 pounds from his 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame. The 37-year-old Baltimore resident, who attends Empowerment Temple, tried to get healthy on his own but couldn't stick with a plan. He's hoping the fitness challenge will give him what he needs to succeed.

"I didn't have any dedication before, but this is making me want to compete," Walker said.

Reid can give his members a firsthand account about the consequences of an unhealthful lifestyle. He had quadruple bypass surgery seven years ago after doctors discovered all the arteries to his heart were clogged. He began exercising, and he traded heavy foods for baked chicken and steamed vegetables.

Reid says he is going to take healthful living a step further this year and adopt a vegan diet, following the same plan used by former President Bill Clinton. He doesn't expect his church members to take such drastic measures.

That's a good thing, said his daughter, 19-year-old Faith, who is participating in the challenge and eating more healthfully. But there are limits.

"I'm thinking about vegetarian, but vegan is stretching it," she said.

At a recent 5:30 a.m. session led by Sanders in the gymnasium at Garrison Forest School, Reid had shed his typical tailored suits for black sweats and an Under Armour skullcap. He trudged his way through sprints, jump-rope sequences and ab work, stopping from time to time to drink from a gallon jug of water. He wasn't the fastest or strongest, but he completed the workout at his own pace.

Bryant prefers the evening sessions at 6:30. During one recent workout, he started to feel the pain. He grimaced as he pulled his body up into a sit-up and yelled out several times to help himself get through it. But he wasn't about to let the workout beat him.

"It was tough, but I made it," he said.

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