Community Health|September 2, 2012 8:00 AM

Preaching good health from the pulpit

Some Colorado pastors target obesity and diabetes

Grant Jones, executive director, Center for African-American Health. Photo courtesy of Center for African-American Health.

Rev. Michael O. Minor’s decision to ban fried chicken from his Baptist church was so radical that, eventually the White House heard about it.

And, says Minor, “People started tasting the home cooked flavor of [healthier] grilled and baked chicken and started doing it at home.”

Minor, a pastor from Mississippi, is now part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to battle America’s growing obesity program. He traveled to Colorado this summer, encouraging religious leaders here to take an active role in urging their congregations care for their physical health as they do their spiritual well being.

In some ways, Minor was singing to the choir. Colorado’s population ranks among the healthiest in the nation. On the other hand, one in two residents are overweight or obese, according to LiveWell Colorado.

Rev. Michael O. Minor. Interview by Brent Ratliff

Audio MP3

The Denver-based Center for African-American Health has been reaching out to predominantly black churches for nearly a decade. Executive Director Grant Jones describes how he became inspired, while at a conference of several hundred pastors gathered at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. During his remarks to the group, he noted that he had high blood pressure, and that his parents had as well. He asked the audience how many of them or a close relative had high blood pressure. All the hands went up. He asked the same question about diabetes. Nearly every hand was raised.

“I thought, what if they had asked this, back home, in their church congregations,” Jones said. “It was chilling to me.”

Now, the Center for African-American Health collaborates with 83 churches in the Denver Metro area, including almost all of the large black churches, to bring health programs, screenings and fairs to the congregations.

“The church can be a powerful place to do a number of social programs, not the least of which is promoting health,” Jones said. “There are a lot of churches who are doing important work in their own right.”

Rev. Eugene Downing, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Denver, is one of those churches with a strong faith-based health and wellness initiative. The church offers classes for Zumba dancing, diabetes awareness, healthy cooking and exercise.

“People are taking interest in their health,” Downing said. “[They] are becoming more aware of heart disease and diabetes. In the African-American community, those diseases kill more people than anything.”

Jeremy Shaver, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, says he’s not aware of other coordinated efforts by Colorado religious leaders to focus on physical health. Rather, health programs in other churches and denominations – if they are occurring – are likely being done on an individual basis, he said. In his own northeast Denver church, for example, Shaver’s congregation sponsors a small summer food box program to donate fresh fruits and vegetables to families in need.

A spokeswoman for the Diocese of Pueblo, which encompasses 48,000 square miles from Southern to Western Colorado, says she is knows of one church with a health ministry. St. Columba Parish in Durango has had a monthly program, coordinated by parishioners, in place for 15 or 20 years. Father Jim Koenigsfeld said the program generally consists of a post-Mass lunch with a speaker who talks about a specific health issue, like how people can protect themselves from damaging sun exposure but still get enough Vitamin D, or heart-healthy exercises.

“It’s important for parishioners to get good information for how best to keep their health,” said Koenigsfeld. “The younger set are constantly on the move, mountain climbing and kayaking, and the older generation is into walking. We have a great river walk here in [Durango] and they really enjoy that.”

Though the Center for African-American Health has largely been working with Denver-area churches, the organization recently teamed up with Friendship Baptist Church in Colorado Springs. This month, the church will be sponsoring diabetes awareness classes.

Friendship Baptist’s Pastor Clarence Davis says that to him, spiritual health comprises just one-third of the necessary whole. Physical and emotional wellbeing are also essential for to achieve “genuine health,” he said.

“It is grossly insufficient to preach simply about the afterlife with God,” Davis said. “It doesn’t do the gospel justice, it doesn’t do God justice and it certainly doesn’t do the people who are suffering right now justice. The health of the congregation is essential. That means getting a good grip on diet – what to eat, what not to eat, exercise.”

So is Davis ready to take that step to ban fried chicken from his church entirely? “Oh, not yet. That’s a tough one,” Davis laughed, and shared a story.

“I’m originally from Detroit and years ago my pastor went on this sudden health food kick where he banned all fried food. We were like, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ It was [as shocking] as if he were to have said, ‘Jesus is not Lord.’

“At some point,” Davis concluded, “I will work up to that, and deliver it to my own congregation: Let’s think about being a fried-free zone.”

Brent Ratliff contributed to this report.

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