Houston faith leaders creating health-conscious congregations
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As more people are recognizing the connection between mind and body health, faith institutions are also preaching a message of better health equals better spirit. More and more houses of worship are doing all sorts of things to facilitate health-conscious congregations. And while some are new to this, others have for decades been true to this.

The Defender was able to speak to some of these health-conscious faith leaders about what they’re doing within their congregations and communities. But first, a word on why creating better health practices is a must for Black people.

BLACK HEALTH BY THE NUMBERS

It is no secret that Blacks are at the negative end of darn near all health outcomes. And though there has been improvement in some areas, the overall state of Black health is horrendous.

Blacks are generally at higher risk than whites for heart diseases, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS according to the Office of Minority Health, part of the Department for Health and Human Services (source: Pfizer.com article “Health disparities among African Americans”).

These numbers should be particularly troubling to Black faith leaders because the diseases listed are more prevalent in older individuals. And according to pewresearch.org, in historically Black protestant churches, 45% of adult congregants are 50-yrs-old or older. Millennials and younger members of Generation X (30-49) make up 36% of members. Those 18-29 make up the remaining 20%.

A Feb. 16, 2021 article published by the Pew Research Center, “Faith Among Black Americans,” revealed that a large chunk Black millennials and Gen Zers don’t attend church, with 33% of Black millennials and 28% of Black Gen Zers falling into the category of “religiously unaffiliated.” For context, only 11% of baby boomers (ages 58 to 76, adjusted for 2022) fall into that category.

Thus, it stands to reason that with more individuals 50 and over, compounded by the higher negative health outcomes for Blacks, make houses of worship seemingly ground zero for individuals battling a myriad of health challenges (seemingly because research shows that persons associated with faith communities on average heal faster from sickness and live longer than individuals unaffiliated with a faith family).

But it’s not just “seniors” who are at risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “African Americans are more likely to die at early ages for all causes,2 as young African Americans are living with diseases that are typically more common at older ages for other races.”

Local board-certified cardiologist, practicing cardiac electrophysiologist and practicing internist with 25 years of experience in private practice, Dr. Baxter Montgomery, has seen this reality firsthand.

“I’m seeing more young adults between 20 and 40 years old with chronic illnesses such as Type-2 Diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, heart failure and heart disease,” said Montgomery.

So, in the health matrix of Blackworld, no one is safe.

Here are more numbers to consider:

  • High blood pressure is common in 12% vs. 10% of Blacks vs. whites aged 18-34 years, respectively. It is common in 33% vs. 22% of those aged 35-49 years, respectively.
  • Diabetes is common in 10% of Blacks aged 35-49 compared to 6% of whites.
  • Stroke is present in 0.7% of Blacks aged 18-34 compared to 0.4% of whites the same age. Stroke is common in 2% of African Americans compared to 1% of whites aged 35-49 and 7% vs. 4%, respectively, in those aged 50-64.

Other issues of note:

  • The CDC, along with countless social scientists, content that social factors adversely impact Blacks at younger ages compared to whites, including unemployment, living in poverty, not owning a home, cost-prohibitive effects of trying to see an MD, smoking, inactive lifestyle, or obesity.
  • A Cigna white paper noted Blacks are 20% more likely than whites to report psychological distress and 50% less likely to receive counseling or mental health treatment.
  • Per the American Cancer Society, Blacks have the highest death rate and shortest survival for most cancers. On this front, there is some positive news, as the overall cancer death rate for Blacks has dropped faster than it has for whites since 1990.
  • Though the Office of Minority Health says Blacks are nearly 13% of the U.S. population, they make up roughly 33% of all US patients receiving dialysis due to kidney failure. The National Kidney Foundation adds that Blacks suffer from kidney failure at a rate three times higher than whites.

And if the above numbers weren’t enough, the CDC reports that Blacks experienced “2.6 times higher cases, 4.7 times higher hospitalization rates and 2.1 times more death from COVID-19 compared to white counterparts.”

Alan R. Nelson, MD, chair IOM Committee on Understanding Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care, sums up these numbers and the focus on them as follows: “The real challenge lies not in debating whether disparities exist, but in developing and implementing strategies to reduce and eliminate them.”

ACTIONS TAKEN TO IMPROVE HEALTH OUTCOMES

But for people of faith, the problem (whatever it may be) is rarely viewed as bigger than the power to defeat it. Here are some of the things congregations are doing to engage on the battlefield health issues facing Black people.

DIET

Diet is a great place to start according to healthcare professionals. Jennifer Jones, founder/owner of JENuine Nutrition and a certified integrative, holistic nutrition health coach, personal trainer and wellness educator, lives by the dual mottos “Love yourself to better health” and “Live with intention, eat with intention.”

“Not only can what we eat improve our mental and emotional well-being, but things we do to improve our mental health and what we think can then lead to better food choices,” said Jones.

And she’s not alone.

“Standard medical treatments (pills, procedures, surgeries) may provide temporary relief, but don’t confront the underlying problems: poor dietary lifestyle, lack of exercise, lack of fresh air, lack of sunshine,” said Montgomery, who often prescribes the “therapies” of exercise, dietary detoxes and plant-based nutritional regiments.

“Chronic diseases, whether it’s diabetes or heart disease or obesity, they’re caused by our diet and lifestyle,” said Dr. Munish Chawla, who with his wife Dr. Bandana Chawla, are physicians who are board certified in lifestyle medicine, and founders of their nonprofit, Peaceful Planet Foundation. “We need to fix that, otherwise we can throw all the pills, all the procedures [at them, but] we’re not addressing the root cause.”

And several faith communities have been promoting healthier diets for their members for a while.

“The book ‘How to Eat to Live’ by the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad is part of our theology and doxology,” said Dr. Abdul Haleem “Robert” Muhammad of Houston’s Muslim Mosque #45.

“For decades, we promoted the macrobiotic diet, recognizing that what we put into our bodies impacts our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health,” said Shrine of the Black Madonna minister and administrator Rev. Loretta Abaynesta Green.

Several other faith communities are making it a point to provide their members and the communities in which they reside, which are often food deserts, with fresh fruits and vegetables along with other foods.

  • Trinity UMC: Farmers Market & Mini-Health Fair every 4th Saturday of the month
  • Trinity East UMC: Outreach Food Pantry four times a month
  • Riverside UMC: Food Pantry every 2nd & 4th Saturday of the month from 9 a.m. – noon. Riverside also grows a community Garden done in partnership with UH students.  
  • Good Hope Missionary Baptist: Food Pantry every Saturday from 9 a.m. – noon.
  • Church Without Walls: Monthly #WeServe Community Drive-Thru Food Fair. Annual Community Fall Festival & Health and Wellness Fair.
  • Wesley AME Church:Periodic chef-led lessons in preparing healthy meals.
  • St. Mary’s UMC: Offers Senior Boxes, food care packages for the elderly.
  • Shrine of the Black Madonna: Host of We Are One Mobile Food Pantry organized bythe Foundation for Black Heritage and Culture every 1st and 3rd Saturday from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.

According to the CDC, the benefits of eating healthy for adults are as follows:

  • May help you live longer
  • Keeps skin, teeth, and eyes healthy
  • Supports muscles
  • Boosts immunity
  • Strengthens bones
  • Lowers risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers
  • Supports healthy pregnancies and breastfeeding
  • Helps the digestive system function
  • Helps achieve and maintain a healthy weight

The benefits for children include many of the same things, along with the plusses of supporting brain development and healthy growth. And there are additional benefits, as well, for persons of all ages.

Depending on the faith community, the diet most recommended may be vegetarian, vegan or macrobiotic, which allows for eating some meats but mainly focuses on avoiding the “toxins” that come from eating an over-abundance of dairy products, beef and pork, and oily foods.

Macrobiotic diets are said to combine the concepts of Buddhist spirituality with their dietary principles to facilitate spiritual and physical wellness.

EXERCISE/WALKING

Several churches offer exercise sessions and classes for congregants and community. The Awakenings Movement, for example, is one of them. And there, the pastor, Tia Norman, is leading the way. Norman not only preaches holistic wellness, she’s a yoga teacher and a meditation guide.

Many churches have official Girl Trek groups, including First Metropolitan Church.

“We started a Girl Trek small group, inspired by a sermon from a past summer about the topic of mind, body and spirit health,” said Quinita Ogletree. “We also had a sermon series, ‘Working on Your Summer Body.’”

Good Hope seeks to get children to develop a lifelong pattern of physical fitness via their UPWARD Sports ministry that introduces youth and their families to Jesus via flag football, basketball, cheerleading and soccer.

Additionally, several faith communities participate in various annual walks that support health initiatives like breast cancer awareness, curing HIV/AIDS, etc.

The benefits of walking alone are enough to make the faithful say “Amen!” Here are a few:

  • Maintain a healthy weight and lose body fat
  • Prevent or manage various conditions, including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cancer and type 2 diabetes
  • Improve cardiovascular fitness
  • Strengthen your bones and muscles
  • Improve muscle endurance
  • Increase energy levels
  • Improve your mood, cognition, memory and sleep
  • Improve your balance and coordination
  • Strengthen immune system
  • Reduce stress and tension

YOGA/MEDITATION

Though yoga and meditation are ancient holistic health practices, millennial and Gen Z congregants are the ones making the big push to incorporate these practices in more traditional Black churches. However, many “seasoned saints” are finding the practices right up their alley. And that makes sense, seeing that these two practices are “go-at-your-own-pace” activities.

And because there are so many different kinds of yoga practices, it is possible for anyone to start.

“Whether you’re a couch potato or a professional athlete, size and fitness levels do not matter because there are modifications for every yoga pose and beginner classes in every style,” says Dr. Natalie Nevins, DO, a board-certified osteopathic family physician and certified Kundalini Yoga instructor in Hollywood, California (source: osteopathic.org). “The idea is to explore your limits, not strive for some pretzel-like perfection. It is a great way to get in tune with your body and your inner self.”​

Here are some of the physical benefits of yoga:

  • lessened chronic pain (i.e. lower back pain, arthritis, headaches and carpal tunnel syndrome)
  • lowered blood pressure
  • reduced insomnia
  • increased flexibility
  • increased muscle strength and tone
  • improved respiration, energy and vitality
  • maintaining a balanced metabolism
  • weight reduction
  • cardio and circulatory health
  • improved athletic performance
  • protection from injury

Yoga also offers additional benefits.

“Yoga can be very effective in developing coping skills and reaching a more positive outlook on life… Regular yoga practice creates mental clarity and calmness; increases body awareness; relieves chronic stress patterns; relaxes the mind; centers attention; and sharpens concentration,” said Nevins.

READING

One activity not normally associated with being a health-promoting exercise, according to Reverend Ray Mackey, is reading.

Mackey serves as the Evangelism Pastor of the Greater Galilee Church located in the ‘Near North’ of Downtown Houston. He is widely known as the “literacy pastor” for his advocacy for literacy and for promoting reading as a human-rights and as a means of exercising the mind to enhance mental and physical health. Through his ministry and church, early childhood to adult literacy is promoted as a health-conscious tool.

“We are all too familiar with promoting physical exercise, maintaining proper diets, eating healthy, minimizing caffeine intake, and avoiding consuming unhealthy toxins in our bodies. However, overall health begins with the mind. By stimulating our minds through reading we help our brains release endorphins which helps to relieve anxiety and stress, and improve upon our overall moods and physicality. Moreover, reading as a health-conscious exercise helps to create quiet and meditative spaces conducive in any environment.”

OTHER

There are other local initiatives not run by faith communities, but movements that call upon groups of faith to participate in health-improving activities.

The Women’s Resource Center, founded by Dr. Willie Mae Lewis, leads the ImaniFaith Health Initiative to get pastors, trusted community leaders and voices, to lead their members to take their health more seriously. The WRC offers a bevy of programs including a slate of Saturday offerings that train congregations in self-management (stress and conflict resolution), healing arts, mental health, health food prep workshops, health monitoring and much more.

The Emancipation Economic Development Council’s (EEDC) Faith in Action Workgroup also supports urban gardens, health fairs, health monitoring and for the past two years an annual oral care event where hundreds of individuals receive free dental services.

The dentist program offered in partnership with Texas Mission of Mercy, was sponsored by four Houston-area United Methodist churches in Third Ward, one of which (Boynton Chapel UMC) is pastored by the point person, Linda Davis.

“We served 544 persons for dental care but had to turn away 3,500,” said Davis after their first oral care event a few years ago.

Silverlake Church has the Tender Loving Care (TLC) Healthcare Ministry comprised of healthcare providers “dedicated to serving the Silverlake congregation in times of a health crisis,” per the church’s website.

The Fountain of Praise (FOP) has a comprehensive Health and Wellness Ministry that has a goal of educating members and the community “on the importance of having a balanced life, which includes spiritual and physical fitness.” This FOP ministry includes health education and fitness classes and sessions, The Gathering (an Alzheimer’s support group), respite care, national diabetes awareness and SMART—the Sanctuary Medical Alert Response Team.

In addition, several congregations offer various forms of health monitoring and healthcare facilitation.

Wesley AME Church, for example, offers monthly blood pressure checks and ongoing information on breast cancer, prostate cancer and diabetes.

Muslim Mosque #45 seeks to address the healthcare access gap.

“We are launching a campaign through our Ministry of Health to prevent diabetes and sign up the uninsured for health insurance,” said Muhammad.