“It feels good to be an example that people can follow,” said Tate, who works as an information technology specialist and is in school to become a certified nutrition and fitness instructor.
First Baptist is among many big African American congregations locally and across the country that in recent years have decided to make health and wellness a major priority. The health ministries’ efforts range from nutrition to Zumba classes to showing parishioners how a healthful lifestyle is promoted in scripture.
The programs are a response to rising awareness of illnesses caused by obesity, fueled by a national public health focus on the issue, including first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity. High blood pressure and obesity, both of which can be alleviated with proper diet and exercise, have a disproportionate impact on African Americans, who are 1.4 times as likely as whites to be obese, according to a 2012 report from the Office of Minority Health at the Department of Health and Human Services.
“We have so many people who have diabetes, heart disease and people dying from strokes,” said Karyn Wills, a doctor and the chairman of First Baptist’s health ministry. “We are finding out that a lot of these things can be prevented, but you have to take action yourself. You have to be your own advocate.”
The church held a health and fitness expo this month in which more than 2,000 people listened to national speakers, were screened for various diseases, and took part in workshops to promote exercise and healthful lifestyles. The church has also developed a slew of health ministries, including exercise, cooking and nutrition classes, group walks and more, said pastor John K. Jenkins.
The Rev. Grainger Browning, pastor of Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church, said his Fort Washington congregation holds four health fairs each year to help parishioners.
“As our memberships get older, we are pastoring out of necessity because we see people who are literally digging their graves with their teeth,” Browning said. “I was at a men’s meeting and 75 percent of the men at the meeting were on medications.”
He said he began to take his own health more seriously about 15 years ago after a fellow pastor had a heart attack. “It shook me to the core,” he said.
Members of First Baptist Church of Highland Park in Landover can take advantage of classes in nutrition and Zumba exercise. “I have run several marathons, and at my church we try to focus on the mind, body and soul,” said pastor Henry P. Davis.
The popular televangelist T.D. Jakes, pastor of the Potters House in Dallas, has been at the forefront of the health crusade in the black church.