Churches focus on being holy and healthy.

James Tate used to arrive early at First Baptist Church of Glenarden so that he could find a wider seat in the handicapped section of the Upper Marlboro sanctuary to accommodate his 415-pound frame.

But today the 33-year-old former high school lineman from Southeast Washington can sit anywhere in the church because he has lost more than 200 pounds, thanks to a church-based weight loss program.

“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.

“No matter how much talent you have in your mind and your spirit, if your body is not able to function you are not able to fulfill your destiny,” Jakes said.

Jakes, 55, said he had to take time out from his busy ministry recently to address his weight. “I gained some weight after back surgery,” he said. “I couldn’t exercise, but now I am back in the gym.

“I have dropped 45 pounds, and I want to drop about 30 more,” Jakes said. “We have to continue to create an atmosphere where people can talk openly about their issues and have healthy solutions. My father died when he was 48 and I was only 16, so I am bombarded with the reality that health can be a challenge.

Jakes has health and fitness conferences planned for men and women in the coming months.

But Renette Dallas, a neuropath and member of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in the District, who consults with pastors on healthy living, isn’t convinced that everyone is serious. “I conduct health and fitness programs and people are giving out free cotton candy and hamburgers.

“We do things because everybody else is doing it,” Dallas said. “The president is talking about fitness, the first lady is talking about fitness and big business is talking about fitness, and churches are big business. It is a trend but it doesn’t mean anything.”

Deborah Adams, 56, a resident of Hyattsville, and her daughter Rhonda R. Gladden, 39, were among several hundred people who lined up in front of the scales at First Baptist Church to be part of the church’s weight-challenge program. “In order to work for the kingdom, we have to be fit for the kingdom,” Adams said. “Rhonda said that she is excited to lose weight with her mother.”

In addition to dieting and exercising, Tate, of the Glenarden church, said he read a book titled, “What Would Jesus Eat,” and now he teaches his own class at the church. “This class is to educate men with what God says about how to take care of our bodies and to help men to develop a closer relationship with God.

“The key for me was getting closer to God,” said Tate, whose weight loss efforts began in earnest after he enrolled in “Body By Christ, a spiritual weight loss class that is one of several programs at First Baptist of Glenarden, which is an extension of the church’s health ministry.

harrish@washpost.com

Next Saturday: A member of From the Heart Church Ministries in the District writes about taking a scripture-based class on healthy living.

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
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