Churches in Southeast Washington are mixing blessings of faith with medical advice while teaching their congregations about the dangers of a silent killer: high blood pressure.

In some respects, church members have become their brothers' keepers as they work in Greater Southeast Community Hospital's Neighborhood Blood Pressure Watch, which was started in April 1984 in an effort to identify residents with high blood pressure.

The program uses screening sites at churches, and those found to have high blood pressure are informed of the risks and referred to physicians. A few churches in Prince George's County also are participating in the program.

So far, about 2,300 residents have been screened through the program. About 650 of those screened had elevated blood pressure levels, program coordinators said.

"We've known for a long time high blood pressure is a problem, but it is more concentrated in the black population," said Bill Driskill, a nurse and coordinator of the program. "One in every three black people has high blood pressure. It's one of the hospital's obligations to the community to get out there and find them."

The hospital sought the help of the Southeast Vicariate Cluster of Churches in establishing the program, with the idea that working with church groups is the best way to reach those in the community. Currently 24 churches, including about 260 volunteers, and one group, the Knights of Columbus, participate in the program. The hospital also has free screening sessions from 1 to 4 p.m. every third Wednesday. During May, which is High Blood Pressure Month, the hospital will have screening sessions every Wednesday.

"You stop and think about one place where people have a common bond; they're not among strangers," Driskill said of the churches' role in the blood pressure screening program.

"It's not only to enrich a person's spiritual health but physical health."

Sometimes the message weaves its way into church services.

The Rev. Harold Watson, pastor of Congress Heights United Methodist Church, said, "I make it a point to get my pressure taken after the sermon and I found that it's better then than at other times."

Watson said the program is important to many elderly members of the church in helping them to watch for the silent symptoms of high blood pressure. "A particular individual was suffering from hypertension and he didn't know it. Now he's faithful to get his pressure checked every time . . . . Even if you don't reach but one who might seriously need it, it might {save} a casualty later on."

The church, at 421 Alabama Ave. SE, which has been a sponsor of the program since 1986, has screening sessions every second Sunday after worship service.

Carlyn Bingham, a Southeast resident, calls the hospital's watch a "godsend." Bingham, who has been a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church for 28 years, said she had known she had high blood pressure, but the medicine prescribed by her physicians made her ill. So, she said, her doctor took her off medication and prescribed a low-sodium diet, which she said she thought meant simply no table salt.

That's when fellow church member Gladys M. Raper stepped in. Raper, a registered nurse and a volunteer with the hospital's screeing program, helped Bingham establish a proper diet. Raper, who has been a nurse for more than 44 years, said she has checked the blood pressure of people in her neighborhood since she moved to Southeast in 1948. She heard of the hospital's program through a friend whose church was participating. "This was an opportunity to get it on a wider scale with more people involved."

Emmanuel Baptist Church began participating in the hospital's program in 1986. Bingham has had her pressure checked every second and fourth Sunday since then.

"I feel better," she said. "And I feel stronger. I attribute this to taking better care of myself."

To George Anna Welch, a blood pressure watch volunteer at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church, 3800 Eli Place SE, her participation in the program is sort of a ministry.

Welch said that a parishioner who had stopped taking her blood pressure medication started taking part in the church screening program. "We made a believer out of her," Welch said.

The program's volunteers are trained by the American Heart Association and certified yearly. The volunteers give advice on medication side effects and nutrition, and refer those with high readings to physicians. "They are reminded there are no symptoms for high blood pressure, so you should come back every six months," Driskill said. Some physicians have authorized the volunteers to monitor their patients' blood pressure between visits to the doctor's office, thus saving the patients trips and time, Driskill said.

The program is the first of its kind in the Washington area, said Barbara Owens, assistant coordinator for the program. The watch, which costs about $30,000 per year, is financed by the hospital and private grants. Owens said it costs about $275 to set up a church in the program. Churches sometimes work with the hospital on fund-raisers to help offset the cost of replenishing the equipment.

Thomas W. Chapman, the hospital's president, initiated the idea for the watch program after he came to Greater Southeast in 1984.

Chapman said the neighborhood blood pressure watch is a "simple idea that doesn't take a half-million dollar . . . grant. It's probably the lowest cost health preventative program at a time when the health care industry is trying to save money.

"It reaches out to all levels in the community and offers as much to the volunteer as it does to the participant."