Black Megachurch Checks Up on Healthy Living

LANDOVER, Md. - "In terms of what else is killing our people (other than hypertension), you know it's diabetes, right?"

A crowd of predominantly African Americans nod their heads.

"Everything is not spiritual," said Dr. Oluwaranti Akiyode, assistant professor of Clinical and Administrative Pharmacy Sciences at Howard University, during a health workshop at First Baptist Church of Glenarden on a Saturday morning. "I'm thankful for prayer ... but God wants us to use some sense."

That means moderate exercise, healthy eating and laying off the soda and fast food.

Over 500 people from the local community visited First Baptist Church for an annual health checkup. The 7,000-member megachurch has been offering free health education and screenings for over a decade but interest in health seems to be higher than ever this year.

The once unpopular workshops in the 1990s returned this year and volunteers found visitors lined up for the hour-long sessions.

"We're excited to see people waiting outside for the next workshop," said Dr. Karyn Cole, chair of the church's Health Expo.

This is also the first year First Baptist declared June "Health Awareness Month" with Sunday messages giving health warnings and promoting exercise.

With 50 volunteers and 200 more signed up for the health expo this year than last year, Cole, who began attending the church in 1996, says the Health Ministry "grows and grows every year."

But not all 7,000 church attendants made it out to the Health Expo. It's the Health Ministry's highlight of the year but health doesn't rank high on most people's lists.

"We're a large church and I would love to have all 7,000 come," said Cole. "[But] health is not a priority and we just 'react.'"

Revivals or sporting events usually draw people by the thousands but when the church announces a health expo, most of the church doesn't show up.

Many of the hundreds of people who do show up come from outside the church. With advertisements in the local newspapers, television and radio, the church is trying to reach the masses with free blood pressure, hearing, vision and dental screenings and for the first time, HIV screening.

Working with Prince George's County's "healthy lifestyle" initiative, First Baptist has adopted the same initiative as theirs to make health a priority for its members and the larger community.

Public health fairs and outreaches have been increasingly picked up by churches, particularly megachurches which have the manpower, the resources and the physical space for community events like the health expo.

Churches play a big role in responding to minority health, says Dr. Gary Puckrein, executive director of the National Minority Health Month Foundation who stresses how important the church's voice is in informing its congregations and members.

Black churches have particularly stepped up in educating members and the surrounding community on health as reports have indicated high death rates from heart disease and incidence of high blood pressure among African Americans. Also, HIV infection is the leading cause of death for black women aged 25-34 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The number of people getting tested [for HIV] is about the same," said James O. Ealey, counselor for the Division of Epidemiology and Disease Control at Prince George's County Health Department, who pointed out that more women are getting tested than men. "But the number of people who are [HIV] positive is going up."

Visitors who received an HIV screening at the Health Expo will get their results after 10 days.

First Baptist Church of Glenarden has over 100 ministries, each with its own outreach program - a requirement in the church. And the Health Ministry has recently drawn more interest, Cole acknowledged.

Cole believes in giving back your gifts and being more than a Sunday "bench member." And with 7,000 members every weekend at First Baptist, it's easy to lose the "intimacy" and be Sunday Christians.

"That's why you have to be involved in the ministry," said Cole.

"The word says you are to serve others," she added. "Lots of people are thirsty for God's Word."

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