Preaching a gospel of nutritious eating and physical activity, a group of Cincinnati pastors is leading their congregations toward a healthier future.

Spurred in part by a survey of nearly 500 Avondale residents that showed alarmingly high rates of diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, pastors of more than 50 local congregations have signed a Pledge for a Healthy Church. The pledge commits signers to incorporate messages about the link between health and spirituality into sermons and to offer healthier food options at church events.

"I have an older congregation, many in their late fifties and sixties," says Pastor James H. Cantrell, leader of Zion Baptist Church, Cincinnati's second-oldest Black Baptist congregation. "Most of the illnesses that affect us as a people start from what we eat and lack of exercise. I am a diabetic and have hypertension. I wish I had known earlier in life that it could have been prevented or better controlled. Now that I have that knowledge, my goal is to share it with others."

At social gatherings after services in Pastor Cantrell's church, platters of cookies and sweets have been replaced by fresh-cut fruits—on a recent Sunday, cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple and grapes—and a raw vegetable "medley" featuring broccoli and carrots.

"Cutting back on just a few ingredients—salt, sugar and fat—can make all the difference," the pastor explains. "In my own house, we used to use ham hocks, now we use turkey. Every night I used to eat barbecue-flavored Fritos as a snack, but I gave them up, haven't touched them since our health challenge. It was a discipline I wanted to impart to our congregation."

The Avondale churches' collective pledge was created as part of the Cincinnati-based Health Leadership Institute (HLI) for Faith-Based Organizations, which is supported by a Faith-Based Advocacy: Galvanizing Communities to End Childhood Obesity grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Beyond their pledge to make changes within their own congregations, church leaders have also stepped up to help address the larger community’s lack of access to healthy food by making land available for community gardens, doubling Avondale's total number of community gardens from four to eight.

"We planted a garden and distributed the harvest to members of the church and the community,”"says Pastor Cantrell. "Some kids in our summer program have never seen where collard greens come from. Now they are learning to grow them."

A spirited competition among Avondale churches, now entering its third year, adds further incentive for making lifestyle changes. Five church teams of about a dozen members each, guided by a dietician and physical fitness instructor, compete annually to see which group achieves the most-improved health outcomes.

"Each week we'd weigh in, and along the way would also have our blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar measured," says Cantrell. "We had nutrition classes and cooking demonstrations. We exercised and took walks together, wearing pedometers to count our steps. It was real good fellowship, something we all enjoyed."

Pastor Cantrell's team from Zion Baptist Church was the competition's first winner, but nearly all participants (96%) reported improved health behaviors as a result of the program. The $10,000 financial award, shared by the participating congregations, goes back into strengthening all of the churches' health ministries.

Changes like these are a matter of life and death. In Cincinnati and across the country, "minorities face dismal health disparities," says Dwight Tillery, CEO of the Center for Closing the Health Gap (CCHG), which developed the Health Leadership Institute. Black adults, he notes, are almost twice as likely to have diabetes compared to their White counterparts, and on average, have a lower life expectancy. "Our sole focus is on eliminating those kinds of disparities," adds Tillery, a lawyer and former member of the Cincinnati City Council who also served a term as mayor.

CCHG's ambitious multi-year campaign—Do Right!: Eat Right, Move Right, Live Right—aims to reduce obesity and obesity-related diseases by changing community environments in ways that support healthier eating and increased physical activity. In addition to churches, CCHG works in collaboration with dozens of other local organizations, from schools and community agencies to the local hospital and small businesses.

To date, more than 8,000 Avondale residents have participated in the Do Right! campaign's varied activities. "We've become a bridge between healthcare providers, academic institutions, faith-based organizations and the minority community," says Tillery. "Working together we've raised health consciousness and really changed the culture of our community."

For Pastor Cantrell, Do Right! goes to the very heart of his ministry, "because the body too belongs to God—we should not neglect it," he says. "When you don't feel good, you can't do good."

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Related websites

  • Faith-based Advocacy: Galvanizing Communities to End Childhood Obesity

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