Health & Family

Churches combat health risks in Mecklenburg County through Village HeartBEAT program

Churches are taking the lead against an enemy quietly wreaking havoc on African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods throughout the county. This enemy barely causes a stir when it claims a victim. Yet, the fight is literally one to the death.

The enemy? Obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease.

In Charlotte, 15 churches participate in Village HeartBEAT (Building Education & Accountability Together). The 10-month wellness program encourages church teams to engage in activities from exercise classes to healthy cooking demonstrations. The final 16 weeks involve a “Biggest Loser”-style competition. The project, in its second year, won the national Faith & Community Health Excellence Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Region IV.

The competition is fun. The national acclaim is welcome, but more importantly, Village HeartBEAT is saving lives. Pounds are being lost, high blood pressure medicines are being discarded and friendships are forming.

The county health department is celebrating participants on Friday at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church with a recognition program acknowledging the “power and commitment of faith-based and community partnerships” working together toward chronic disease prevention and wellness.

“The thing is for us to to learn to take care of each other,” said Bishop Wade Ferguson, pastor of 15th Street Church of God off North Davidson Street. “We’ve lost that kind of care for each other. We’ve become less dependent on each other.”

Faye Marshall of New Covenant Bibleway, off Beatties Ford Road, wouldn’t have lost 25 pounds without her Village HeartBEAT team.

“It’s been amazing for me,” said Marshall, resting after walking around the track with her two sisters at Johnson C. Smith University. “It’s a big family. We’re laughing, we’re talking and encouraging each other.”

Like many members of her church, Marshall struggles with high blood pressure and diabetes. She’s more than 100 pounds overweight, and her goal is to lose the excess. Marshall isn’t just walking around Smith’s track to lose weight.

Village HeartBEAT features a variety of activities. Participants use Johnson C. Smith’s HealthPlex, which is free. Mitchell “Aerobo Cop” Smith teaches exercise classes, including chair-only exercises. There are also free water aerobics classes. Churches offer yoga, Zumba and line dance classes. All Village HeartBEAT participants have access to a master calendar with activities at participating churches.

“They make you try things that you’ve never tried before,” said Marshall.

That many activities are held in churches makes it more appealing and affordable.

“It feels good to have a place, a church, (where) you can have a yoga class,” said Everdith Landrau, an associate pastor at Caldwell Presbyterian Church near Independence Park. “We need more ecumenical activities to bring different faiths together. Village HeartBEAT is a chance to do that.”

Reaching out

Mecklenburg County Health Department Health Manager Cheryl Emanuel created Village Heart as a scaled-down version of a program she pitched for a grant.

Using data from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, she found that nonwhites in Mecklenburg County were 1.5 times more likely to report no physical activity and 1.6 times more likely to report being obese.

The data also showed that 34 percent of African-Americans compared with 26 percent of whites reported high blood pressure. Forty percent of Hispanics, 37 percent of whites and 33 percent of African-Americans reported high cholesterol.

Emanuel identified churches in ZIP codes with high morbidity indexes and that also featured health and wellness ministries. She then reached out to the churches and created Village Heart BEAT.

To participate, churches determined their congregations’ health needs, mapped strategies, created teams and action steps. The churches even addressed nutritional policies, such as replacing fried chicken with baked chicken at events. Each church formed a team of 10 members.

The members had at least one risk factor: high body mass index, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, physical inactivity, smoking habit or a family history of heart disease. Each member must participate in 10 activities per month. Participants received gym bags, a food journal and other free tools to track their progress.

“What people are looking for are people that are genuine,” Emanuel said. “You’re genuine about helping them to do for themselves and sustain it.”

‘Bigger than religion’

Compassion and patience are also integral. Church ambassadors met participants where they were – which, in one case, meant providing shoes for someone who couldn’t afford walking shoes. For others, it’s doing chair aerobics because they’re unable to do standing aerobics.

“I’ve learned baby steps. None of us get it overnight,” said Annie Pagan, team captain of Faith CME Church near Sugar Creek Road.

Embracing Village Heart BEAT signals a shift in some churches. It took decades for churches to address AIDS. Many church health ministries simply involved hosting an annual health fair. Village Heart BEAT gets personal about how people treat their bodies.

Talking about the body and the issue of the mental and physical body has been taboo in the church, Caldwell’s Landrau said. Church leaders often viewed talking about the body as bad, but talking about the spirit as good.

“Churches are finally beginning to realize it’s all connected and it’s OK to deal with who we are,” Landrau said. “This is not about us. It’s about the common good. Targeting diabetes in the African-American community, targeting heart disease in the Latin community, it’s bigger than religion, and it’s bigger than our differences as Christians.”