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Churches partner to host conference to fill health gaps

By Patrice Thomas Conwell
Special to The Times

The church has long served as a refuge for spiritual and emotional healing for African Americans. Today, the church must add physical healing to its scope of support as well.

It’s no secret that blacks suffer and die from chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure at a higher rate than whites and other races. According to 2015 statistics provided by the Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH), the death rate of African Americans from diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure was sometimes double that of whites and, at times, three times higher than other races.

“It’s not that people don’t know about nutrition and health,” says David Hicks, M.D. deputy health officer for JCHD. “But other factors complicate the ability of many African Americans to access or afford healthy lifestyle choices.”

Some of those factors include easier access to fast food rather than quality grocery stores; inequitable levels of insurance coverage; and a lack of adequate social resources.

That’s where churches are needed; to fill the health gaps in African American communities by providing resources and tools. Providing churches with those tools is the mission of The Balm in Gilead (The Balm), a nonprofit organization located in Richmond, Virginia.

Pernessa Seele, M.D., Founder and CEO of The Balm and a former public health professional, views churches as vital partners for advancing health in African American communities.

“We believe that every African American-serving church must have a health ministry,” Seele said. “We must be serious about stopping the onslaught of health challenges that repeat themselves generation after generation.”

To that end, The Balm began the Healthy Churches 2020 Conference four years ago to provide health knowledge and training to church leaders and members, public health professionals, and community leaders. This November, it comes to Point Clear, Alabama.

The Healthy Churches 2020 Conference offers seminars and workshops by prominent professionals in medicine, nutrition, public health, research, and sociology. Sprinkled between are praise and worship services led by noted ministers and gospel artists. The conference demonstrates the importance of total health for the body, mind, and spirit.

Hicks concurs with churches being advocates for better health.

“Because churches are so engrained in their communities and there’s trust in these faith institutions, you’re bound to get more success and buy in,” says Hicks. “It’s powerful for clergy to talk about taking care of our bodies as God’s temples, then providing the resources for people to do just that.”

For conference information, visit www.healthychurches2020conference.org.