Faithful to Empower

Health ministry in every congregation

by J. Elisha Burke

J. Elisha Burke

Since its inception in 1899, the Baptist General Convention of Virginia (BGCVA) has remained faithful to its educational mission through outreach that empowers and equips children, youth, women, and men to make and maintain healthy holistic lifestyle choices. The conference is a nonprofit organization representing 1,000 African American churches and 29 regional associations in urban, suburban, and rural areas throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Our executive minister and program staff provide training in the following areas: clergy, Christian education and formation, women’s ministry, men’s ministry and youth and young adult ministry. We deliver these services through an Annual Session and Congress of Christian Education, regional conferences and many training events held at various localities in Virginia.

The health and wellness ministry is rooted in 3 John 2: “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (NIV). The ministry is designed to improve the overall health outcome of our members and the communities they serve. In most cases, African Americans as a group have earlier and higher rates of death and debilitating illnesses than other groups of people. The aim of our ministry is to train health coordinators for as many of our churches as possible. These coordinators work with a health ministry committee in the church to provide health information consistently for church members and visitors. Our ministry provides training, including a two- or three-hour seminar on “How to Start and Maintain a Church Health Ministry,” and connection to many resources to inform and equip members with the tools and resources needed to improve overall health and well-being. We also provide assistance with health days, health fairs, and other health-related events.

As director for the last ten years of health and wellness my responsibilities include working with volunteers and strategic partners to provide training, technical support and access to resources for new and existing church-based health ministries throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. We provide health classes and seminars at local churches, associations, regional conferences, and other BGCVA events. Our goal is for every church in the conference to have a health and wellness ministry and to make talking about health—and acting on ideas—part of the culture. We understand that every congregation has its particular culture, so we don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, we work alongside each congregation to develop a health and wellness ministry appropriate to that setting. In doing so, we are able to draw on our experience of working with other congregations as well as programs and partnerships we have already developed.

A major factor in the success of our efforts to maintain viable health ministries over the decades has been the support of BGCVA leadership via the state officers, board of directors, health commission, along with the executive ministers, program directors and fellow staff members, pastors and the many church leaders who share their prayers, time, facilities and resources for the benefit of this ministry.

Equipping for the Church

Many of the workshops BGCVA offers address specific health-related issues that people commonly face. “Faith to Fate” addresses advance care planning and end-of-life issues. Resources from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) are helpful with this sensitive topic. “Hope and Healing” helps people understand mental illness. A suicide prevention workshop highlights the role of the faith community in preventing suicide. “Monthly Health Blast” is an e-mail with links to additional information related to National Health Observances to help church health ministry teams prepare materials for bulletin boards, health tables, or bulletins, and we are glad to offer planning assistance for special events. We also design health seminars for clergy, couples, women, men and youth on specific conditions, such as HIV-AIDS, hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease, mental illness, and heart disease.

An eye-opening experience to jump start discussions about health is a screening and a panel discussion of the film “Soul Food Junkies,” in which Byron Hurt sets out on a historical and culinary journey to learn more about the soul food tradition and its relevance to black cultural identity. We are able to help bring this event to local congregations. Through candid interviews with soul food cooks, historians, and scholars, as well as with doctors, family members, and everyday people, the film puts this culinary tradition under the microscope to examine both its positive and negative consequences. Hurt also explores the socioeconomic conditions in predominantly black neighborhoods, where it can be difficult to find healthy options, and meets some pioneers in the emerging food justice movement who are challenging the food industry, encouraging communities to “go back to the land” by creating sustainable and eco-friendly gardens, advocating for healthier options in local supermarkets, supporting local farmers’ markets, avoiding highly processed fast foods, and cooking healthier versions of traditional soul food.

Another resource we use in our churches is “Before you Eat the Church Food, Watch This,” a documentary from the American Association of Black Cardiologists that examines the factors in African American culture, particularly as related to the churches, that impact our eating habits. The film points out the pitfalls and opportunities for making healthy changes based on the actual experiences of pastors, and congregants who have created a culture of health in their congregations. The Association of Black Cardiologists also provides speakers, as well as many printed resources we use for presentations and health events.

Partnering for the Community

Baptist General has a 36-year history of partnerships or funded initiatives that began with funding through the Virginia Department of Health, Division of Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in 1980. Over the years additional funding came from state, federal and private foundation sources. It’s a high priority for us to maintain relationships with many nonprofit health providers who can partner with us as trainers, speakers and supplying resource materials.

From 2003–2009 we received funding from the National Commission on Community Service through AmeriCorps for the S.P.I.C.E.S. for Life Health and Wellness Education Program that enabled us to conduct health ministry leader training in 400 churches. S.P.I.C.E.S. is an acronym for Spiritual, Physical, Cognitive, Emotional and Social. This statewide initiative designed to reduce health disparities in African Americans emphasized the interconnectedness of total well-being. Since 2009, the program has successfully continued as the Health and Wellness Ministry largely due to the committed volunteer health ministry workers around the state. Several of the previous AmeriCorps volunteers remain committed to this ministry.

“To Hurt or Heal?” was an oral history of African American health care experiences in Central Virginia. The primary aim was to improve health care services and improve health outcomes, especially for African Americans with chronic health conditions. Twenty people from Richmond were interviewed and recorded and the transcripts interpreted to provide insight for future training purposes of medical students. We’ve also been involved in enrolling African Americans in medical research studies because African Americans are often under-represented in health research. I have served as a community health advocate with Virginia Commonwealth University Community Partnership for Ethical Research. The goal is to ensure that the community is treated fairly and included as public health programs are designed and implemented.

BGCVA Health Ministry partners with The Lott Carey Foreign Missions Convention in cooperation with the American Red Cross to promote Disaster Preparedness. We are also working with National Baptist Convention USA National Emergency Preparedness team to help churches become better able to respond when disasters occur. Currently each state has a representative who will be trained to coordinate individual state efforts. Our in-house training

Seminars, “Emergency Preparedness,” give the basics of being prepared for various emergencies in the church, home, and car or at work. For churches the primary focus is on being able to shelter-in-place if necessary due to an emergency situation.

We also work with a range of local and state health resource providers, including the American Diabetes Association, American Cancer Society, the Department of Health, American Heart Association, the American Red Cross, Minority Health Consortium, Senior Connections, American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), Ecumenical Poverty Initiative and Optima Family Health Care.

Psalm 138:14 tells us, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” All people are fearfully and wonderfully made, and we can help one another discover what it means to live out that belief.

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