The Spiritual Meets the Physical: The Role of the Church in Getting Black Communities Healthy

Participants engage in group fitness at the Eighth Annual Communities of Harlem Health Revival.

Participants engage in group fitness at the Eighth Annual Communities of Harlem Health Revival.

In the face of health disparities that disproportionately affect African-Americans, the church may play a unique role in influencing black communities to take control of their health outcomes. In Central Harlem, the faith-based coalition, Communities of Harlem Health Revival (CHHR), is encouraging black New Yorkers to get active and to get educated about health by targeting the neighborhood’s religious congregations.

While the nation’s religiously unaffiliated population is on the rise, African-Americans are the racial group most likely to formally identify with a religion in the U.S., at 85 percent. A large majority of African-Americans belong to historically black Protestant churches, according to the Pew Research Center.

“The church can give me faith to keep me going no matter what the situation,” said Judy Brown, a black Harlem resident and 25-year member of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ on W. 116th Street. “Doctors give me pills to chill out. Faith and hope keep me going. God’s got the answer.”

Following Sunday service on Sept. 22, Brown and congregation members from CHHR’s interfaith coalition of houses of worship participated in the annual CHHR health fair. “We had a wonderful service,” Brown shared. “We sang a marching song, so we’re ready to march!” Sporting yellow t-shirts with the motto, “Make Health Your Habit,” screen-printed over their shoulders, the almost entirely black group of adults, children and families walked over a mile, from P.S. 154 Harriet Tubman in Central Harlem to Riverbank State Park on the West Side.

At the park, volunteers from a range of New York City hospitals, universities and health organizations provided free services to what CHHR approximates was over 600 fair attendees. Health services included diabetes education, nutrition counseling and blood pressure testing. “I have high blood pressure,” Brown explained, “so the more I learn about all this, the better.”

She isn’t alone. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reports nearly a third of adults in Central Harlem have been told they have high blood pressure by a healthcare provider. Central Harlem residents are also more likely to be obese, have diabetes, have HIV/AIDS, and to die of cancer than New York City residents as a whole.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black people in the U.S. experience significant disparities in health care access and health outcomes. Some key factors include lower rates of insurance, higher rates of poverty, lower levels of education attainment and environmental hazards.

Against these odds, the overarching theme of the CHHR event was community empowerment. “You’re here working with your church, and your family, and your community to get healthy,” Dr. James Noble, Assistant Professor and Neurology Clerkship Director at the Columbia University Medical Center told the crowd. He asked participants to give themselves a round of applause for engaging in a collective effort. “This helps communities get healthy. It’s not just about the individual.”

Patricia Butts, CHHR Co-Founder and Board of Directors Chair, points out the built-in community that a church congregation can provide. “The church, of course, is a natural base for those who are in the church community,” she said of why she helped launch the faith-based health coalition eight years ago. Butts is also the First Lady of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, which has a Health & Wellness Ministry among its programs available to congregation members.

Donna Johnson, First Lady of CHHR partner house of worship, Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, described the health initiative and services available in her own church. “The pastor preaches on taking care of your temple, which is your body,” Johnson said. Beyond Sunday service, Canaan has a volunteer nursing staff on-site that provides screening services, as well as workshops on nutrition, blood pressure and diabetes education. Johnson said the church also makes an effort to serve healthy snacks at their gatherings as a way of teaching by example.

The black church is historically associated with organizing for social-justice activism. Butts said she wanted the CHHR coalition to be a demonstration of the leadership of the church when it comes to helping congregations get healthy, too. “[The organization was created] to show the community that the churches are concerned with your physical health, as well as your spiritual health.”