Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Churches in Black communities get parishioners in shape

Click here: Herald.com 02/01/2005 Churches in black communities get parishioners in shape http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/10776945.htm?1c

Posted on Tue, Feb. 01, 2005


Churches in Black communities get parishioners in shape



For Ivory Strong, faith and fitness are excellent partners.

A former tennis buff, Strong, 54, wanted to lose the 50-plus pounds she gained since Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. She also sought fellowship with her church members.

Thus, at her pastor's urging, she and a deacon at Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Miami started the ''Sports and Health Ministry'' about a year ago.

At first, it was a few softball and bowling games. Today, the ministry has grown to about 20 members, meeting two to three times a week to walk at nearby Moore Park or gather on Saturday mornings for a one-hour aerobics class.

''Keep those arms swinging, ladies,'' Strong commanded the walkers one recent evening as they lapped the park's track.

Mount Sinai's focus on fitness is part of a burgeoning movement among churches in black communities to raise awareness of health issues affecting blacks. Dubbed ''Jogging with Jesus'' or ''Spiritual Sweat,'' the ministries are educating their congregants about the high risks of obesity, diabetes and hypertension, which disproportionately affect blacks.

''All of those diseases are related to lifestyle, diet and exercise in particular,'' said Dr. Katherine Chung, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine, who attends Mount Sinai's Saturday aerobics classes.

In black communities, churches -- with their long history of effecting social change -- are a good place to start, medical experts say.

''Churches are a great grassroots type of place to get information out about physical health,'' said Dr. Siri Akal, medical director for Jefferson Reaves Senior Health Center in Overtown. ``Exercise is a nice, easy way to start a healthy lifestyle.''

R. Drew Smith, a religion expert at Morehouse College's Leadership Center in Atlanta, says that African-American churches are taking a holistic approach to their communities. ''You see a type of Wal-Martization of churches where members may have one-stop shopping,'' Smith said. ``They see a number of needs that can be satisfied in the local congregation.''

One won't find thong leotards nor off-color lyrics during these workouts. The most secular the lyrics may get is a song of love and inspiration such as Hope by the duet of Faith Evans and Twista from the Coach Carter soundtrack.

The classes are often cheap, about $3 or $4 to help pay for an instructor. Often, they are free and held in a church hall.

And they're getting more ambitious.

Last year, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Miami Gardens started its fitness ministry with aerobics classes for women, taught by personal trainers who are church members. This year, the church kicked it up a notch and launched a 12-week fitness challenge. So far, 100 members have signed up.

Members are challenged to exercise five days per week. They must keep an activity log and turn it in every three weeks. The challenge ends in April.

The grand-prize winner will get a three-day cruise. Kids will get a three-day trip to Disney World, said Veronica Sykes, executive director of ministerial affairs at Antioch. ''My pastor [The Rev. Arthur Jackson] thought it would be nice for the church to get in shape together,'' Sykes said.

Fitness ministries have become somewhat of a cottage industry. Organizations such as the Christian Wellness Association, a group formed in 2003 in Columbus, Ohio, to promote physical, emotional and spiritual health, is now developing WellLIFE Centers,gyms set up in churches and independent gyms.

Ivory Strong and Jackie Williams stretch before exercising. JOHN VANBEEKUM/HERALD STAFF

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So far, the association has three centers in development in Seattle, Orlando and Columbus, said James Nash, chief executive of the Christian Wellness Association.

''It's probably growing quicker in the black community than other churches,'' Nash said.

Fitness experts are also gaining traction. On her website, donnarichardson.com, fitness guru Donna Richardson sells her Sweating in the Spirit Christian workout tapes.

''Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you,'' Richardson writes on her website.

As head of the Sak Foundation, a Miami-Dade nonprofit that offers exercise classes to people who can't afford them, Scott McCartney travels throughout the county teaching fitness to the underprivileged.

On Mondays, McCartney teaches a free aerobics class to those suffering from chronic illness at First Baptist Church of Bunche Park in Opa-locka.

The music he uses is contemporary gospel. ''We can't play radio or club music,'' he said. ``The music has to be right.''

While the classes are held at the church, nonmembers may attend.

''It's an environment that's nonthreatening,'' McCartney said. ``Many people may feel self-conscious about the way they look, but holding classes at a local church helps many people feel welcome.''

Ann Rose, 42, secretary at Lauderdale Lakes' Merrell United Methodist Church, recently lost 100 pounds through exercise and gastric bypass surgery. She participates in the church's aerobics and walking classes.

''When you go to the gym, it's so impersonal,'' Rose said. ``Here, you have people you can bond with and have fellowship with.''

The Rev. Samuel Tolbert, general secretary of the National Baptist Convention of America, said the movement for fitness intertwined with spirituality has emerged the past decade. Some churches are building gymnasiums, he said. His Lake Charles, La., church has added a weight room.

''Fitness is coming to the forefront,'' Tolbert said.

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