Mind, body and soul. Those are the pillars of a “holistic ministry” as Bishop Adam J. Richardson calls it — one that teaches the gospel, promotes education and boosts the physical health of the congregation.
“Salvation, liberation and education. All of them go hand in hand,” says Richardson, the presiding bishop of Florida and Bahamas for the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
His church, along with many other Black churches, have been working for years to combat health gaps, often setting up special ministries, commissions or task forces aimed at improving the well-being of their congregations. But over the last 10 months, as the coronavirus pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on Black families, the church’s role in health care has become more urgent than ever.
Given the disparities, “you can’t be in a Black church and not have those kinds of conversations,” said the Rev. Dr. Glenn Dames, Jr. of Allen Temple AME Church in Tampa.
Many of the members at Allen Temple AME are over 50, with preexisting conditions like diabetes, heart problems and high blood pressure, said Dames, who notes the issues are caused in part by years of disproportionate health care. A variety of factors are to blame, from a lack of health insurance, to too few health care facilities in and near Black communities, to racial bias that hampers communication between doctors and patients.
African Americans are often at higher risk for heart disease, stroke, asthma, influenza, pneumonia, diabetes and HIV/AIDS compared to white Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. And they have the highest death rates for most cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.
These conditions “have been apparent in our church for many, many years,” Dames said.
During the pandemic, they have led to high rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalizations and deaths in Black communities, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.
In response, the health commission at Dames’ church distributes information aimed at raising awareness about health disparities, participates in cancer walks, and holds discussions about how to eat healthy and work out.
“We try to be proactive, not only reactive,” Dames said.
The commission occasionally reserves time to speak about health and wellness during services and writes passages for the bulletin, said Essie Pearl Mobley, the church’s health liaison.
Prior to the pandemic, February was heart month, when Dr. Jamia Washington, who is training to be a cardiologist, spoke to the congregation.
Washington leads speaking engagements at churches across the state and beyond, where she talks about health disparities in the Black community as well as disease prevention and intervention. Then she ties conversations about physical health to spirituality.
“It’s all related,” said Washington, who recently joined an Alabama church on Zoom to discuss the impact of COVID-19.
“If you want to target African Americans, one of the best ways is to go to the church and talk to the congregation,” she said.
The influence of the church extends beyond the gospel.
“I’ve made it a priority that the church should be a life-saving station,” said pastor Kenneth Irby of Bethel AME Church in St. Petersburg.
The church’s health commission has a three-phase approach — education, connecting the congregation to clinicians and blood pressure testing, and encouraging healthy living by moving from fried foods to more fruits, vegetables and salads, Irby said.
As COVID-19 continues to push health disparities to the forefront, Black churches have become advocates for mask-wearing, hand sanitizing and vaccine distribution.
Pastors share photos of themselves being inoculated with members in hopes of increasing the community’s trust in the coronavirus vaccines. In addition, churches are starting to be used as vaccine distribution sites.
In Tallahassee, the Rev. Dr. R. B. Holmes, pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, is leading the Statewide COVID-19 Vaccine Community Engagement Task Force, which was developed independently from state government. It’s aimed at developing “a specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based strategy” to build trust in the vaccines among communities of color and distribute them in the same communities.
The task force is employing a grassroots strategy, bringing together church leaders as well as some of Florida’s Black politicians and its historically Black colleges and universities.
Part of the plan is to use satellite vaccine distribution centers in areas that will reach communities of color on campuses and in churches and neighborhoods. The goal is to vaccinate more than 60 percent of residents in communities of color by the end of the year and designate at least 40 vaccination sites by the end of this month, Holmes said.
He said he hopes the task force can partner with the Florida Department of Health and eventually with the Biden-Harris administration.
Of the more than 1 million vaccine doses administered across the state as of this week, about 5 percent were given to Black people.
“The government cannot do this by itself,” Holmes said.
Bethel AME in Tallahassee has already served as a vaccination site along with a handful of other predominantly Black churches across the state, including St. John’s Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa.
Prior to the pandemic, Holmes’ church in Tallahassee had already begun prioritizing mental health and physical wellness. For the past 15 years, it has run a mental health clinic on the property.
Now they’re focused on partnering with a nearby hospital to build an urgent care clinic in Frenchtown, the heart of Tallahassee’s Black community. And in the same area, the church has supported economic development through the creation of restaurants, a credit union and a Black newspaper.
“Instead of talking about it and studying it,” Holmes said, “we’ve rolled up our sleeves and done it.”
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.