November 04, 2019
5 min read

Church-based challenge to promote wellness for black women

You've successfully added to your alerts. You will receive an email when new content is published.

Click Here to Manage Email Alerts

We were unable to process your request. Please try again later. If you continue to have this issue please contact

Jennifer Ellis

Beginning Jan. 5, the American Heart Association, with the help of sponsor Weight Watchers Reimagined, will launch the 12-week EmPOWERED & Well Healthier Church Challenge to support the ongoing health and wellness activities of black women and their faith-based communities. Faith-based organizations have until Nov. 10 to apply.


Hosted by churches in Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas; Los Angeles; New York and Washington, D.C., the pilot program will provide participants with weekly, science-based wellness sessions that focus on preventative health, BP management, healthy weight loss and diabetes prevention.


Participating faith organizations will receive stipends in support of their health ministries and can receive additional financial support and wellness celebrations, according to a press release from the AHA.


Healio spoke with Jennifer Ellis, MD, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue and adviser to the Association’s EmPOWERED to Serve platform, about the challenge and the need for supporting health education for black women’s health.


Why was the church setting chosen as the platform for health education?


As a population, black women are grounded in the church and in faith. The churches are not just a Sunday event, they are a part of everyday life. They deliver social solutions and are important in the community because they provide structure. This is a wonderful combination because for the 12 weeks of the program, people will be going to the church. They won't just be doing the program. They will have support of their community, their friends and their faith. When there are questions, there will be someone nearby to help. Also, and importantly, there will be accountability to help keep them on the straight and narrow.


What unique risk factors are faced by black women?

Black women have higher BP. Some of it is genetic, some of it is diet, and some of it is that high BP is harder to control in the African American population. Some of it is being overweight or obese. If you combine all these things, about half of the African American adult population has some form of CVD which is difficult to get under control, especially when you have risk factors like high BP.


What will these educational programs entail?


It's going to be a supportive atmosphere that includes talks about healthy foods, risk factors this population has and what can we do about them. If the risk factor is obesity, we can help by talking about weight loss. If it is nutrition and diet, we can have that explained at that site. If it's lack of exercise, walking with your friends from church is much safer than if you're trying to walk on your own in a less-safe neighborhood. 


If you're reluctant to take your medicine because you are not trusting of the medical community or because the medical community has not necessarily been faithful to the minority communities, we are going to these churches in good faith. We will have to prove this to their pastor and church elders, and with their support, we can show the parishioners that they can trust that this is for them and not being done to them.


What are these women’s reservations about trusting the medical community? 


Statins are a classic example. A lot of statins give people leg pain. What we want is for our patients to know that this is a possibility and to say, 'This one bothers me. Let's try another one.' There are some communities, especially African American communities, where people think that because this one treatment didn't work, they will just stop taking medication and not tell anybody. Then their risk increases. If you give someone medicine and don’t talk about how finding the right medicine and dose has some trials and errors, and that this is a partnership, the patient won’t have trust. When their legs ache, they stop the medicine and don’t trust that you are caring for them. 


Another important part of this is to work on health care disparity. I can't tell you how many tragedies occur where a patient should be getting the state-of-the-art care, but a physician assumes that they're not going to take the medication and gives them a second-rate treatment. Patients often say, 'I would've taken it, they just didn't offer it to me.' So, if you bring all this discussion to the church, after your services and sermon, we can discuss these topics and reassure these women. That kind of support is important.


What will encourage women to attend these sessions?


That's the brilliant thing about going to church. If you are in church and your pastor says they want you to take better care of yourself and come to these sessions, it's hard not to. 


It’s about taking care of not just your spirit but also your body. There are several New Testament scriptures and statements from other faiths that speak specifically about this. If your pastor says that this is a good thing and it is important for your health and the health of the community, it is going to be a huge help in getting people through the door. When my pastor once asked me to be part of the vestry committee, I said I didn't want to. His response was, 'but will you?' At that point, the answer is ‘Yes, pastor. Yes, I will.’


What is the long-term goal of this program?


If you go back to your grandmother's grandmother or if you just go back to your grandmother, if she was a sharecropper and she was thin, that meant they couldn't feed themselves even while living on a farm. That meant they were very sick and perhaps even dying. One of the issues when we try to lose weight is the negative body image associated with losing that weight. People will look at you, especially if you have some relatives who are still farming, and they will ask if you're sick. When I say thin, a win for us and a first step would be helping individuals lose weight so that the go from being obese to overweight.


So, what happens after 12 weeks? One of the important reasons why we're talking about doing this program for black women in faith-based communities is because black women are the heart and soul of family. If you get your mom in shape, that means that the dads are going to eat better, too. That means the kids and the next generation will be healthier. When your grandmother walks with you, or dances with you in the living room for exercise, or you see your grandmother eating those fresh fruits and vegetables and worrying about diet and exercise and taking her medication, then it doesn't just affect that generation, it affects the generations to come.


Is there anything else you would like to add?


A church wants to care for the spirit and the flesh. We all know the quote, 'The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,' that is the nature of being human. The goal of the church is to take care of all its parishioners, from teaching children Bible stories to learn good ethical behavior, and to be healthy, productive members of their community and their society. For churches and other religions, this is a part of their mandate and this is what they are there for. – by Scott Buzby




American Heart Association. Accessed Oct. 29, 2019.

For more information:


Jennifer Ellis, MD, can be reached at Cardiothoracic Surgery, Bellevue Hospital, NYC Health + Hospitals, 462 1st Ave., Suite 10 S 1, New York, NY 10016.


Disclosure: Ellis reports no relevant financial disclosures.