Pastors are Preaching Health From the Pulpit in Black Churches
The forecast had not called for rain in the 10 days preceding the Females of Faith Farm Fellowship at Chickadee Creek Farm in Pennington, New Jersey, in May, but the surprise storm clouds did not dampen attendance or enthusiasm.
“These church ladies with their hats came out in the rain,” Sandy Kimbrough, who organized the event, said of the 16 black women clergy, ranging in age from the mid-30s to 78, who arrived from congregations in central New Jersey to attend the latest programming in Kimbrough's Black Clergy Wellness Initiative. As leaders in their communities, she hopes, pastors can preach not only the word of God but the importance of wellness too.
“They have enormous influence in the community,” said Kimbrough, a member of St. John’s Baptist Church in Ewing, New Jersey. “Look at Martin Luther King. Religious leaders have been very instrumental in leading a lot of our social movements. We need to have them not just talk the talk but buy in to changing the culture. We need them to not just put out the literature on diabetes in the lobby for their parishioners but to really get this.”
The statistics are grim. African Americans have the highest rates of obesity in the U.S.; more than half of all African American women are obese. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African Americans, and about 14 percent of all African Americans over the age of 20 have diabetes. In New Jersey, in 2007 the Department of Health and Senior Services issued a strategic plan to eliminate health disparities. A grant issued in 2010 allowed the Office of Minority and Multicultural Health to expand its reach and capacity among community-based groups working on chronic disease prevention and management, but as of 2013, the rate of obesity in the state had increased among African Americans, according to data from the New Jersey State Health Assessment. (Obesity among white people also increased.)
“The statistics on black health and the disparity [with white health]—it’s a chasm that gets wider and wider as we age,” Kimbrough said.
Kimbrough wants her programming to help minimize these disparities by extending the nutrition and farm-based education many kids are receiving in school to adults and seniors. She reaches them where they are already a rapt audience and where they are already eating: church.
Church meals, often eaten together, are opportunities for pastors to lead by example, Kimbrough said. Other programs in the Black Clergy Wellness Initiative have included a “farm to church” tasting at the Princeton Theological Seminary for African American seminarians and a cooking demonstration featuring “healthier versions of foods that are traditional in the black church,” she said. The meatless collard greens and oven-baked crispy chicken “were delicious,” and both pastors and church kitchen staffers attended.
“We can’t have them own their pulpits but not their kitchens,” Kimbrough said.
The Females of Faith Farm Fellowship at Chickadee Creek was a soggy success. The farm’s Jess Niederer, who won the 2016 National Outstanding Young Farmer award, answered questions about organic farming practices, CSA membership, and where attendees could purchase pea shoots and sweet turnips like the ones in their salad.
“I got into farming primarily because of a concern for people’s health. This was a perfect sort of request,” Niederer said of the day Kimbrough drove up her driveway and pitched the idea of women pastors congregating at a woman-owned farm.
“I wanted to celebrate [Jess] as well as reacclimate people of color to the farms,” Kimbrough said, “With the history of blacks on America’s farms as being more of a negative memory as opposed to a positive one, we’ve got to try to turn more blacks around and give them a new glimpse of agriculture in their lives—because it will save their lives.”
Wellness, in other words, is not just a matter of public health; it is the movement that underlies all the others.
“This focus enhances all of the other movements. In order to march, to be cognitively involved, we’ve got to be here,” she said. “We’ve got to be alive.”
Outside at Chickadee Creek Farm, as the women prayed about wellness and sang spirituals, Kimbrough realized she was, in a sense, preaching to the choir.
“Their theology," she said, "pointed to a wholeness of well-being: We believe God wants us to be well—to be whole—in our physical [being], in our emotional [being], in our spirit. Their understanding embraces all of this God’s green earth, being well, and moving toward the light.”