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Black Churches Lean On Obese Members

Congregations in L.A. and elsewhere, alarmed at the number of overweight African Americans, offer fitness and nutrition programs.

April 02, 2006|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

Alarmed by studies showing that nearly half of African American women and more than a quarter of men are obese, black churches in Los Angeles and other parts of the country are starting exercise classes and nutrition programs, trying to nurture bodies as well as souls.

With blacks at a high risk for obesity-related ailments, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, these community institutions are urging their congregations to get moving, literally.

"Charity begins at home," said the Rev. Gailen L. Reevers, pastor of Lincoln Memorial United Church of Christ in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. "If we don't do something, we will be doing more funerals and hospital visits."

In August 2004, the National Progressive Baptist Convention passed a resolution endorsing "body and soul" programs for the 2,000-church organization. Afterward, churches from across the nation and from different denominations took up the cause.

The effort is intended to build on the historical strength of African American churches, not just as spiritual institutions, but as centers for education and information.

Church leaders say keeping fit is biblical and that healthy body, mind, soul and spirit go together. Some cite I Corinthians 6:19: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?"

"Our body is the temple of the Lord," said the Rev. Timm Cyrus, pastor of Angeles Mesa Presbyterian Church in Southwest Los Angeles. "We have to revere our temple."

Cyrus and his wife, Margaret, began teaching basic nutrition and during their home Bible classes a decade ago, after she noticed that some of the older congregants weren't eating properly.

Three times a week, the fellowship hall at Angeles Mesa, with its soaring ceiling and well-worn grand piano, becomes a community gym.

Facing a stage with a mural backdrop -- a picturesque scene of a statue of Jesus by a lake -- men and women in varying stages of fitness work out under the firm but friendly direction of Eric Tucker. A personal trainer and church member, he considers teaching health and fitness his ministry.

"The church just mirrors the community, and if we have healthy congregations, we are going to have a healthy community," said Elaine Lee, a public health nurse in Detroit and a leader in the movement.

On a recent Saturday morning, Tucker and his charges were flat on their backs in the fellowship hall.

"OK, I am ready," he said, reaching over to turn on his CD player, which started playing recorded beats like a metronome.

"Knees up, feet on the floor. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight," he said, pushing up a wooden exercise bar.

Lying on her exercise mat, paralegal Lori Braithwaite, who since her kidney transplant seven years ago has been laboring to get back in shape, pushed her stick toward the ceiling.

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight," she counted, huffing and puffing.

Since joining Angeles Mesa's fitness program three years ago, Braithwaite, 47, has shed 30 pounds. "Things are starting to fit together," she said.

Septuagenarian Flora Robinson is a member of the class too.

Tucker calls the retired schoolteacher his "No. 1 fusser" and a "top student."

When Robinson began exercising nearly four years ago, she couldn't take baths because she had trouble stepping in and out of her tub.

Within three months, she was enjoying her old-fashioned, extra-deep tub. "I also had more energy to go up and down steps" at her church, she said. Her dress size went from 18 to 16.

The latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 49% of black women are obese, compared with 33% of their white counterparts and 38% of Mexican American women. The obesity rates for men are about the same, regardless of race or ethnicity -- about 28%.

Obesity is measured by a "body mass index" that takes into account a person's weight and height. Someone who is 5 feet 9 would be considered obese at 203 pounds or more, according to the CDC.

In March, with a $25,000 grant from the California Endowment, Reevers' Crenshaw district church launched "Healthy Eating for African American Families" -- a six-session series of nutrition lessons, cooking demonstrations and field trips to supermarkets for church members and the wider community.

"We are teaching families how to prepare healthy meals, give information on how your diet affects your heart and diabetes," said Viveca Finley, executive director of the Lincoln Family Life Center, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the church.

"For example, collard greens are healthy, but not if you cook with fat," she said.

On a recent Saturday, Finley showed her class how tasty low-fat baked chicken and macaroni and cheese can be.

Such sessions have persuaded Taiesha Farmer, 29, a mother of two young children, to change her cooking habits.

"No more fried chicken," she said.

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