With Healthcare Bill Stalled, Black Churches Are Stepping Up to Bridge Health Disparities

Edward Jackson from the University of Alabama at Birmingham tells church leaders it's important to share information about getting tested for HIV with their congregations. (Photo: Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY)
Edward Jackson from the University of Alabama at Birmingham tells church leaders it’s important to share information about getting tested for HIV with their congregations. (Photo: Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY)

In a small room down the hall in the Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, about two dozen people listened one recent afternoon as Donald Solomon rattled off ailments ravaging African-American communities.

“We’re a sick crowd … Whatever is wrong in the country, we have it worse. We need to get health into the church,” said Solomon, a founder of Congregations for Public Health and co-author of Body and Soul, a healthy living guide for church leaders.

For four days in late July, pastors, deacons and folks running church kitchens and health ministries gathered in the Birmingham church to discuss a range of issues, including health concerns disproportionately affecting African Americans in their congregations and communities.

The conference sponsored by the Alabama Baptist State Congress of Christian Education drew hundreds from across the state.

It was one of several efforts nationwide aimed at helping close the health gap between blacks and whites. In other places, barbers are checking customer’s blood pressures, local corner stores are stocking shelves with fresh produce, and some preachers are even banning fried chicken from Sunday church dinners.

African Americans, particularly men, continue to lag behind their white counterparts on a host of health issues, including diabetes, heart disease and HIV.

Nowhere is this disparity more true than in the Deep South, where many blacks live and where there’s a long history of discrimination, poor health and insufficient insurance coverage.

While the disparity isn’t new, experts say it could get worse.

As Congress debates how to overhaul the Affordable Care Act, experts, community activists and pastors say African-American men are more likely than any other group to be left behind.

Republican alternatives to the ACA considered in the House and Senate have included massive cuts to Medicaid, which experts say would hit black men especially hard.

“At a time when we should really be working toward trying to close the disparity … any action that rolls back coverage … only widens that gap,’’ said Corey Wiggins, state health chair for the Mississippi NAACP and director of the HOPE Policy Institute, a public policy think tank based in Jackson. “We should be working to strengthen policies that ensure access to care rather than limit care.’’

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SOURCE: Deborah Barfield Berry
USA TODAY