KANSAS CITY — Jannette Berkley-Patton remembers a time before tweets, blogs and Facebook posts when many African-Americans got their community news and political updates from the same place where they sought spiritual uplift: church.
So when the University of Missouri-Kansas City psychology professor wanted to spread the word on ways to prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity, she took it to the pulpit, The Kansas City Star reports.
It's an approach that has worked for the Rev. Eric Williams, pastor at Calvary Temple Baptist Church. For more than two decades, he has been preaching HIV prevention along with the Gospel on Sunday mornings.
This fall, Berkley-Patton and Williams won a three-year, $850,000 federal research grant to go into more churches, help more people and digg deeper into changing cultural norms when it comes to healthy living, wellness and fitness in black urban communities.
The initiative, KC Faith, "is creating strategies to address African-American health disparities, whereby African-American communities suffer rates of certain diseases much higher than those of the general population," Berkley-Patton said.
KC Faith is starting with six churches. It follows an earlier collaboration by Berkley-Patton and Williams called Taking It to the Pews, an HIV and AIDS awareness program that has spread into more than two dozen churches in the Kansas City area.
Dianne Cleaver, executive director of the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, said at a recent forum on KC Faith that she can see no better partner in health than the church.
"The church is trusted," Cleaver said. "Fifty-three percent of African-Americans attend church on a regular basis. Another 20-something percent attend often. This is a tremendous, tremendous opportunity to make a difference in health."
Williams began talking about HIV prevention from his pulpit in 1990 — a time when such a discussion in the black community, especially in church, bordered on taboo. Williams had been called on to officiate at the funeral of a gay man who had died of complications from AIDS and whose home-church pastor had refused to eulogize him. Williams said it made him want to better educate his congregation and others about AIDS and the virus that causes it.
That effort grew into the Calvary Community Outreach Network, a health awareness action plan, Williams said. In 2008, his church opened the Calvary Community Wellness Center, with rows of treadmills, elliptical machines and a climbing wall.
"It's our YMCA," he said.
Williams said he'd gotten frustrated sitting at the hospital bedsides of church members with heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Historically, perhaps because of a distrust of researchers and doctors, African-Americans have been slow to regularly visit their doctors, he said.
"We go to a person's funeral, then after the burial come back to the church, sit down and eat the very foods that contributed to the death of the person we just buried."
That distrust goes back to a study done in Tuskegee, Ala., from 1932 to 1972. Researchers with the U.S. Public Health Service misled some African-American men infected with syphilis, telling them they were getting free health care but in fact leaving them untreated in order to study the effects of the disease. Eventually their wives and newborns were infected, and many of the men died.
When Berkley-Patton learned several years ago of efforts in Kansas City to teach AIDS and HIV awareness, including the annual Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, she launched Taking It to the Pews. That initiative uses grant money to develop culturally and religiously appropriate HIV and AIDS pamphlets to distribute in church.
"Here in Kansas City we almost had the perfect paradise to introduce this work," Berkley-Patton said. Results of surveys she circulated in churches told her that pastors and their congregations would be on board.
Community boards came up with ways to reach more black churchgoers and pastors started preaching about AIDS screening from their pulpits. Some pastors even received their screenings in the pulpit to encourage their flocks to follow suit.
Close to 30 churches in the Kansas City area have used the Taking It to the Pews tool kit of materials and activities. It has been adopted in 10 churches in Montgomery, Ala. Berkley-Patton documented the successes. And more grant money rolled in.
"We pushed a lot of the dollars to the churches," Berkley-Patton said, paying for screenings, videos promoting healthy choices and games that can be played in Sunday school.
The success of the AIDS awareness movement opened a window, Berkley-Patton said, for expanding the church connection to educate about other diseases that disproportionately affect African-Americans.
"The whole goal was not just research but 'How can we increase the capacity of black churches to talk about health?'" Berkley-Patton said. "We want to be infused with the things that happen in church."
Pastors started conversations with their congregations about eating right, exercising and seeing the doctor regularly. Instead of fried chicken and cheese-laden macaroni casseroles cooking in the church basement kitchen, they started preparing more healthful meals, Berkley-Patton said.
Deric Wilson was in church four years ago when he heard about the wellness center and started working out there. Now he's the center's trainer and teaches a senior citizen fitness class he loves.
"I don't see a lot of great weight loss, but I see a change in attitudes," Wilson said. "I've had a lot of people come and tell me, 'Whoa, my blood pressure has gone down, and my doctor says whatever I'm doing, keep doing it.'"
Church member Sharon Guess is more than 60 years old and has diabetes, high blood pressure and "bad knees and hips." She got the message about healthy living while sitting in the pews at Calvary Temple and decided to change her eating habits and work out at the wellness center.
"I'm baking instead of frying, and there was a time when I would smother things with butter," Guess said. "Since I've been working out, I'm no longer on a cane."