When Fredda Bryan was diagnosed with breast cancer, she said her church became her family.
She’d had a very successful 25 year career of military service. She was 36 years old with an 8 and 9-year-old, and was in the best shape of her life. Being diagnosed was an unexplainable surprise for her.
“I went through every emotion,” she said. “I did not want my Christianity to be questioned if I experienced any sort of fear. All I knew was that cancer equaled death. Yes, I needed prayers, but I also needed a reality check.”
Through her journey she realized she did not need her senior pastor to pray for her, there were members that could pray for her and support her.
“As the church and as spiritual leaders, we have to know how to pray and care for each others’ spiritual needs,” she said. “But that’s not all. We need to know about prevention and services.”
Now five years in remission, Bryan has committed her life to helping educate others and has her sights set on the church. She currently serves as the Hampton Roads African-American Men’s Health Initiative Coordinator for the American Cancer Society.
Their strategy is focused on providing churches with the resources needed to best inform and educate their congregations.
“African-American men are at the highest risk of prostate cancer just because they are black. When people see cancer, they see it as something like a plague,” she said.
Bryan’s sister, mother and grandmother had all had ovarian cancer, yet they never talked about it. And she said the same has been true for most churches.
“Talking about health is uncomfortable,” she said.
Bryan is not the only one working to make health a topic of discussion in churches today. The newly recreated Conference of National Black Churches (CNBC) has made health one of their four key areas of focus.
The CNBC is partnering with Pernessa C. Seele, founder of The Balm of Gilead founder, for their health education and advocacy initiative. The development of a “Healthy Sunday” series is top priority.
Founded 21 years ago, Seele said she created The Balm in Gilead to help mobilize black churches around HIV/AIDS.
What role do black churches play in ensuring that African Americans live and lead healthier lives?
Some say a very important role. And while in the past black churches have done their part in communicating the importance of being and living healthy, some experts say there is more than can be and should be done.
“Black churches are the center of the African-American community, yet they were not dealing with HIV/AIDS. Black churches did not know how to deal with HIV/AIDS,” she said. “Historically, black churches have been at the forefront of health in this country. It is the church’s responsibility.”
It is their hope that initiatives like “Healthy Sunday” will be a good start. One Sunday each month, ten minutes of time from the pulpit will be devoted to education and awareness on a specific health-related issue, according to the CNBC.
Seele said the initiative should kick-off in the spring.
“Health is just as important as economic development and social justice. Health is just as important as crime in our communities,” Seele said. “We have to broaden our conversation.
Toni Belin-Ingram agrees.
When she began pastoring Greater Smith Chapel A.M.E. church in Atlanta, GA, she came to discover a good number of her members were diabetic and overweight.
“I did not want that kind of congregation,” she said. “So I decided it was important to be more health conscious.”
She started a “walking club” at the church. Two to three times a week during the summer the group would do a 3.32 mile walk around the church’s neighborhood. In bad weather they would take the work out inside, following the instruction of either Billy Blanks or other well-known video fitness trainers.
In November, Belin-Ingram participated in the Susan G. Komen 3-day walk for the cure in San Diego.
“I have to lead by example,” she said.
She said at one time black churches were all things to all people.
“We have to work on our commitment and consistency,” she said. “But our working out cannot be just to lose weight, but about making healthier choices and care for the whole of the person.”
Bryan believes there have been some strides, but there is more to be done. Recently she facilitated an informational session at a minister’s conference in the area. As a result, 30 churches represented at the conference have expressed interest in having her and the American Cancer Society make presentations at their churches.
Overcoming the myth that cancer is a death sentence has been most important, which Bryan said is happening.
“The church can teach us so much. Churches have gotten a lot better with starting the conversation,” she said. “Some churches are even making an effort to celebrate survivorship — seeing the face of survivorship helps.”