By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – At Sunday gatherings they sing happily of the hereafter, but losing members before their time has put a damper on many congregations’ joy.
In July, White Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Tupelo lost 44 year-old Lynn Donnell Lipsey. Earlier this summer, Temple of Compassion and Deliverance lost Bishop Theodis Kimbrough, who’d just turned 60.
The scourge that claimed these young men kills more Mississippians each year than all types of cancer, traffic accidents, suicide and AIDS combined. It strikes down blacks at a disturbingly high rate.
Cardiovascular disease is a major concern for black Mississippians, and churches are taking a leading role in combating it.
It’s called soul food, a mouth-watering menu of deep-fried, heavily spiced delicacies that graces the table at almost every black church dinner and family reunion. There’s fried chicken, hog jowl and beans, pigs feet and chitterlings, cheap cuts of meat cooked with age-old skill and masterfully fashioned into delicious recipes.
“We learned to cook what the slave masters didn’t want,” said Bernard Golden, a cook at The Stables Downtown Bar and Grill in Tupelo, who’s been cooking all his life. Fat and salt make it so delicious.
“It’s unhealthy, but it’s part of who we are. It’s how we express love,” said Valerie Noflin, a registered nurse who heads up the health ministry at White Hill Missionary Baptist Church.
Mississippi leads the nation in deaths from cardiovascular disease. According to a recent study from the Department of Health, blacks in the state are 25 percent more likely than whites to die from maladies like heart attack, stroke and diabetes.
Expressing love within the black community today means telling hard truths about health. The pulpit, as it’s done since well before the civl rights era, is serving as the platform for raising consciousness.
Labor Day weekend hundreds attended a gospel fest and health fair sponsored by black churches in Tupelo.
The numbers weren’t encouraging. About 60 percent of those tested had blood pressure or blood glucose that was less than optimal, according to organizers.
A bright spot was that so many people came out, said Bridgett Hereford Allen, a registered nurse and member of Victory Temple in Tupelo. Cardiovascular disease is the silent killer, and when blacks don’t talk about the problem it makes it worse, Allen said.
The Rev. Terry Cousin has seen it at his church in Marks.
“We tend to put things off, and then we wind up in the emergency room with chest pains and find out we’re at high risk for all sorts of illnesses,” said Cousin, a Houston native and supervisor with the Department of Health.
Bacon fat in their cornbread isn’t the only cause of cardiovascular disease among black Mississippians.
The doctors who conducted the Department of Health study hypothesized that, “groups whose circumstances are limited by … poverty, lack of education and cultural differences will be less likely to successfully deal with certain types of social change.”
Those changes, according to the study, include a transition to a work force that devalues physical labor, to a society with an information-based economy, which tends to benefit whites more than others and to dietary patterns which include more consumption of processed and fast food than ever.
Noflin also saw generational changes as part of the explanation.
“Our culture is evolving,” she said. “Our parents and grandparents ate these traditional foods and lived long lives.” But folks today aren’t as active, therefore they’re not as healthy, Noflin said.
Simply put, like most Mississippians blacks don’t get enough exercise and they eat poorly. Compared to most whites they don’t go to the doctor as often and don’t have good medical insurance. They don’t learn about and therefore don’t get treatment for life-threatening conditions, like high cholesterol, early enough.
Health fairs give black people of limited means a chance to see what kind of shape they’re in.
“It’s a way for us to raise awareness, and to keep these issues before our congregations,” said Allen.
Few black churches today teach the dualistic theology that health and well-being have nothing to do with the spiritual life.
“Scripture speaks of wholeness,” said Noflin. “Jesus didn’t come to minister to those who were well but to the sick.” Since getting a bad report at a health fair last year, Noflin has dropped 90 pounds.
There’s also a behavioral explanation for why so many blacks suffer from maladies related to obesity, said Rev. Bernard Wilson.
“We have to address the mindset about these things, about managing our lives, breaking out of unhealthy habits,” said Wilson, pastor of New Beginnings Full Gospel Baptist Church in Tupelo.
The Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship offers members nationwide a low-cost insurance plan that lets them get inexpensive, regular checkups.
Cardiovascular disease is the big chimera, but black Mississippians face increased risk for several illnesses.
According to the National Black Men’s Health Network, the average black man barely lives long enough to collect his Social Security.
Prostate cancer is just one of the maladies for which the early detection that blacks aren’t getting could mean the difference between life and death.
A recent study by the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., showed that black men in the U.S. have the highest incidence of prostate cancer in the world.
On Sept. 17, from 9 a.m. until noon, White Hill will hold a health fair focusing on prostate cancer.
It makes perfect sense, said Allen at Victory Temple, that faith communities are acting as catalysts in the fight to improve the health of black Mississippians.
“The church has always been a place where we’ve come together to support one another and educate ourselves,” said Allen.
“It’s where we hear the word, where we share hope and where we take each other’s best interest to heart.”