The African-American church was a source of comfort during slavery and a sanctuary throughout the civil rights movement, and it is now a respite during difficult economic times.
Because the church has been the marrow of the black community, Quintissa Peake, who has sickle cell anemia and has endured nearly 400 blood transfusions to combat the effects of the disorder, wants to tap into that connection to draw out more African-American blood donors.
Peake and the Kentucky Blood Center have joined forces to bring Sickle Cell Sabbath to Lexington.
"The main goal of the program is to increase the number of first-time African-American donors," said Peake, 28. "Blood donation plays a big part in my life."
Sickle Cell Sabbath started in St. Louis in 2003 and has proven to be effective. From 2003 to 2006 in St. Louis, nearly 700 African-American donors rolled up their sleeves. About 60 percent of them were first-time donors.
That means a great deal to Peake, who, like other sickle cell patients, must have transfusions every few weeks to decrease the number of painful episodes she has to endure. Without the transfusions, the sickle-shaped blood cells become stuck in blood vessels, cutting off the blood supply and causing a great deal of pain. Blood transfusions and bone marrow transplants replace misshapen cells with healthy ones.
She only recently discovered that transfusions from donors of the same ethnic background have less chance of causing complications for recipients.
"The past few times I received blood there has been a long waiting process" for a match, she said. Nearly always those matches have been from African-Americans.
So the more black people donate, the better off Peake will be.
Sickle cell anemia isn't a black disease, however. The disease affects millions of people throughout the world, some 70,000 in the United States alone, and it is particularly common among people whose ancestors came from sub-Saharan Africa, Saudi Arabia, India, and Mediterranean countries such as Turkey, Greece, and Italy. It also strikes Spanish-speaking Latin America.
All babies are tested for sickle cell in the United States, where about one in every 400 is born with the disease annually.
But, for a variety of reasons, black people don't tend to donate blood.
Denise Fields, marketing and communications specialist at the Kentucky Blood Center, said fewer than 4 percent of donors there are African-American. Fayette County's population is about 13 percent African-American.
That's why Peake decided to enhance her volunteer efforts at the center by becoming the spokeswoman for Sickle Cell Sabbath.
Throughout the year, she and others will visit interested African-American congregations to talk about the need for black donors. Officials at the center hope those visits will encourage churches to hold blood drives, as the program has done in St. Louis.
To jump-start the program, area ministers are invited to a luncheon Thursday at the blood center to hear about the program and how their churches can get involved.
Or those in charge of a church's outreach or health ministries can e-mail Peake at email@example.com to set up a visit. Or they can call Fields at (859) 519-3721.
Peake has pushed on through the disease despite all the obstacles. And, having graduated from the University of Kentucky and holding down a job, she said she will continue to do so.
"I really can't sit down," she said. "I started something, so I have to see it through. When I started volunteering with the blood center, I never fathomed how big this would get," she said.