Helping members of his church stay physically healthy as well as spiritually healthy is a priority for Jonathan Smith, pastor of the Lima Drive Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
“We can’t be concerned about their souls going to heaven when their bodies are going to hell,” he said in a recent interview.
Each week, the pastor, who holds a master’s degree in public health from George Washington University, makes sure there’s a “health nugget” in the bulletin.
He said he got the degree because “I found a lot of my parishioners were suffering from chronic diseases ... and I was not adequately equipped to address that from a public health perspective.”
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“They get a steady dose of health from me,” he said.
Next month, church members will get a special message about Alzheimer’s Disease as part of a national campaign aimed at getting black churches involved in Alzheimer’s education and research.
Memory Sunday, an idea developed at the University of Kentucky’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging several years ago, is being rolled out nationally by the Virginia-based nonprofit Balm in Gilead.
“We suffer disproportionately from the disease but don’t have enough research,” Smith said.
Memory Sunday is June 11. Churches that meet on Saturdays will mark the day June 10.
Pernessa Seele founded Balm in Gilead 28 years ago with a goal of mobilizing black churches in the fight against AIDS. The Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS became a model for AIDS awareness days throughout the country. Later, an effort called Our Church Lights the Way got churches involved in AIDS testing.
“Our mission in life is to build the capacity of African-American congregations to address health disparities,” Seele said.
Now, the organization is turning its attention to the fact that blacks suffer disproportionately from Alzheimer’s.
“Alzheimer’s is a heavy burden within the African-American community,” Seele said. “We don’t know that African-American women have the highest rate of Alzheimer’s in the country. We just know that Mama got it.”
The community is just beginning to become more educated about the disease, she said.
“It used to be ‘senile,’ or ‘Mama is getting old,’” she said. “Our main focus will be awareness. This is not normal just because Mama is getting older.”
The ultimate goal is to get more blacks signed up to participate in clinical research on Alzheimer’s, she said.
Three years ago, Balm in Gilead received a grant from the Centers for Disease Control to create a National Brain Health Center for African-Americans. Seele said that’s when the organization found the work Sanders-Brown had been doing to reach out to minority populations through the African-American Dementia Outreach Partnership and The Book of Alzheimer’s for African-American Congregations.
“We were so overwhelmed and amazed,” she said.
Balm in Gilead has updated materials created at Sanders-Brown and has coalitions in cities including Nashville, Baltimore and Atlanta working to generate interest among churches, she said.
When people are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, one of the first things they may do is stop going to church, said Allison Caban-Holt, an assistant professor at Sanders-Brown.
“You’re sensitive about your social standing,” she said.
By getting churches involved in screenings and providing education, they are equipping them to provide better support when members are diagnosed, she said.
Churches can choose from three screening tools, including a self-administered questionnaire. Caban-Holt said Sanders-Brown will also send employees to churches in the Lexington area to conduct the screenings.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Seele said. “We have to use our pulpit to educate the masses on this disease.”
For more information about participating in Memory Sunday or scheduling a presentation on Alzheimer’s Disease for your congregation, contact Markeda Yarbrough at the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at 859-218-3867.
A toolkit of Memory Sunday resources is also available online at Balmingilead.org/memorysunday.