It’s a few days after Thanksgiving and only two kids have turned up at the Bronx Christian Fellowship on Gun Hill Road. Jonathan Arroyo, 12, and Joseph Ross, 14 are ready for their weekly fitness class, wearing sweatpants and their new Army t-shirts. In the chilly church hall, Arroyo and Ross stand with a group of much less fit adults: Michelle Chapman, 45, Sharon Heyward, 44 and Jimmy Rodriguez, 44. They too wear sweatpants, baggy t-shirts and sneakers. Rather than reciting hymns, the small group reads aloud about the hazards of sugary beverages and how “water is all you need.” Loyce Godfry, health coordinator for the Bronx Christian Fellowship, stands off to the side and watches, occasionally mouthing along with the words of the script. This isn’t her first time teaching healthy habits to the Bronx community, many of who were adults.
Twenty kids have signed up for the class, but if Godfry is disappointed in the small turnout, she doesn’t show it. Instead, she is eager to push the benefits of more exercise and healthier eating, the message of “Fit to Lead,” a six-week youth fitness program in the church with volunteers from the Army’s Bronx Recruitment Center. “Fit to Lead is about reducing screen-time, reducing soda consumption, increase physical activity, and reduce junk food,” said Godfry.
Each Sunday, Army volunteers teach the participants how to exercise and maintain a fitness routine. Then, during the week, Army mentors call participants to make sure they are on track. Arryo and Ross are regulars and are called upon to demonstrate a proper crunch and push-up. The adults in class are there getting healthy themselves and also to be role models. “I need to lose weight, and I need to eat healthier,” Heyward said as the class prepares to stretch. “Besides, I think it motivates the children if they see us doing it.”
The small group stands in a circle around Sgt. Emmanuel Zapata and begins to stretch their arms. Zapata explains each move but the two youngest participants—Arroyo and Ross—already seem well versed in this routine while the adults struggle to do just five sit-ups.
In a borough where French fries are more accessible than treadmills, a growing number of churches have stepped in to educate Bronx residents on the dangers of obesity. The need is great: nearly 42 percent of young people in the Bronx are obese, which puts them at risk for diabetes and heart disease. Public health agencies have tried to stem the crisis through efforts like Green Carts, which provide fresh produce in poor neighborhoods. But it’s clearly not enough. That’s where the churches come in. Because they represent an institution that people are familiar with and trust (in contrast to some doctors and hospitals), churches have a receptive audience. With obesity at record levels, a growing number of congregations say health and fitness should be part of their mission.
Godfry is a veteran of the faith-based fitness movement. “Fit to Lead” grew out of a 12-week adult diabetes-prevention program she created in 1999 called “Fine, Fit and Fabulous” which she brought to churches throughout the Bronx and in Harlem. Now, she works for Bronx Health REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Health), an organization that aims to eliminate disparities in the healthcare industry. Bronx Health REACH created a specific section called the Faith-Based Outreach Initiative to implement programs like “Fine, Fit and Fabulous”, created fitness guides and healthy cookbooks, and gives seminars on heart health and diabetes.
Godfry knows that faith-based fitness isn’t the whole answer, but she thinks it can be an important part of an overall health strategy in the borough. “There seems to be less weight gain,” Godfry said. “So in some kind of way, there is some kind of message that obesity a problem and it is a problem that we need to address. I think most faith-based group are hearing it loud and clear.” According to the data Bronx Health REACH collected last year, nearly 79 percent of participants in “Fine Fit and Fabulous” lost weight. On average, this year’s 17,000 participants lost 4.6 pounds.
The churches seem to be particularly effective in reaching African-Americans, and the need in that community is the most acute. According to the American Obesity Association, nearly 70 percent of African-Americans are overweight and 40 percent are obese, higher than the national average. Traditional public health outreach efforts haven’t been successful in reaching them. African-Americans are less likely to have health insurance than whites and more likely to be low-income—both of which make it harder to get access to healthcare. The disparity affects all ages from babies (black infant mortality is higher than whites) to adults. “A black man will wait longer in a waiting room than a white man,” said Joyce H. Davis, the health coordinator at Walker Memorial Baptist Church in Highbridge. “We should stay healthy so we shouldn’t have to see any doctor. We are not trying to close down our hospitals, but we know that we have a lesser chance of getting ill this way.”
In other parts of the country, faith-based fitness programs are not confined to poor communities. Gwen Shamblin author of “The Weight Down Diet,” created a faith-based curriculum that focuses on portion control. The Tennessee-native has implemented her program across the country with workshops, seminars and through her book. Her own church, the Remnant Fellowship in Tennessee, has lost over 20,000 pounds altogether. Shamblin has also been featured on several television shows, such as Tyra Banks and the Today Show to talk about how God connects with a person’s greed. “I think people mean well but they know they are plagued with food, overindulging in alcohol drugs, cigarette,” said Shamblin. “But they need to get back into God’s boundaries. God is saying, ‘No that’s enough.’ The average person knows what they want. If you listen to the body, it will tell you how much and what you want to eat.”
Some critics say that linking faith to fitness in such an overt way could create a spiritual crisis if a participant fails to lose weight. But in the Bronx the message is less about God and more about health.
“The faith-based community is the core of every community,” said the Rev. Que English of the Bronx Christian Fellowship in Pelham Parkway. “We reach the masses. You have a collective and built-in audience. The church creates a serene environment for people to cope with some of the problems they are having.” Fitness in the church is not a matter of praying off the pounds, English said. “It’s not like God is going to take the spoon out of your mouth,” she said. “God can help you with doing those things that are right. Instances in time where you feel like you fail, you can pick yourself back up and try again. You can always live in very positive way. That all stems from faith.”
For many Bronx residents, it’s far more powerful to hear the message of health and wellness from the pulpit than from a doctor, says the Rev. Robert L. Foley, the pastor of the Cosmopolitan Church of the Lord Jesus in Fordham. “I think it is true across the board that people place a lot of value on what comes from that pulpit,” he said. “It’s a word that they trust and believe in.”
Foley often places health-conscious messages in his sermons. “I try to include a health message—a reference to a health issue or concern or tip that will be beneficial to our members,” he said. “Recently I delivered a message on retrospective–looking back. Even when I look back on our congregation I see members who have been with us for 30 years I can recall episodes in their lives when they were on the edge of a stroke. But as they assumed more responsibilities on their health, they improved.”
Godfry says it is the environments in which the fitness and nutrition are conducted that make the program so effective. After 12 weeks, the church can continue with the curriculum or make their own nutrition plan, reducing salt or sugar intake, or perhaps increase the amount of vegetables they consume.
Some changes are clearly taking place. Foley remembers that the after-service supper on Sundays used to be filled with plates of fried fish and fried chicken. Today supper is replaced with low-sodium and low-sugar foods, baked chicken and turkey and more vegetables.
“We’ve made a conscientious effort so that we are not eating as much sugar and we are certainly not using as much salt as we’ve been accustomed to,” he said. But the Bronx pastor also remembers seeing more members of his church back then.
“There were some people who have been with me for 37 years,” said Foley. “But we’ve had some people who did not pay attention to sodium intake and high cholesterol foods and many of those folks are not here today.” The Cosmopolitan Church has adopted the Fine Fit and Fabulous curriculum and has a health committee that coordinates with the Bronx Health REACH once a month. “This is not just a philosophical thing,” he said. “I can see the impact. I buried them.” That’s experience he’s praying not to repeat too soon.