Pink in the Pews Fuses Worship with Breast Cancer Awareness for African American Congregations

Julie Bitely

| 4 min read

When Earnestine Tolbert was diagnosed with breast cancer on November 11, 2011, or the auspicious date of 11-11-11, she thought ‘why me?’. Today, as an almost three-year survivor, she has her answer. Tolbert is certain that her diagnosis, treatment – which included a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation – and subsequent recovery were predetermined by a higher power. Her mission is now to be a source of comfort and strength to women in her community who have been recently diagnosed. “If my story helps someone then I know that this is why God let me go through this,” she explained. As chairwoman of New Hope Baptist Church’s health and wellness team, Tolbert recently worked with the West Michigan Susan G. Komen (SGK) affiliate to turn her church’s pews pink to raise awareness of the disease. The Pink in the Pews program asks congregations to devote one Sunday to the topic of breast cancer. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan is partnering with SGK to bring the educational message to churches in West Michigan. Individual congregations can decide how they want to incorporate the program, whether it’s by having everyone dress in pink or devoting part of the sermon to discussing the life-saving power of early detection and mammograms. SGK representatives are on hand to answer questions and hand out literature. The program is aimed at predominantly African American congregations although it can be implemented in any church. In the United States, African American women have higher mortality rates and lower survival rates than white women. Death from breast cancer is 41 percent higher in African American women than in white women and for those diagnosed from 2003 to 2009, the five-year relative survival rate among African American women was 79 percent compared to 92 percent among white women. “Pink in the Pews is designed to increase awareness about the importance of regular screenings in the African American community and to encourage women to take care of their bodies,” said Megan Smith, Mission Director for SGK West, Southwest, and Mid-Michigan affiliates. “I think churches are a wonderful avenue for outreach because you can find such a large percentage of communities at church. You have to go where people are.” Women especially tend to take care of their family first, neglecting their own health needs in the process, explained Tanya Horan, Komen West Michigan’s Development Director. She said getting the message across to female members of the congregation that they’re important and needed is critical. “They take care of themselves last,” Horan said. This is the third year New Hope has participated in Pink in the Pews. Tolbert said the congregation got into the spirit, showing up in their finest pink attire. Everyone received a pink ribbon pin from the hospitality team at the church and plenty of men showed up sporting pink shirts and ties. “Even our pastors had pink ties on,” she said. “Men do look nice in pink.” The New Hope Breast Cancer Champions board listed the 12 women in the congregation known to have beaten breast cancer and the number of years they’d been free of the disease. Tolbert’s name was at the bottom of the list and she said she’s inspired by women who’ve survived 20 or 30 years or more. “When you see people with 25 or 30 years, it gives you hope,” she said. As a registered nurse, Tolbert urges women she knows to make the time for regular checkups and exams. “I advise every woman, and especially African American women, if they feel anything different than what they normally feel, to have it checked out,” she said. “It can be a matter of life and death.” Pink in the Pews is an ongoing initiative. Bethel Abundant Life Center and Carson City Baptist Church also recently participated and services at Revolution Christian Ministries and Messiah Missionary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids will be noticeably pinker this Sunday, October 26. Interested in having Pink in the Pews come to your congregation? Email Megan Smith at Photo credit: Phil
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