For churches and individuals participating in the Faith in Wellness Blues Community Challenge, healthy lifestyles aren’t just a fad: they’re lived and celebrated. Twenty Grand Rapids congregations are participating in this year’s challenge, formerly known as Body and Soul, which is an incentive-based wellness program designed to reduce health disparities in diverse faith communities. Over 900 church members registered and have been logging their physical activity online through Walking Works. Members also attended healthy activities to gain points for their congregations. Awards and grant funding for the top churches will be announced this Saturday at a community celebration that will take place from noon to 4 p.m. at True Light Baptist Church. The celebration will include a series of education sessions, health,wellness and human services vendors, as well as activities for kids.The winner of this year’s competition will be announced around 1:30 p.m.
Does the challenge actually make a difference?
Ludie Weddle is on the wellness committee at True Light. The registered dietician says big changes have happened at her church since they started participating in the challenge. Members have kicked medications for high blood pressure, lost weight and adopted regular exercise routines. About once a month, the True Light team coordinates a "wellness Sunday" for members. One Sunday, members dressed down for a community walk that served as a workout and a chance to improve community visibility. Other Sundays have focused on high blood pressure screenings, stroke prevention and other relevant health topics. One of the most popular events was a funeral planning session. Weddle said it may seem morbid, but peace of mind about end-of-life decision making is part of a healthy life. Weddle thinks preaching and modeling a healthier lifestyle from the pulpit is one of the best ways to reach the African American community and to reduce preventable health conditions in the population. “That’s where you can get people’s attention,” she explained. “We have people dying from diabetes and having amputations and we don’t have to.”
Why do people love participating?
Aliya Armstrong and Earnestine Tolbert are health co-chairs at New Hope Baptist Church, the large congregation winner from last year. The grant funding they received helped put on a 5K community run/walk. A healthy cooking class, complete with chef and nutritionist, kicks off in January in the church’s newly remodeled building. Armstrong is the keeper of a "top 10" board at the church. Every week, the 10 people in the congregation with the most logged activity make the list. People get a bit competitive about making it onto the board. “I have met so many new friends,” Armstrong said with a laugh. “It’s fun, good healthy fun.” Tolbert said the church had an active health ministry before Faith in Wellness, which they’ve participated in for four years. The church partners with the YMCA to bring in Zumba and kickboxing classes on Monday and Wednesday nights and had other health initiatives. Still, Tolbert said the competitive aspect of the program raised interest. “We had people walking for the first time,” Tolbert said. “It was an inspiration to a lot of people and a lot more of our congregation participated.” One of those participants was Armstrong, two years ago. “It really changed my life. I’ll tell anybody that,” she said. The walking challenge got her started, but when she noticed she could get more points and cover more miles biking, she added that to her routine. Now, she’s completed duathlons, even placing fifth in her age group during the recent Tri Goddess Tri, held in Grasslake, Michigan in June. She’s brought her husband along for the ride, literally, as he now bikes and has lost 15 pounds in the process. The family’s three children, ages 3, 5 and 7, now enjoy fresh food from the family’s garden and Armstrong teaches fitness classes through the Real Women, Real Change program. “It’s great being everyone’s cheerleader,” she said. Through her work as a school nurse, Tolbert understands the importance of establishing healthy habits. Bringing health inside the church walls makes perfect sense to her. “I see health and wellness in the churches as very important,” she said. “You have a lot of physical, mental, and spiritual needs, and we know that if you are not healthy physically, it’s going to work on your spiritual health.” One year after heart surgery and as a 2 ½-year breast cancer survivor, Tolbert said Faith in Wellness keeps her motivated, along with her unwavering belief that she’s survived health struggles for a larger purpose. She walks three miles per day without fail. “All of this just helped me to stay on task,” she said.
What happens when the challenge ends?
At Messiah Missionary Baptist Church, the challenge doesn’t end when the official 12 weeks are up. Ellen Atkins is a health leader there who was personally inspired by the program three years ago. She started walking and lost 140 pounds through her efforts. “Blue Cross kind of gave me a little kick and I’ve been moving ever since,” she said. “Having to do this for 12 weeks kind of changed my perspective.” What’s inspired Atkins is the level of commitment she’s witnessed after the challenge is over. In addition to church members continuing to pursue fitness goals after the 12 weeks are up, they’ve all come to embrace healthier food options at potlucks and before services. “We’ve quit frying things,” she said. “The choices now are healthier choices. You don’t see any doughnuts at Messiah on Sunday morning.” Atkins said the changes in church members support Biblical teachings to respect the body as a temple. In her opinion, keeping her body healthy is a way to ensure she’s able to continue to do God’s work. “I think my church community is healthier now than it has been in a long time,” Atkins said. “Overall, I think that we have had a lifestyle change at Messiah – and it happens one person at a time.”