The church has been an anchor for many people in the Black community. A recent study revealed that religion played a role in one’s health. According to the American Heart Association, Those who believe religion plays a vital role in their health may be more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, be physically active, and have confidence asking questions of healthcare providers than their peers who don’t share that belief. The report was based on a study by Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine students in New Orleans. Their findings reveal that the church’s strong support has led to healthy people in the congregation. 

“The black church has played an important role in their constituents’ spiritual, social, and physical well-being. The more cynical view would be that people are just leaving it up to God. But I think what’s happening here is we’re showing the opposite. It’s actually through the support from church that it can improve your health,” said Farah Allouch, epidemiology PhD student at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

Allouch and the team behind the study sent a questionnaire to 300 Black churchgoers in New Orleans. Through the answers, they discovered people who said that religion dramatically influences their health tended to have better health behaviors. The questionnaire also revealed that 70% of participants in the study reported that they had been diagnosed with high blood pressure, and about 50% also reported diabetes. Allouch believes structural racism and the unfortunate legacy of slavery in the United States have played a role in their condition.

The purpose of the study is to provide data to back up a more comprehensive study that would determine if a program that would lower the risk of heart disease in black churches would be effective. Allouch elaborates that the team intended to use the initial study to leverage the support and sense of community people already have within the church and their neighborhoods to try to maintain that program. Allouch has seen similar programs that did not last due to structure.

“I think a lot of the time, what ends up happening in these more community-based programs is the researchers come in, do the program, get the results, publish their papers, and then they’re out. Then, whenever that money goes out of the program, it’s not sustainable. 

In this study, we’re trying to leverage what already exists: this enormous sense of community. The immense feeling of people looking out for each other and trying to integrate that to lower that risk of heart disease,” said Allouch.

Another piece of information the study uncovered is Black churchgoers are aware that their health is in their hands. Dr. LaPrincess Brewer is a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota. She conducted a similar study in August 2022, and her findings uncovered that Black churchgoers are not just relying on faith to be healthy.

“Many of the participants we interact with in our studies have shared their strong faith and belief that God will care for them. However, rather than relying on God alone to heal them, they tend to view their health as something they need to work towards alongside God, strengthening their faith. In many of our focus group discussions, interviews, or participant testimonials, we’ve had individuals share that they feel empowered to improve their heart health to live the life God has intended for them,” said Dr. Brewer.

Dr. Brewer suggests incorporating health messaging in sermons and other worship services for those who want to improve the well-being of their church home and family. Dr.Brewer explains in the report sermons that emphasize unhealthy habits to avoid may provide a strong motive for churchgoers to adopt healthy lifestyles. Another interventional step to apply is blood pressure screenings at the church. Connecting people to primary care services and providing coaching and education programs on healthier eating and physical activities are more ideas to guide the congregation in a healthier direction. 

What’s next for Allouch and her team in the New Orleans study is preparing for a more comprehensive study. The group aims to recruit 1200 participants across 40 churches in New Orleans. With the data from this study, Allocuch and the team can determine what is sustainable and how it can be scaled. Their goal for all this work is to make a difference in the locals’ health.

“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for folks to monitor their health to make small changes to their lifestyle that, hopefully, in the long term, they can sustain. And they can sustain as part of this larger community at the churches,” said Allouch.

Clayton Gutzmore is a freelance journalist in South Florida. He published stories in several news outlets including The Miami Times, 91.3 WLRN, The Atlanta Voice, BET, and Variety Magazine. Gutzmore graduated...