A decade or so ago, a predominantly black church in Alexandria noticed a problem. Members of the congregation were falling ill during services, requiring frantic calls to the rescue squad.
Bethlehem Baptist Church leaders realized its members needed to take some easy steps, like eating breakfast and taking medications before church, and some harder ones, like changing diet and exercise habits to improve overall health.
Today Brenda Faison, director of Christian education and missions, oversees several healthy lifestyle programs at the church. Over the years, this has included distributing pedometers, teaching parents how to read food labels, encouraging men to go for prostate screening, and checking blood pressure.
Faison, a member of the board of the Baptist General Convention of Virginia, is now using her expertise to help train volunteers for SPICES for Life, a program run jointly by AARP Virginia and the Baptist General Convention.
SPICES aims to help close the shocking health gap in Virginia. A statistical snapshot: African Americans suffer a 25 percent higher rate of death from heart disease than whites. The cancer death rate is 23 percent higher for African Americans. The rates of diabetes, kidney disease, blood poisoning and HIV/AIDS all are higher for blacks than for whites.
The health disparity in Virginia reflects economic and educational gaps between African Americans and whites, according to the Department of Health's Virginia Health Equity Report 2008. African Americans in Virginia are twice as likely to live in poverty as white Virginians, and African American children are three times more likely to live in poverty than white children.
SPICES reflects a holistic or whole-person approach to improving health in the African American community: just as the right combination of spices adds flavor to foods. The goal is for people to take charge of all aspects of their lives, including spiritual, physical, intellectual, cognitive, emotional and social health.
SPICES stands for:
Spiritual: being aware of how our spirit affects our health
Physical: taking care of our bodies with exercise and good nutrition
Intellectual: making decisions that lead to healthier lifestyles
Cognitive: setting goals to maintain a healthy lifestyle
Emotional: using techniques to reduce stress
Social: developing social skills that foster support systems
"This is a critical program to promote health and wellness in the African American community," said Patrick Johnson, AARP Virginia associate state director for multicultural outreach.
The Rev. J. Elisha Burke of the Baptist General Convention in Richmond said SPICES will help people of all ages. "Health is an issue everywhere we go," Burke said.
SPICES is gearing up in at least 10 Richmond area churches, with plans to eventually expand across the state. AARP has awarded the convention a $5,000 grant and will help recruit and train volunteers for the program.
Oscar Covington, an AARP volunteer in Richmond, said SPICES will sponsor walking groups, exercise classes, health fairs, health screenings and other events designed to educate and motivate. He said the recent battle in Washington over health care reform has heightened awareness of health. Covington himself is a good role model. At 72, he tries to maintain a healthy diet and walk three miles a day.
Faison, 58, ran the Northern Virginia SPICES program when it used to be affiliated with Ameri-Corps. She said SPICES helps people understand their choices and make better ones.
"You make a decision whether you want to live healthfully and a long time," she said, adding, "But nobody likes to be told what to do."
Want to volunteer for SPICES? Contact Brian Jacks of AARP Virginia by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-866-542-8164 toll-free.
Marsha Mercer is a freelance reporter in Northern Virginia.