Bibb faces some of the worst health outcomes in Georgia. Churches want to change that

Each January, the new year brings new intentions to prioritize health and fitness.

More than 30 percent of Americans resolve to “stay fit and healthy” or lose weight in the new year, data analytics company Nielsen reports. In a city that claims to have more churches per capita than any other in the country, faith and health often go hand in hand.

Being physically fit gives you more energy to engage with religion, said Olivia Sharpe, a member of the health ministry at Bibb Mount Zion Baptist Church in south Macon.

“They go hand in hand,” Sharpe said. “Being physically fit helps you to do more work, and when you are more spiritually fit and you’re understanding that this body that was loaned to us is our temple and it’s His, so we have to take care of it.“

Sharpe is determined to promote healthy habits among her fellow congregants. In her 20 years as a nurse at the Medical Center, Navicent Health, she has watched too many patients suffer from chronic illnesses for her to stay silent.

“I just see and have seen the progress from a small issue and how it can blow up to a huge thing and premature death, really,” Sharpe said. “So, seeing that and knowing that, I can’t know that and do nothing to help anyone else.”

Bibb County faces some of the worst health outcomes in Georgia, according to County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, which ranks the region in 143rd place out of the state’s 159 counties. More than a third of adults here are obese and 28 percent are physically inactive.

Bibb Mount Zion Baptist Church wants to beat those statistics.

The congregation hosts an annual health fair, where visitors can receive health screenings and learn strategies to manage chronic conditions. Weekly Bible study sessions are often dedicated to health-related presentations by doctors, nurses, dentists and chiropractors, Sharpe said.

Congregants can also receive mental health counseling from a downtown center that partners with the church or attend weekly Zumba and circuit training classes while their kids play basketball at the church’s after-school program.

When medical emergencies arise at church, the health ministry triages the situation with “tackle boxes” equipped with over-the-counter drugs and medical supplies. The pastor has even led congregation-wide healthy eating challenges.

“We’ve seen a lot of our family members and friends, you know, pass on or go through hard times and have issues related to just not taking care of ourselves,” Sharpe said. “So, we want to learn from the mistakes and not just continue to repeat them.”

Poor health often results from lack of education, said Stephanie Barboza, a local personal trainer who integrates faith into her fitness coaching. Her clients don’t always realize the impact habits like smoking or unhealthy eating can have on their energy level or blood pressure.

“People perish by the lack of knowledge,” Barboza said.

The first step, she said, is to help clients adjust their attitude towards health.

“The mind is the battlefield,” Barboza said. “So, if I can educate them on food and fitness and weight management according to them, then I can transition the mindset.”

Barboza can’t erase her clients’ fear of change, she said, but she can help them take the first step on their fitness journey.

“I give them the education, I equip them with the tools and I empower them to move,” she said.

‘People need a helping hand’

Barboza sees spiritual and physical health as deeply intertwined.

“We have to take care (of) our physical bodies, our natural bodies, so that the holy spirit could have free reign,” she said.

Congregants who seek out both spiritual and physical guidance are more likely to be regular attenders, said Pastor Rusty Bissell of Alive Church in north Macon.

“If you’re not happy where you are physically, then you’re not happy where you are spiritually,” Bissell said.

In surveys of different churches Bissell has led over the years, he’s found the most common goal among his congregants is weight loss. The church can provide the nudge they need to get started, he said.

Bissell and his wife are creating a two-mile biking and running path around the perimeter of Alive Church’s property, which will be open to the public. They also lead biking and kayaking groups to bring congregants together outside of Sunday services.

And though most people come to Bissell for religious advice, the pastor doesn’t shy away from conversations about diet and exercise.

Barboza provides that guidance to her clients on both a religious and physical level. She worries others often fail to connect the two.

“I pray for this region,” Barboza said. “And that’s why I do what I do, because I don’t feel like there’s enough is being done. Everybody is more in the natural aspect of losing weight and exercising but not looking at it in the spiritual aspect of building up God’s body.”

Churches aren’t the same community epicenter that they used to be, Sharpe said. Different congregations will have to work together to effectively tackle the health issues that plague the region, she said.

“You got a lot of different churches basically doing a lot of the same things,” Sharpe said. “So, instead of everybody doing just their own thing separately, if we all come together and work together and collaborate and connect with each other, we can reach a lot.”

Several local churches and faith-based groups will convene next month for a Healthy Church Summit, sponsored by the Georgia Wellness and Fitness Festival. Sharpe hopes to meet others who share her mission to promote wellness through faith.

She wants others in the community to know they have the power to take their health into their own hands.

“We do have a choice and we do have control over what we put in our mouths, how we take care of our bodies,” Sharpe said. “It is our temple.”

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. She joined The Telegraph in June of 2018 and reports on the health of the community. Samantha graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2018. As an undergraduate student, she interned for the Medill Justice Project, Hoy (Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language publication) and NPR-affiliate station WYPR in her hometown of Baltimore. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.