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A Black church in Louisiana aims to educate people on how to be healthy

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Despite all the deaths from COVID in recent years, something else kills more people in the United States. Heart disease remains this country's leading cause of death, according to the CDC. So some doctors plan to team up with churches to bring medical services to people who need them most. Gulf States Newsroom health reporter Shalina Chatlani went to church.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) He's got the whole world in his hands. He's got the whole world in his hands.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: It's daily mass at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Marrero, La., just outside of New Orleans. Louisiana, alongside its neighbors Alabama and Mississippi, have some of the highest rates of heart disease in the nation, and Black residents are more likely than white residents to experience high blood pressure. At this predominantly Black church, parishioners are aware of the statistics because a lot of people here have either experienced a serious health condition or know someone who has.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP AND SIDNEY SPEAKS: I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters...

CHATLANI: When people stood up for prayer requests, nearly all of them were about a child who is sick or a friend in the hospital. Parishioner Octavia Fennidy remembers growing up not having access to a lot of healthy food. She has diabetes and has survived cancer twice. When she goes to the doctor, she says there's often judgment and a lack of cultural sensitivity in the medical field.

OCTAVIA FENNIDY: I feel like the doctor does not take as much time with me as they do with maybe a Caucasian patient. So I don't feel like I get the right treatment. So why go?

CHATLANI: There are also practical issues like lack of insurance.

FENNIDY: Am I going to get the medicine or am I going to buy my groceries? I have to eat. So that's where we see a lot of the disparities come in.

CHATLANI: She's a longtime member of the church's health ministry, which has been around for a few decades. The goal is to educate people on how to be healthy. They have health fairs where people learn about exercise and diet. These types of events have helped some parishioners find out they had conditions like kidney disease. That's why Tulane University doctors and public health researchers are launching a study to team up with churches like St. Joseph. Cardiologist Dr. Keith C.Ferdinand is helping lead Tulane's CHERISH program, which will place community health workers and nurses in about four dozen churches across the greater New Orleans area to treat hypertension and reduce risk of heart disease within Black communities. This model has worked in the past.

KEITH C FERDINAND: Probably one of the best shown examples was the Los Angeles barbershop study.

FENNIDY: The barbershop study's results were published in 2018. It placed pharmacists within dozens of salons. It created a safe space for Black men to monitor their blood pressure and get prescription medicine. And the result was that the majority of participants were able to significantly lower their blood pressure after talking to their barbers. Ferdinand says communities of color need alternatives to the hospital, like a church.

FERDINAND: If you can see patients in a comfortable, community-based environment, that may be superior to having the patient come into the hospital clinic for services.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Amen.

CHATLANI: Back at St. Joseph, Father Sidney Speaks agrees - this is a great place to monitor health.

SIDNEY SPEAKS: Because it's always been a major center of community life, a center of the life of the person, the center of the family.

CHATLANI: For example, St. Joseph has been the site of a successful vaccination campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic.

SPEAKS: If I'm coming to church where I'm going to be spiritually made well, well, then, that would be a place where I could be made well physically.

CHATLANI: Speaks says he's looking forward to seeing both his parishioners and nurses come through the church doors later this year.

For NPR News, I'm Shalina Chatlani in Marrero. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shalina Chatlani
Shalina Chatlani is the health care reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson.
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