Baltimore faith communities host challenges, health initiatives to encourage healthier living

As members of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore take turns reading Scripture aloud from the Book of Daniel in the Bible, a nutrition educator at the back of the room cuts cucumbers, apples and watercress in a rhythmic motion, filling the air with a fresh and crisp aroma as she prepares a salad.

"Your healthiness and your holiness all goes together," says the Rev. Harold L. Knight to the attendees, summarizing the passages in which Daniel and his men refused to eat royal food and wine, despite it possibly insulting the king and risking their lives. Instead, the men used their faith and opted for vegetables and water for 10 days.

"At the end of the 10 days, they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food," the Bible stated, and they were blessed for their sacrifice.

The evening Bible study — part Scripture-based lesson, part food demonstration and tasting — is a course hosted by the Baltimore Food and Faith Project, a Johns Hopkins Medicine Office of Community Health initiative that helps faith communities educate their congregants on healthier eating habits within a Christian framework.

"Some have an understanding of Christianity that is centered only around their spiritual state and what happens to them after they die," said the Rev. Heber Brown III, who has been pastor of the church for nine years. "But ... salvation and Christianity is just as much concerned about our physical, emotional, psychological health, as it is our spiritual health."

The six-week curriculum offered to churches within the Baltimore area is just one of the many faith-based health and fitness initiatives sprouting up around the region in hopes of educating congregants on the ways religion and health can intersect. Churches, synagogues and religious community centers are hosting myriad events, programs and competitions to create communities that foster a focus on quality living, while keeping members motivated and accountable.

"Much of the church's impetus is on the health of the soul and regrettably to the neglect of the body," said the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple Church in West Baltimore, who is hosting the church's second 90-day fitness challenge this year.

Bryant said he began ensuring that health and fitness were part of his ministry after he read startling statistics about the correlations between obesity and religion.

A 2011 study done by the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine followed 2,433 participants, ages 20 to 32 in 1987, for 18 years, later finding that "high frequency of religion participation" was associated with higher levels of obesity between young adulthood and middle age.

Seeing obesity and diabetes within his congregation, Bryant decided to tackle the issue headfirst by launching a fitness challenge in March, calling on his congregation to compete against Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore for an East-West fitness showdown.

The competition, which runs through the end of this month, lightheartedly pits church members against church members, pastors against pastors, choirs against choirs, in a race to engage in the most fitness activities and shed the most pounds. The Empowerment Temple hosts one free weekly fitness class led by local fitness trainer Monte Sanders along with a partnership the Owings Mills-based online fitness platform BurnAlong, which features dozens of classes.

Weigh-ins of each congregation, held at the beginning and end of the challenge, will help determine the winner.

Maintaining good health is also a priority in Islam, according to Haris Qudsi, a senior seminary student at the Islamic Society of Baltimore in Catonsville, one of the largest Muslim community centers in the state. Within its gymnasium, which is equipped with a full-sized basketball court, the center hosts weekly open gym hours, fitness- and sports-focused camps for children, and intramural competitions and sports matches for adults.

The center also hosts ISB Golden Age Committee dinners once a month, featuring presentations on health for ages 55 and up, according to Saad Malik, the secretary of membership and youth services.

"From the beginning, conceptually in Islam, one of the main tenets is the understanding that all things in the world, whether they be even of our own bodies, they are given to each individual person as a trust from God. They're not necessarily owned by us," said Qudsi, who leads prayers at ISB and other local communities.

"You have a certain responsibility for upkeep and maintenance, and in that vein, we have those programs because it's important that we take care of these bodies, that we live healthy lives."

Umar, the second caliph of Islam and a companion of the Islamic prophet Muhammed, ran into an obese man in the city and made an example of him, preaching that excessively eating and not exercising could be a detriment to prayer and worship, Qudsi said. He added that building strength of the body can make you fit for longer prayer sessions, often held during Ramadan, when long periods of standing are involved. Anything done with the right intention, including exercise, can be viewed as a way to worship, he added.

But though it's important to promote health regardless of faith, Malik said having a faith-based community with like-minded individuals makes it easier.

"You're more likely to adhere. You are the summation of your circle," he said.

A 2011 study published in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise Journal revealed that the exercise habits and support shown from friends and loved ones often affected others' exercise habits in a positive way.

Rabbi Dana Saroken of Beth El Synagogue in Baltimore, also the founder and spiritual director of the synagogue's The Alvin and Lois Lapidus Center for Healing and Spirituality, agreed.

"Community matters. Together, we can get to places that we never could on our own, and part of our intentionality is creating that space where people can grow on their own and grow collectively," Saroken said of the center, which is also known as The Soul Center.

The center, a "judgment-free, accessible space" for those seeking to build their spiritual needs with a Jewish foundation, opened in November. It features a holistic, self-care approach to health, offering a host of mind, body and spirit initiatives through a Jewish lens, including healing and rejuvenation programs, mindfulness retreats, weekly meditations, workshops on compassion and mindful eating, creative arts programs, and yoga and Torah classes on Sunday, Saroken said.

"Yoga quiets the mind. It gives people an opportunity to work on focusing. It's good for anxiety. It's good for depression, and it sort of lifts people up. What we do to enhance that even more is we focus on something from the weekly Torah portion that's applicable to mind, body and soul," said Saroken, adding that taking care of our bodies is an essential part of worship.

"Our bodies are a gift from God, and we need to treat them as holy, which is a huge idea that people struggle with and this whole idea of taking care of ourselves," she said.

She added that the concept of loving your neighbor as you love yourself is difficult for many people. The Soul Center is a place to prioritize self-care and health so that worshippers can care for neighbors in the same way.

"If we're not loving our mind, our body, our soul, then it's actually difficult to extend that passionate concern and care to our neighbor," she said.

While many faith communities focus on health, well-being and fitness, Adrian Mosley, administrator of the Johns Hopkins Medicine Office of Community Health, said food is one of the biggest obstacles for many churches in the area.

"They want fried chicken. The macaroni cheese is abundant. The sweet potato pie with marshmallows and collard greens," said Mosley, who for nearly 25 years has been hosting the Food and Faith Project, emphasizing a healthy "ground-to-the-plate" method that changes not only what members eat, but also how they cook.

Members often come in, using soul food recipes that deplete foods, like collard greens, of nutrients. The project's staff introduces them to recipes based on the African heritage diet pyramid, a plant-based diet that prioritizes whole grains, leafy greens, legumes and vegetables over dairy and meat, and strives to preserve nutrients with shorter cook times and natural spices. Faith comes in when addressing the difficulties of healthy eating and changing bad habits, Mosley said.

"When you have temptation, what do you use? What are the things you use to overcome that in other areas of your life?" she said. "It's really trying to get them to think about why taking care of the body is so important."

Sayyedah Buster, 62, of West Baltimore, said she was interested in learning about how the Bible discusses food and spirituality, especially as she is learning more about healthy eating in her daily life.

"I'm a pretty good cook, and I like to try new things," she said. "It made it even more interesting to get away from the traditional sweet potato, the macaroni and cheese, the potato salad and all that good stuff. ... I'm learning a lot."

Mosley said the changes could be lifesaving.

"What I'm trying to achieve is to have people open their minds a little bit, and to start that quest toward doing it differently. And it is working. I see some folks by the sixth class having discussions about, 'Is Himalayan sea salt better than Celtic sea salt?'" Mosley said.

"Instead of investing the end of my career in teaching people how to eat for diabetes, I want to teach them how to eat for life, and because I am a person of great faith, I know mixing [faith and health] does help."

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