It wasn't the typical Sunday service.
The Rev. Sheridan Todd Yeary stood before the congregation at Douglas Memorial Community Church with a tray of ham and cheese and doughnuts. The senior pastor used the props to compare physical health to spiritual well-being.
"Heart health is not about you," Yeary told the congregation. "It's about honoring the God that made you.
"God's plan for healthy living is about realizing that something bigger than you is at stake."
Yesterday was the fifth annual Red Dress Sunday, a collaboration among 100 churches in the state and St. Agnes Hospital, a teaching hospital in Baltimore. The purpose of the program is to increase awareness in the African-American community, particularly among women, of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for black women in the United States.
When Red Dress Sunday began in 2005, three churches participated, said David Simpkins, who started the program. He said the idea came from a realization that something had to be done to reach more people and change the health statistics.
"It's about us having social accountability for the health of the community," said Simpkins, vice president of planning and marketing for St. Agnes Hospital. "We decided to go to the faith-based community because it's one place where you can reach the masses."
Hundreds of parishioners filled Douglas Memorial's pews for the service yesterday, many donning red hats, skirts and dresses, including Mayor Sheila Dixon, an avid bicyclist who encouraged the congregants to exercise and enjoy more healthful meals.
"It's wonderful to see so many people in red," Dixon said.
During his sermon, "God's Plan for Healthy Living," Yeary compared the effects that unhealthful food can have on the physical aspects of a heart to the effects that gossiping and backbiting can have on a person's spiritual heart.
"We are actually the conduit for getting good information out to the community to help them live healthy lives," Yeary said before the service.
The threat of death from heart disease for African-American women is greater than for women of any other race, according to the American Heart Association. Although black adults are less likely to be diagnosed with coronary heart disease, they are more likely to die from it, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health.
"Heart disease is a preventable disease, and it's a curable disease," said Dr. Vineet Dua, a cardiologist with Midatlantic Cardiovascular Associates. "Heart disease strikes women regardless of race or ethnicity. ... Every woman must start by loving their own hearts."
There are several risk factors that contribute to heart disease: high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, obesity and diabetes. Many of those factors can be decreased with a heart-healthy diet and regular exercise.
City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, a Douglas Memorial member for about six years, told the congregation that after last year's Red Dress Sunday, she found a partner to exercise with and began working out more often.
"It's not about being good," she said. "It's about reaching the greatness that God has intended for us. ... We know what we need to do. The question is: Will we do it?"
After the sermon yesterday, St. Agnes worked with sponsors to organize a heart health fair in the church's fellowship hall, which included free blood pressure screenings.
Monica Briggs Anderson, a Douglas Memorial member for six years who received a screening at the fair, said that after she had a higher-than-usual reading three years ago, she began incorporating exercise into her daily routine. Now, she attends aerobics classes twice a week and walks daily.
"Whenever I have the opportunity to get my blood pressure checked, I do so," said Anderson, 39, of Randallstown.
"I just like to be informed about my health," she said.
For many, including Rawlings-Blake, Red Dress Sunday will continue to be a reminder that women should sometimes put their health first.
"We need these big, dramatic reminders that if we can't take care of ourselves, we can't take care of everyone else," Rawlings-Blake said.