The National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases is partnering with black churches to host Kidney Sundays (Photo courtesy of the National Kidney Disease Education Program).
You could be slowly dying and not know it. Your blood could be poisoned, yet you don’t have a clue. Then suddenly you need to be rushed to the hospital, but it’s too late. If only you had taken two simple tests that could have caught the disease before it became critical.
That’s what I was thinking as I listened to Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases talk about the “silent” killer. Rodgers described this scenario that is sadly real for too many African Americans who fail each year to get tested for kidney disease. “It’s really considered the silent disease,” Rodgers said, which is why the institute has partnered with African American churches to publicize the importance of getting tested early before it’s too late.
March is National Kidney Month. On March 3, sixty churches across the country are kicking off the month with ongoing National Kidney Sunday. In partnership with the Chi Eta Phi nursing sorority, the American Diabetes Association, the Institute provides free testing at churches along with a kidney disease toolkit of information to be used for group discussions or individuals. Information includes how to prevent kidney disease and how to treat it successfully. In its second year, The Institute expects this initiative to reach at least 55,000 church members, who will hopefully spread the word to family, friends, coworkers, and so on.
An estimated 26 million Americans suffer from kidney disease. It costs about $23 billion annually to treat late stage kidney disease, Rogers said. Hispanics, Native Americans and African Americans are the highest risk groups. Blacks are nearly four times as likely as Whites to develop kidney failure. Though about 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans represent 32 percent of kidney failure cases nationally. Rodgers said much of this has to do with the environment in which many blacks live. Blacks are disproportionately poor; as a result, they often have inferior access to quality health care and nutrition.
“If you’re living in an area where there is not readily access to fresh fruits, but rather fast food that has more soda, and sugar that’s a factor,” said Rogers, adding that the two leading causes of kidney disease are hypertension and diabetes.
The preventable culprit is obesity, which often triggers hypertension and diabetes, Rodgers said. Obesity is a national crisis, which is why First Lady Michelle Obama has initiated the Let’s Move Initative. taken it up as a cause. But why are blacks particularly plagued by obesity? The good doctor didn’t say it, but I will: Much of the black community’s various health and destructive behavior problems are rooted in our cultural practices. These practices have in large part been shaped by our response to racism and oppression. Living sicker and dying younger is a predictable outcome. For generations we have been killing ourselves without thinking. It’s a miracle that we have survived. The black church has been a life source, but it has also have aided and abetted our bad choices.
As I’ve previously written on Urban Faith, Sunday dinners at Big Momma’s house or in church fellowship halls have been killing us gradually. Salty meals that contain starch Mac & Cheese, greasy pork and ribs, and chicken wings fried in lard – washed down with sweet tea or red Kool-Aid that tastes like liquid Skittles – are actually toxic. They may taste heavenly, but they’re not nourishing our bodies no matter how religiously we say the grace before eating. We’ve institutionalized and romanticized soul food rituals to our demise. Caribbean and Afrocentric meals are often no better. We need to renew our minds when it comes to managing our health. The church can lead the way.
We can eat healthy soul food that tastes just as good but with healthier seasonings. We can adopt a Bible-based diet. We can reject processed fast foods that are high in sugar and salt or eat them sparingly. We can eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and drink plain water. We can get our bodies moving. If we can’t exercise at a gym for at least 30 minutes a day three times per week, we can get out and walk every day. We can transform poor health in the community by renewing our minds in order to break our destructive eating patterns.
The kidneys are the body’s trash filter. When the kidneys fail the garbage piles up and starts poisoning the body. Rodgers said kidney disease can be found with simple blood and urine tests. For example, protein in the urine could mean kidney disease. If you catch the problem early enough, however, disaster can be averted.
Don’t let death sneak up on you. Get tested. Get your church involved. The life you save may be your own.
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own…. Therefore honor God with your body.” 1 Cor. 6:19-20
It is well known that blacks live sicker and die younger than any other racial group. Look no farther than the church with the pastor battling hypertension and diabetes or the congregation with several obese members sitting in the pews. It would seem that the black church in America would be the leading ally supporting the nation’s first black president in the debate over access to affordable healthcare. It would seem that the black church would lead the way toward healthier eating and living.
Could it be that black church culture is leading us astray?
I thought about this during a recent conference in Baltimore on black global health. The International Conference on Health in the African Diaspora, hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions, brought together healthcare professionals and researchers, from across the Western Hemisphere to discuss common health problems among the descendants of African slaves. Black Arts Movement icon Sonia Sanchez set the tone as the keynote speaker July 4, inspiring the crowd with a special poem for the occasion. The award-winning author participated throughout the weeklong conference.
Listening to a sister from Brazil and a brother from Peru discuss high rates of obesity, diabetes, infant deaths and the spread of HIV/AIDS among blacks in their countries sounded like the health crisis of black New York, Chicago, or the Mississippi Delta. Modern racism and the legacy of slavery haunt all of us. Participants also shared solutions and pledged to work together. In fact, according to Dr. Thomas LaVeist, a book and curriculum addressing these health themes are being created for the public and for high school and college educators. Thomas, who happens to be my brother, directs the Hopkins center and is the mastermind behind the conference, which is scheduled to take place every two years.
Solutions are basically what government and institutions can do to end racism and ensure all people have access to quality affordable healthcare and what blacks can do themselves to care for their “temples of the Holy Spirit.”
The black church should be more outspoken in support of increased access to quality affordable care. Our cousins from Canada and Central and South America, who for the most part receive varying degrees well-executed and poorly-executed universal healthcare, are puzzled as to why we richer Americans are debating what the rest of the industrialized world has long settled — that healthcare access is a God-given human right, not a privilege to be determined by profit-seeking private insurance companies.
After the conference, Thomas told me that the Catholic Church (obviously many Catholics are also black) has been the most vocal Christians on healthcare, mainly around the debate on whether Catholic organizations should be mandated to support abortions for employees (some evangelical Protestant organizations have recently joined that fight, too). Thomas suggested the traditional black church denominations could find their unified voice by calling for all Americans to be insured (Obama’s Affordable Care Act would still leave 20 million people uninsured). However, regardless of what the government does, black churches should lead by example with healthier eating and living, he said.
BAD FOR THE SOUL? Black churches are routinely feeding their people unhealthy soul food staples such as fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Is that biblical?
“Black church culture is out of alignment with some biblical teachings, particularly when it comes to how we eat,” my brother said. “Church culture has got us drinking Kool-Aid, eating white bread, fried chicken, large servings of macaroni and cheese and collard greens drenched with salty hog maws (foods that are high in sugar, salt, calories, and carbohydrates that trigger health problems). We’re eating this in the church basement at dinner and at church conventions! Meanwhile, the Bible teaches against gluttony.”
Don’t judge or condemn those who are obese, but encourage and show everyone how to eat healthy, Thomas added. He cited Pastor Michael Minor of Oak Hill Baptist Church in the Mississippi Delta as pushing the healthy eating message that all black churches should adopt. The Delta is one of America’s poorest areas and leads the nation in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates. In 2011, Pastor Minor, known as “the Southern pastor who banned fried chicken in his church,” banished all unhealthy foods and insisted soul food meals be prepared in healthier ways; many of his members are losing weight and improving their overall health. Other churches across the country such as, First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, are on similar missions.
Ask yourself, when it comes to health, what is the black church best known for?
What might the state of black health in America (and the African diaspora) be if your answer was healthy eating and living?