Anderson UMC issues health challenge to nearby church


By Jean Gordon
The Clarion-Ledger

By May, Felicia Brisco would like to be 30 pounds lighter. 

But this Jackson hair stylist didn't visit a gym to kick off her health program.

She went to church. 

"It's going to be good to have somebody check on you and motivate you," Brisco, 40, said. "Someone to be accountable to." 

Brisco is one of more than 300 people who joined a friendly competition between two northwest Jackson churches to get healthy. 

Called "Moving and Losing," the program pits members of Anderson United Methodist Church against nearby New Hope Baptist Church in a contest that promotes exercise, good eating and other healthy lifestyle habits.

 Members of both churches packed the family life center at New Hope Baptist Church on a recent Wednesday for the program's kickoff event. 

Dr. Myrna Alexander Nickens, a cardiologist and member of New Hope Baptist Church, delivered the sobering news about the state of African-American health in Mississippi. 

"We're doing this because we're having problems with our mortality," she told the crowd. "We have one of the worst rates of heart disease in the country." 

Nickens said predominantly black congregations such as New Hope and Anderson offer a great forum for addressing African-American health. 

"We're in the Bible Belt," she said. "The church is someplace we meet all the time."

Health organizations including the American Heart Association and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi are supporting the churches with health information and walking logs. 

"We're providing information on things like high blood pressure, a healthy diet and how to lose weight in a healthy way," said Elaina Jackson of the American Heart Association Greater Southeast Affiliate. 

Participants left the kickoff with blue pedometers provided by Blue Cross Blue Shield's "Let's Go Walkin' Mississippi" campaign. 

The competition has attracted so many people that church volunteers are still weighing in and doing blood pressure checks for participants. 

Each church has organized its members into teams of 10 people who check in regularly with each other on their progress. Some teams exercise together, while others keep tabs over e-mail and at church. 

Each congregation is developing its own way to encourage members to eat right and exercise. Both offer aerobics classes and biweekly health maintenance gatherings.

Nickens already has noticed more church members are using the track on New Hope's campus and wearing the little blue pedometers on their belts. 

At Anderson, the Rev. Joe May, the church's pastor, is encouraging members from the pulpit and is taking part in the program himself. May lost 48 pounds since June, when his doctor warned him that if he didn't lose weight, his diabetes could cause blindness or kidney failure. "That was a wake-up call," he said. 

May's health kick prompted the church in the fall to initiate a congregation-wide weight-loss program. "It's a faith journey," May said. "Our faith tells us all things are possible. We can get healthier and lose weight." 

The health campaign also fits with the church's teachings. "It helps them realize we are all responsible for the body we've been given," May said. "It is the temple of the soul." 

Anderson health ministry member Delia Taylor Emerson, a Ridgeland nurse practitioner, said the competition between the two churches has helped generate excitement about getting healthy. 

At the end of the three-month challenge, the churches will tally participants' changes in weight, blood pressure, physical activity and eating habits. "It's not about losing weight," Emerson said. "It's about eating right and exercising every day."

Since the start of the competition Jan. 24, Brisco has cut back on sweets, stopped eating fried foods and has been working out every morning at Curves fitness center. 

"We're going to make it so the best man wins," she said with a laugh. "We're trying to stay spiritual."