Story and images provided by Melinda Caldwell, TSET Healthy Living Program Specialist
Church congregations are central, trusted institutions that offer comfort, support, and other resources to community members. More than two-thirds of adults in Oklahoma report that religion is “very important” and half of all Oklahomans attend a religious service at least once a week (Pew Research, Religions and Public Life Project, 2013). Congregations are viewed as the providers of key services to their members and their community, as well as a major influencer to cultivate the lives of its members.
Over the past several decades, church congregations in Oklahoma and throughout the country have been placing a greater emphasis on health and wellness. One way church communities have promoted wellness is through the introduction and utilization of a Parish Nurse (Faith Community Nurse) and a Health and Wellness Ministry. St. Francis Xavier Catholic Community in Stillwater is taking on this challenge by incorporating health and wellness for their congregation of 1400 members. Brandi Bishop, the Parish Nurse for St. Francis, explains that the work of the Parish Nurse and the Health and Wellness Ministry is to encourage physical and spiritual health by leading programs that focus on the importance of holistic health (caring for the body, mind and spirit) and prevention of disease. This is accomplished by providing health screenings such as blood pressure screenings, facilitating support groups, assisting with referrals to community resources and serving as a health advocate and educator for Parishioners.
In Payne County, Health and Wellness Ministries can play a critical role in improving the health of church community members. In fact, 28.3% of citizens are categorized as obese and 75.4% identify as being physically inactive (Oklahoma State Department of Health Payne County Profile, 2017). Therefore, health and wellness programming within church congregations is a vital component to improving the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual health of church members and the broader community.
Congregations are in a unique position to address the many health issues that Oklahomans face, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. A recent event held by St. Francis Xavier and sponsored by the Payne County TSET Healthy Living Program promoted fruit and vegetable consumption among Hispanic community congregation members. Members were provided a sampling tray of fruits and vegetables, and coloring sheets detailing healthy meals were distributed to the youth. A total of 30 lunch boxes which include fruits and vegetables were also given away to participants to take home, which included tip sheets on healthy eating and meal preparation. Such efforts are desperately needed in the Stillwater community as 48% of Payne County citizens do not eat at least one piece of fruit each day. Another 25.1% do not eat at least one vegetable per day. These statistics rank Payne County in the bottom five out of 77 counties in the state for fruit and vegetable consumption (Payne County Community Health Assessment, 2016). Unfortunately, these current behaviors can prove to be detrimental to community members long-term, as they are key determinants of future health issues such as obesity and diabetes.
St. Francis Xavier is doing their part to educate church community members on the importance of fruit and vegetable consumption. As Luz Florez recently stated “the Hispanic Catholic Community of Stillwater is being greatly impacted by the free clinic, blood pressure checks, and most recently the donation of the bags of fruits and vegetables from the Payne County TSET Healthy Living Program. We are now more interested in taking care of our health. We are more careful with eating food, and we are learning to prevent diseases by eating healthy thanks to these programs.”
Church communities have a unique advantage in providing a safe and trusted atmosphere to promote health and wellness among community members. Church leadership should consider utilizing this relationship to incorporate strategies that will improve the health and well-being of community members. St. Francis Xavier’s promotion of wellness is already receiving positive feedback from congregation members. Mimi Ward remarked, “The Health and Wellness Ministry is valuable to me because it focuses on the interaction and balance of one’s spiritual, emotional, social, and physical wellbeing. I have consulted Brandi, RN Parish Nurse, about numerous topics and have attended several classes including Tai Chi and Healthy Brain Healthy Mind. I have participated in the blood pressure checks offered monthly, read the weekly health column in the bulletin, and have attended presentations directed to specific topics such as CPR. These examples are just a sampling of the many ways this ministry promotes healthy living.”
Overall, St. Francis Parish Catholic Church is not only working to increase its members’ spiritual wellness, but also incorporating aspects of physical wellness. Through this process, the congregation is providing community members an additional avenue to foster social capital while raising awareness of health behaviors, which can lead to having positive effects on improving the health of St. Francis members, as well as the greater Stillwater community as a whole.