Health Sunday
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Community Outreach

Patient advocates and community leaders are finding effective new ways to reach out to their communities with information about cancer and health.


By Eli Reed (photographs) and Mary Jackson Scroggins (text)

Health Sunday

A church uses the pulpit to promote health literacy and healthy living

By Eli Reed (photographs) and Mary Jackson Scroggins (text)

First Rock Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., is a lovely, unpretentious brown-brick edifice, a place of prayer, praise and worship. It warmly welcomes all comers—just as they are—with the hope, no doubt, of taking them “higher.”

Though not a member of First Rock, I have a 10-year relationship with the church’s congregation—a connection to its generosity and to its dedication to community, churchgoing and otherwise. For at least two years after I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the congregation held me, a most irregular churchgoer, in its prayers. My only link to First Rock, at that time, was a nascent friendship with one of its members.

More recently, in the fall of 2006, I met with Pastor Anthony L. Minter and other church officials to propose that First Rock host a day dedicated to community health issues, with a focus on cancer. The District of Columbia, you see, has a cancer mortality rate higher than that of any state in the country. Such an event could help improve health literacy and elevate health promotion to a priority—not just for First Rock’s congregation, but for the entire community it serves in the District’s Ward 7.

In a city with more than a dozen hospitals, not one is located in Ward 7, an often underserved section of the nation’s capital with more than 70,000 residents. And in the District as a whole, approximately 300,000 people—more than half of its residents—live in a location designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a “Health Professional Shortage Area.”

Health Sunday is an understated title for the extraordinary event First Rock decided to host. The day, like its sponsor, was focused more on substance than on trappings. By chance or, some may believe, by divine design, the day the church chose for Health Sunday—April 22— was also the 29th anniversary of the church’s nurses unit, a day to celebrate the often unheralded contributions of church nurses.

From the call to worship through the Benediction, the four-hour music-laced service provided spiritual and biblical links to the importance of healthy living, fact-based advice on “honoring one’s temple” (that is, taking care of the body), and population-specific talks about health concerns in the African-American community.

As a presenter spoke about healthy-eating habits, my mind wandered to the after-service meal, and I silently prayed for consistency with the presenter’s wisdom. This uneasiness was unwarranted: The meal was healthy—nothing fried, barbecued or overly sweet—and provided a tasty, health-promoting end to a very special day.

Several city officials and others from the health care community attended Health Sunday, including two D.C. City Council members and representatives from the D.C. Department of Health and the D.C. Nurses Association. In a letter read during the service, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty acknowledged the anniversary of the nurses unit and the “celebration of health.”

Like First Rock Baptist Church, health advocates, community leaders and community institutions of influence must learn to work with, through and beyond existing health care structures and systems. We must take an active, ongoing and holistic approach to addressing all issues of health, health care and medical equity.

This photoessay documents Health Sunday—an inviting, community-focused day of health education and spiritual communion.

To see the photographs by Eli Reed, please refer to the print magazine.