By LENNOX FARRELL
“It was so bad, I was having a funeral every weekend,” says Dr. Michael Minor, a Harvard graduate and, since 1996, Pastor at Oak Hill Missionary Baptist Church in the parish of Hernando, Mississippi.
Dr. Minor is describing conditions in his church – then 100 members – where, two decades ago, he had become pastor. Obesity, diabetes and blood pressure rates were epidemic. Every weekend, he was burying a member or member’s relative.
His descriptions are not excessive. The church is located in the rural Mississippi delta. It is the poorest region in the poorest state in America. For example, in terms of health care, Mississippi ranked last in 2012 with Louisiana; and first in rising rates of obesity and diabetes.
Mississippi is a state with an ignominious reputation. It is where Emmet Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy visiting family, was brutally murdered by a group of White men. This crime was the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement which involved another pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It is also one of the states with a Republican leadership which is opposed to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and has boycotted implementing any aspect of it. This affordable health care is needed most by the poor; and the poorest of the poor, descendants of slaves, are Black.
Like Dr. King, Pastor Minor also refuses to accept the status quo; in this instance, of poor people within the ambit of his ministry, continuing to be ill, very ill, because of poor exercise, unhealthy diet habits, and crass political decisions which most hurt the poor.
Among the first things he did in 1996 when he began to pastor this church, a member of the National Baptist Convention, the largest predominantly African-American Christian denomination in the United States, was to set about challenging the unhealthy conditions and changing them. He has also received full support from the Convention.
As he says, “people remain oppressed, only if they accept oppression, as that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it will be”.
Then, however, Obamacare was not even a glimmer on the horizon of affordable health care for Americans. Pastor Minor did not wait. The first thing he did with the support of his members was to ban fried chicken being served at the church or at any church-sponsored events.
As he said to his church members, “it is up to us to do what we can, with what we’ve got. Let’s go for it!”
Going for it wasn’t easy. The Southern African-American diet is well known to any who has had opportunity to dine with African-Americans in the South. There will be plenty to eat. Tons of chicken (mostly fried), slabs of beef, pork ribs, ham, etc. Accompanying these could be sweet drinks, provisions, tarts, baked fare like sweet-potato pies. There would be fruit – canned, not fresh – and few, if any, fresh vegetables.
However, Pastor Minor succeeded in banning these foods for use in church events. He also set up a walking range around the perimeter of the church. He was able, with support from the American Heart Association, to set up monitors in the church. There, members could check their Body Mass Index (BMI), blood pressure and weight loss, for example.
Is it possible that the Canadian Heart Association, Red Cross and similar organizations also offer these services and equipment to organizations that request them, especially for communities stricken with such things as obesity and diabetes? Is it worth a try, a call to any to find out? Maybe, if they do not offer these yet, they might find the idea creative and respond positively.
This is what Pastor Minor did. And the results? From having a funeral every weekend in a population overcome by an epidemic of diabetes? The news is good. He has had marked success.
“You can see the difference. People are much better sized, way better. And once they get it (being overweight) off, they want to keep it off,” he said.
As if this wasn’t good enough, Pastor Minor went further. He trained ‘Health Ambassadors’ from his church and community to visit and teach other churches and communities. This practice spread from church to church; from community to community.
In fact, so popular, useful and widespread it became, that Pastor Minor and his wife now have pictures framed in the foyer of their church of themselves with First Lady Michelle Obama. She had invited him in 2009 to head a program begun by her called ‘Move It’. It is designed to encourage and assist Americans to try for better health through regular exercise such as walking, and to do so in communal settings such as churches, clubs, families and the like.
Pastor Minor has done what the Republican governor has refused to do. He has begun, with the assistance of his church, and those of other denominations, to begin registering people of Mississippi who need and want to participate in Obamacare. These are people of all races and religions.
Dr. Minors thought at first that this was needed only in his region. He then realized that he was the only person in Mississippi heading an organization dedicated to registering people for health insurance. He thus applied for and received $300,000 from the Feds to register Mississippi’s 275,000 people seeking it.
According to Roy Mitchell, executive director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program: “That man is essentially heading up outreach enrollment of the ACA for Mississippi. It’s staggering.”
All begun by one pastor in a small church in the poorest river delta region in the poorest state in America.