Putting Faith in Health: Healthy Churches 2020

Renee Williams, a pastor at the Love Fellowship Church in Charlotte, talks about health and its relationship with faith. She'll be attending this year's Healthy Churches conference.

Faith heals. Or at the very least, it can inspire people to get healthy.

Carolinas HealthCare System is a sponsor of the Healthy Churches 2020 Conference – a three-day national event hosted at the Hilton Charlotte University Place hotel, dedicated to strengthening the leadership and organizational capacity of health ministries across the country. From Nov. 4-6, Healthy Churches 2020 will address health disparities among populations most at risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, hepatitis and cancer.

One of the attendees will be Renee Williams, a pastor at the Love Fellowship Church in the Derita community of Charlotte, whose battle with weight loss has fueled not only her personal interest in health, but her congregation’s as well.

“I’ve always been very transparent about my own health struggles,” she says. “I’ve done a couple things to lose weight. I tried fad diets in high school. I had hypertension, diabetes, was on a lot of different medications. Eventually I had gastric bypass surgery. My congregation was very supportive. I just told them ‘I’m doing this for my health.’”

Health in Mininstry

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Pastor Williams also has a background in HIV/AIDS care and even worked as an HIV/AIDS case manager in Cleveland County, so health education and integration has been a part of her ministry from the start.

“I’ve always been interested in health and wellness, and that didn’t change when I became a pastor. I just integrated that into my faith. My husband knows a lot about healthcare too,” she adds. “He’s a pharmaceutical sales rep and has been instrumental on faith-health issues because he can refer people to physicians and has an understanding of various medications.”

The trust a congregation has in its church leader puts a pastor in a unique position to influence health and wellness in the community. As Williams explains, people often trust their faith leader more than a physician. That’s why it’s important to educate faith communities about the importance of taking care of their health.

“They believe in the power of prayer,” Williams says. “However, we need to make people understand that it’s not just the supernatural that will heal them, but the natural as well. God is going to heal, but it works in conjunction with elements like medications and doctors. I made that mistake myself. I believed God was going to heal my hypertension. I stopped taking my meds and ended up in the ER. So now I tell people that our faith is in God, but we still need to use the medicine.”

A Healthy Minute

Together with her husband, Williams implemented a “Healthy Minute” segment at the Love Fellowship Church once a month, where they provide health information about various topics like healthy eating and smoking cessation. They also started an exercise program.

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“African American communities are at a high risk for diseases like diabetes and hypertension, so this was especially important,” Williams says. “It’s our version of ‘The Biggest Loser.’ We do circuit training for eight weeks. It’s all about encouragement, not about losing weight. It’s more about being healthy and getting moving. Anything is better than nothing!”

This will be her first year attending the Healthy Churches 2020 Conference, and while she’s excited for all of it, she’s most interested in the mental health piece of the event.

“We ignore what we don’t know how to address. When people do bring up those topics, we often say ‘You need to pray more.’ No – they may need some help, some medications. African American churches especially need to acknowledge that there may be mental health issues within the congregation and embrace them by providing people with the resources they need to get healthy.”

Pastor Williams’ church motto is “Come Experience the Difference Love Can Make.” It’s all about inspiring, not shaming, the members of the community who turn to the Love Fellowship Church for guidance.

“I tell people that there’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself, but there has to be a balance,” she says. “And people are going to mess up. In life, in spirit, in dieting – we don’t believe in making people feel bad about that. We just want to encourage them. To let them know ‘You do have a choice.’”

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