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Baptists focus on physical, spiritual health
By Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
September 3, 2001
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Members of the country's largest black religious organization, the National Baptist Convention-USA, are in the Twin Cities this week for its 121st annual meeting. The convention's 25,000 to 30,000 delegates will learn ways to better carry out the churches' mission of improving the spiritual health of its members. Organizers say to achieve that goal, the church needs to work harder to improve members' physical health and wellness.

Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher is one of the highlighted speakers at the National Baptist Convention, which convenes in Minneapolis the week of September 2. The focus of the convention is health disparities between whites and African-Americans.
(Photo courtesy of U.S. Surgeon General's office)
AFRICAN AMERICANS ARE MORE LIKELY THAN MEMBERS OF OTHER ETHNIC GROUPS to suffer from most major health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and high cholesterol. The Rev. Ian D. Bethel, president of the Minnesota State Baptist Convention, says a massive health information campaign capable of reaching millions of African-Americans is needed to help remedy the problem.

Bethel says the best way to do that is through the church: "A natural match to educate and to access our communities is through the black church, we have a proven track record in that area with all our social endeavors."

Bethel says the black church in the 21st century must play a central role in improving the health of African-Americans, just as it helped fight for equality in the civil rights movement. Two years ago, the Minnesota State Baptist Convention started it's own faith-based health initiative called Rally for Health and Wellness. Bethel says the program is the first of its kind among state Baptist conventions around country and at the conference, the program will be promoted as a model for other churches. The Health and Wellness program will also receive the endorsement of U.S.Surgeon General David Satcher, who will deliver a keynote speech at a Tuesday session of the conference.

Convention organizer Sylvia Payne Loveless says church volunteers go door-to-door delivering packets of health information to African Americans. Drug counselors are also available to help persons struggling with chemical dependency. "The National Baptist Convention as well as we, are about preaching teaching and healing and if you're going to do the healing part then you have to get your hands dirty. You've got to get out there in the community and meet the people where they're at," she said.

The National Baptist Convention-USA is recognized as the largest black religious group in America with a membership estimated at eight million. The organization has retained its size despite several schisms which led to the formation of smaller groups like the National Baptist Convention of America and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. In 1961, the Progressive Baptist Convention was formed after disagreements over the role the church should play in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., was just one of the members who wanted the church to become more politically active and broke away from the convention.

The latest troubles for the organization came in 1999, when former NBC-USA president Henry Lyons was sentenced to 66 months for grand theft and racketeering. Current NBC-USA president Dr. William Shaw says despite the church's trials, its message has not changed. "The thing that was at the center of the organization of the convention in the latter part of the 19th century was the concern for missions and the then the concern for education," he said. "And those continue to be concerns. They're still at the heart of the mission of the convention."

Marion Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, will be one of several speakers at the National Baptist Convention to focus on health issues facing the African-American community.
(Photo courtesy of the Children's Defense Fund)
The organization has never held its annual meeting in the Twin Cities. The Minnesota chapter has a relatively small membership of 11,000. Shaw says the convention might not have come to the Twin Cities without the work of the local host committee.

Loveless says the planning for the event began two years ago. She says the main challenges will be to make sure there is adequate transportation for the tens of thousands of delegates who will need to get from 24 area hotels to the activities in downtown Minneapolis and to the Mall of America. She says because the Twin Cities black community is small compared to other major cities, the convention will offer the delegates a guide to local black-owned businesses.

"Many of the churches are in the southern states, and when they heard it was in Minnesota, a lot of them 'are there black people in Minnesota?'" Loveless said.

The host convention had to hurdle other obstacles to getting the conference off the ground. Bethel estimates the cost of hosting the event to be around $700,000. He says convention planners had hoped to raise all the funds themselves. However, their efforts fell short and they had to appeal for help from the private sector. Bethel says at first they got no takers. He says that was particularly frustrating because he says the private sector often calls on the church to help solve society's problems.

"Here's a prime example of the church coming forth, With an effective product and what's maddening about this is now you're backing away from the table with your dollars," Bethel said. Bethel says several companies have stepped forward with contributions which he says will help the convention to break even.

Convention delegates will have the opportunity to participate in health related panel discussions and attend nightly worship services. Other conference keynote speakers include National Urban League president Hugh Price and Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman. Convention events will take place at the Minneapolis Convention Center, the Minneapolis Hilton and the Target Center. Nearly all events are open to the public. The convention will end Friday with a mass baptism at the Target Center.

More Information
  • National Baptist Convention
  • U.S. Surgeon General
  • Children's Defense Fund