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D.C. pastors are promoting healthy living among congregants

A government-backed program in D.C. is helping churches in underserved communities reach their wellness goals.
Posted at 8:48 PM, Feb 06, 2023

The food pantry at Urban Outreach in southeast D.C. is a bit more than meets the eye.

"We have a partnership with Amazon, so we get a lot of plant-based stuff from them," said Wil Stroman, a pastor and the Executive-Director of Urban Outreach DC.

It's part of a concerted effort to bring healthy options to the community.

A few years ago, Stroman joined American University and Wesley Theological Seminary’s Faithfully Fit program. It's a D.C. government-backed initiative turning people of the cloth from historically Black churches into ministers of health.

The program doesn't stop with handing out fresh fruits and veggies to more than 250 families a week.

"We do everything from food demonstrations to creative outreach programs, movie nights that highlight healthy eating," Stroman said.

It’s about providing access to those foods in the first place.  

"Here we are in our nation's capital," Stroman said. "When I first started, if I remember the statistics right, like one out of every three kids went to bed hungry every night just in this community here."

The location of the food pantry is important to residents in this neighborhood because if you leave the church, it's another 2-mile drive to the closest full-scale grocery store, and that's assuming you have a car in the first place.

In D.C.'s Ward 7 — where Urban Outreach is located — two full-service grocers service about 77,000 people, forcing residents to find alternative food sources.

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A few miles away, pastor Freddie Davis and Mary Douglas Brown at Pilgrim Rest Baptist are also working to fill gaps in the community, offering both physical and mental health support to residents.

For Brown, a breast cancer survivor, the mission is personal.

Like Stroman, she also has a health minister certification, which she puts to use with the encouragement from Davis.

"It's been one of my primary concerns because the Bible teaches that God is concerned about the whole person, you know, body, soul and spirit," Davis said.

Churches have long been a go-between for Black communities. For example, during the heart of the COVID-19, places of worship set up vaccination sites for neighborhoods.

Faithfully Fit program coordinator Ayanna Wells and AU health studies department chair Stacey Snelling say the partnership was necessary. 

"If they don't trust the messaging and they don't trust the actual person in the face, then they're not going to do it, and it's not going to be absorbed into their culture," Wells said.

While the messaging came easily, it's hard to ignore the social determinants of health that lead to poorer health outcomes in the first place.

"Residents in Ward 7 and 8 deserve many more options — and not only at the corner stores," Snelling said. "To me, that is a stopgap measure."

For Stroman and Brown, the connection between spirituality and wellness came easily, reinforcing their need to act.

"Safeguarding our health really helps us to fulfill our divine potential and helps us to serve others effectively," Stroman said.

"I used to sit in the pew doing nothing. Nothing," Brown said. "I used to come, but I did nothing. And thanks to pastor Davis, I got to be very active. I mean, I do a lot now."