A faith-based weight-loss program is about to expand into more of Hartford's African-American churches
September 18, 2008
Anna Smith has struggled with her weight most of her life. So when the associate pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church on Albany Avenue — where Smith has been a parishioner for 20 years — approached her in 2003 about a faith-based weight-loss program called Sistertalk, she wasn't interested.
"I figured another diet, it had nothing to do with me," Smith, 55, said last week during a conversation in her living room. "What do we need that in our church for? I had tried all kinds of diets."
But the associate pastor, Rev. Nona Stewart, was persistent, assuring Smith that she wouldn't even have to talk if she didn't want to; she could just sit in and listen. Five women showed up for the first meeting, including Smith, who says she was still uneasy as the meeting began. Then she realized that Sistertalk was something different.
"I said 'Wait a minute, these people aren't talking about my fat. This doesn't sound like a diet plan to me,'" said Smith. "They talked about what goes on with us as females, about faith, stress, family issues, community issues."
Five years later, Smith's weight has dropped from 280 pounds to 230 pounds and has been as low as 218 pounds. But more importantly, she says, she has stopped taking pills for acid reflux because she doesn't need them any more. And she's still walking long after doctors had predicted life-long arthritis would cripple her.
Sistertalk wasn't so much a diet as a support group, where African-American women could talk about themselves and their lives, while also sharing healthier ways of cooking traditional meals.
Weight is a critical issue among all Americans, but it is particularly problematic in the black community. In a 2006 survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control, 67 percent of the black population in Hartford, and 73 percent of the black population in the state, were found to be overweight or obese.
Sistertalk began with researchers at Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania who joined forces to develop a weight-loss program for African-American women in the Boston area. But the connection to faith was introduced in Hartford, where the program was initially funded by the Donaghue Foundation.
In 2002, Donaghue awarded St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center a grant of more than $700,000 to study the best way to deliver the weight-loss program in a church setting. Sistertalk Hartford began with 12 area churches, including Shiloh Baptist, and involved more than 300 women, including Smith.
At a summit last week in Windsor, representatives from Donaghue, St. Francis, the state Department of Health, area churches, and many others gathered to discuss their plan to introduce Sistertalk into many more Hartford churches over the coming year. Eventually Sistertalk plans to build a clinic for even greater outreach into the black community.
"I think (Sistertalk) works because it brings women together to talk about something we're all concerned about," said Rev. Barbara E. Headley, president of Selah Educational Ministries and former pastor of Faith Congregational Church. "We want to lose weight. Nobody wants to be heavy."¦