By Ellie Gladstone, staff attorney at ChangeLab Solutions
“If our institution disappeared tomorrow, who would notice?”
For generations, leaders of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples have asked their congregations this very question, prompting their members to contemplate their role in the broader community. This self-reflection has long inspired faith-based organizations to serve as trusted resources and leaders in their communities.
As the faith community increasingly turns its focus to health, these community service efforts are dovetailing with congregations’ new health and wellness initiatives. Faith-based organizations have realized that broadening access to their institution’s health-promoting programs and facilities can improve the health of community members in addition to their congregants.
The Promise of Shared Use
More and more, faith-based organizations are looking to shared use to promote health and serve the community. Shared use occurs when government entities or other organizations open or broaden access to their facilities – playgrounds, gymnasiums, and multi-purpose rooms – for community use. Faith-based organizations have discovered they can do this too, as they also have recreational facilities that are not in continual use. For many congregations, opening access to existing facilities and programs is a strategic, cost-effective way to increase opportunities for physical activity. It also formalizes the organization’s commitment to health, service, and being an active and supportive part of the community.
North Carolina congregations in particular are championing the shared use cause. In a state where one in ten residents has diabetes and nearly one in three has hypertension, faith leaders recognize that promoting healthy eating and active living is vital to the wellbeing of their congregations and communities. What’s more, only 13.5 percent of North Carolinians live within a half-mile of a park, so opportunities for physical activity can be hard to come by. To encourage physical activity and strengthen community ties, North Carolina faith-based organizations are opening up their playgrounds, exercise programs, and walking trails to congregants and community members alike.
North Carolina Churches Share Their Facilities
Agape Word Fellowship in southeast Raleigh has worked for years to incorporate health education and promotion into their “mission of ministering by any means necessary.” The congregation has a Health Education Ministry and walking program, and the church hosts an annual health fair. The church’s pastor also regularly gives health-themed sermons.
With health successfully integrated into the culture of their congregation, Agape Word Fellowship began to look outward, eager to share their commitment to health with their neighbors. In early 2014, the church started a free Saturday morning Fitness in the Park program for both congregation members and the general public. With a mini-grant from Voices into Action’s Healthy Southeast Raleigh program, the church purchased exercise equipment, including jump ropes, exercise bands, medicine balls, and yoga mats.
Although the grant did not require it, the church wanted to make the classes public. “We wanted to offer a service to the community, not just a church function,” said Jereel Ba, Agape Word Fellowship’s health education ministry coordinator.
For faith-based organizations with a long history of community service, sharing their recreational facilities can be a natural expansion of that work. Another Raleigh congregation, Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church, has moved in this direction. For years, the church has worked with the residents of Stonecrest, a low-income housing development within walking distance of the church. The congregation partners with Stonecrest residents to provide afterschool tutoring, summer camp programs, and classes on bicycle safety, career development, and healthy cooking.
After the housing authority removed outdated playground equipment from the Stonecrest complex, children living there were left without a place to play. Pleasant Grove used a three-year grant from the Healthy Places Active Spaces program to develop recreational facilities on the church’s property for use by the congregation and their neighbors, including Stonecrest residents.
The restored playground, resurfaced basketball courts, and new walking trail are now open to all. In a neighborhood without parks or sidewalks, the new facilities provide congregants and residents with safe places to play and exercise.
From the Congregation to the Community
Shared use is an important strategy to encourage physical activity. But it can do more than promote health; it can build communities. Faith leaders have asked their congregations to consider their role in the broader community, and many have responded by opening their facilities and programs to the general public. More and more, faith-based organizations are thinking outside “the faith box,” reflecting a growing recognition of both the links between physical, mental, and spiritual health, and the links between faith-based organizations and the communities that surround them.
For more information on how faith-based organizations can open access to their programs and facilities, check out ChangeLab Solutions’ new fact sheet, Congregation to Community.
Ellie Gladstone is a staff attorney at ChangeLab Solutions, working primarily in the areas of childhood obesity and healthy planning. Before becoming an attorney, Ellie worked in public health for many years. She has extensive experience in epidemiologic research, with a focus on environmental effects on child health and development.
Banner photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons: USDA