Over the past five years, faith communities across Trenton have been gathering for services that aren’t just focused on prayers, hymns and religious rituals. From cathedrals to mosques, members have been learning about the “mind, body, spirit” connection through a unique program aimed at converting them to a healthier lifestyle.

“It has been very helpful,” said Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Dean René John. “We all lead such stress-filled lives that it’s good to have an opportunity to educate people so they can make healthy choices.”  

Faith In Prevention, a state-funded community education program offered by Trenton Health Team, is a partnership with houses of worship. THT staff train lay leaders in each congregation to host nutrition classes and share healthy lifestyle strategies with members of their faith communities. Over the past five years, nearly 80 houses of worship have partnered with THT, touching the lives of nearly 1,400 congregants.

The goal is to improve health and well-being through a focus on nutrition and exercise, while providing information about cancer and how to quit smoking. FIP health screenings also focus on chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension—critical health issues in Trenton. 

According to THT’s 2019 Community Health Needs and Assets Assessment, nearly 39% of Trenton adults are obese, compared to 30% of Mercer County residents. The percentage of adults in Trenton with diabetes exceeds the rate for both New Jersey and the U.S. And hypertension rates in Trenton also exceed national levels. 

FIP builds on the crucial role houses of worship already play in the community, as safe, trusted places to gather and share information. For THT, FIP is a unique way to expand its outreach as a community-based collaborative and provide education about the ways making healthy choices can help improve health and well-being.

THT Faith Community Health Network Specialist Clara Gregory and THT Nurse Case Manager Cheryl Towns have been sharing those lessons with houses of worship across the city, offering healthy recipes, free healthy meals, advice and health screenings. Participating houses of worship then host healthy lifestyle education sessions; and many also adopt policies promoting exercise, requiring healthy food choices at events and banning sugary beverages such as soda. 

To help them keep those pledges, THT recently provided kitchen supplies such as blenders, measuring cups, mixing bowls, meat thermometers and food storage containers to bolster cooking skills and help participants prepare and share healthy foods. 

 At one church, FIP health screening alerted the pastor to a dangerously high blood sugar level. Towns talked with him about the importance of weight control, healthy food choices, exercise and medication, noting that in order for his congregation to thrive, he must lead by example.

Seven weeks later, the pastor was under a doctor’s care, and taking medication as prescribed. His blood pressure was within normal limits and he had lost 10 pounds.

“This pastor had regained control of his own health,” Towns said. “And other members in his church also reflected better health metrics – lower weights, lower blood pressures, and healthier blood sugar levels.”

The THT team uses a nurturing approach, working closely with church leaders who already have established credibility with their congregations. Gregory and her team recruit churches and focus on nutrition education and promoting exercise. 

“I grew up in South Carolina…Everyone connected to the church for not only the religious and spiritual side of our existence, but also for the social life,” Gregory said. “I carried those same very positive feelings about the church when I moved to New Jersey. When my mother and sister died from complications of diabetes, it sealed my determination to connect the church community to nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.”

Indeed, FIP is only the beginning. THT staff remain available to help in any way they can. In one case, a shared business card turned out to be a lifeline.

Days after the FIP program, a woman used Town’s business card to call THT. She was having trouble breathing, but assumed it was just a cold. That didn’t sound right to Towns, who urged her to head to the emergency room, where she was treated for congestive heart failure.

Months later, she has lost at least 40 pounds, is feeling great and has resumed an active lifestyle, Towns said. “She could not thank us enough for coming to her church.”

THT’s Faith In Prevention program has just launched its sixth year, working with another dozen houses of worship across the city and teaming up with THT’s community outreach program providing health screenings in neighborhood settings. 

Working with both clerics  and lay leaders, THT will help participants understand their health risks, and then provide nutrition information and healthy lifestyle strategies so they can manage those risks. Through Faith In Prevention, THT serves Trenton residents where they live, work and pray.

Photo caption: Trenton Health Team Nurse Manager Cheryl Towns, left, and THT Community Health Network Specialist Clara Gregory, lead the Faith in Prevention program in Trenton. Over the past five years, nearly 80 houses of worship have partnered with THT, touching the lives of nearly 1,400 congregants. Photo credit: Pamela Hersh