The Role of Faith-Based Communities in Improving Health

Jay ThompsonIn the past, community churches have typically served as places of worship.  These institutions have been sustained by providing valuable contributions to communities in the areas of direct economic contributions, social services and community volunteering and education.  This highlights the expanded role of the church from the church with “four walls” to the church “without walls”; in that its worship experience has moved from the sanctuary to the community.  Churches have begun to take their rightful place in increasing community involvement.  

With increased rates of childhood and adult onset obesity, we’ve turned our attention to the church to assist in sharing our voice in producing more active lifestyles.  Bringing church leaders into the knowledge of Shared Use Agreements and how they can serve as a win for the entire community has galvanized our efforts in expanding their role in the community. 

Many communities lack safe, adequate places for children to play, and because some churches have a variety of recreational facilities, many times they can serve as points of contact for establishing Shared Use Agreements.  They lie next to green spaces; they have gymnasiums, open parking lots and untapped spaces within.  This allows for the incorporation of community gardens, play spaces for children, aerobic classes and other inclusive activities for community engagement.  In Mississippi, churches have been introduced to Community Transformation Grants, which serve as a catalyst for weaving in multiple elements of community involvement.

These benefits positively improve communities in that they have the potential to reduce crime rates, build relationships, increase physical activity and in some cases provide employment.  There is also a win in store for the church in that there is a chance to increase the capacity of membership, provide for stronger community structure and decrease violence around its vicinity. 

To begin introducing the concept of Shared Use Agreements in faith based communities, my advice is to begin with your local church (if you’re affiliated with one).  Educate your leader and parishioners that a new concept geared towards increasing physical activity and community involvement has emerged.  The use of these agreements makes physical activity easier by providing kids and adults alike with safe, conveniently located and inviting places to exercise and play.  And even if churches choose not to open their facilities for Shared Use programs, I encourage them to open their mouths.  They can play a vital role in sharing the message of inclusion and also sharing how the benefits of Shared Use Agreements would be lasting and sustainable.