Health Ministers: The Prescription For Black Health Disparities?

african male doctor examining baby boy( — Dr. Bennie Marshall has seen first-hand the importance the health ministry makes at her faith community in Norfolk, Va. She knows one of her congregants has not been to the doctor and does not know that her blood pressure numbers are very high. She knows that another one of her congregants is trying to live healthier but is finding it hard to cut back on sodium.

These faith members, and others like them, keep Dr. Marshall very involved at Mt. Gilead Missionary Baptist Church. For Dr. Marshall, chair of the Norfolk State University Department of Nursing and Allied Health, her professional work extends beyond the historically black college’s campus and into the sanctuary in her role as health minister.

A 41-year career nurse, Dr. Marshall has witnessed the effects of high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney disease on the members of Mt. Gilead Missionary Baptist Church, a primarily African-American congregation. For Dr. Marshall, helping members make the connection between diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney disease is deeply personal.

“As a registered nurse and the president of the health ministry, I am fully dedicated to meeting the health needs of the members of the congregation and community,” Dr. Marshall said.

That commitment also is extended to her family, as Dr. Marshall’s brother-in-law has lived with kidney disease for nearly 20 years.

“I consider this my mission field, and I firmly believe that families as well as faith organizations can play a significant role in talking about kidney disease and its risk factors,” she said.

Increasingly, kidney health has become a leading priority for faith communities as members seek support to manage diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure. These diseases are a growing concern for African-American faith leaders working to provide health information and resources to their members. Some members with health backgrounds, especially nurses, like Dr. Marshall, are taking a lead role to stem the tide of kidney-related diseases with on-site health services.

More than 20 million adults in the United States have chronic kidney disease, with more than 400,000 people currently depending on dialysis to treat kidney failure, according to the U.S. Renal Data System. Kidney failure disproportionately affects racial and ethnic minorities. Of the more than 80,000 people on the national waiting list for a kidney transplant, 35 percent are African American.

The members of Mt. Gilead Missionary Baptist reflect the disproportionate risk of African Americans for kidney disease.  At a recent kidney health talk organized by Dr. Marshall and the National Kidney Disease Education Program (NKDEP), some members shared their family history of diabetes and high blood pressure.  In one case, a member spoke about how not managing  his high blood pressure for many years led to developing kidney disease and the need for dialysis three times a week for the last 14 years.

Dr. Marshall, who has used NKDEP’s Kidney Sundays Toolkit  to guide kidney health discussions over the years, has found opportunities to expand the services offered by the health ministry and integrate their efforts into the congregation’s regular programs.

“I use our Family and Friends Day to provide health education and blood pressure screenings. That, coupled with materials that are excellent… easy to read and understand, have been effective,” Dr. Marshall said.

She encourages other nurses and health champions to take charge of their congregation’s kidney health. “There are so many things we can do, from monthly blood pressure screenings, to using health observances to provide tips in the bulletin, electronically, or PowerPoint presentations during church services,” she said.

This March in recognition of National Kidney Month, Dr. Marshall along with her nursing sorority, Chi Eta Phi, the American Diabetes Association, and the National Coalition of Pastors’ Spouses, is partnering with NKDEP for the inaugural national Kidney Sundays event. On March 25, more than 50 African-American faith organizations in 15 markets nationwide will educate parishioners about the key risk factors associated with kidney disease and the importance of testing.

To learn more about Kidney Sundays and order free materials to help make the connection between diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney disease, visit  For more information about diabetes and obesity, visit