Genesis of a Food & Faith Chapter on Improving Community Health

Thursday, April 25, 2019
Alex Treyz
The Practical Playbook II

The World Food Policy Center is honored to have partnered with Reverend Richard Joyner to co-author this chapter and share the mission and vision of the CFLC. Chapter 15: Working with the Faith Community to Improve Health is viewable online at: http://vml-cfmplaywebd.duhs.duke.edu/page/working-faith-community-improve-health. It is part of The Practical Playbook II: Building Multisector Partnerships that Work.

One gray afternoon in February of 2018, Jen Zuckerman and I met Reverend Richard Joyner in the parking lot of Nash UNC Health Care in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Richard had just finished a morning of work as a Chaplain, tending to the hospital’s sick through a ministry of presence and prayer. The three of us hopped into Richard’s car and began the journey eastward on I-95 to Conetoe, population 300, home to Reverend Joyner’s church, Conetoe Missionary Baptist, and home to the Conetoe Family Life Center (CFLC), a food-focused community development organization promoting youth development and healthy living.

A few months earlier, I had learned that the de Beaumont Foundation in partnership with Oxford University Press sought to write a second version of its textbook, “The Practical Playbook; Helping Public Health and Primary Care Work Together To Improve Population Health,” with the goal of describing the importance of multisector partnerships for population health improvement. Knowing about the incredible work of the CFLC, de Beaumont had reached out to Richard, and also to the World Food Policy Center, hoping that we might jointly write a book chapter focused on the role of the faith community and health.  As we drove, I asked Richard: what is the role and power of faith communities – like his in Conetoe – to improve health? Might a faith community heal not only people’s souls, but their bodies as well?

Conetoe is located in Edgecombe County, a rural county in Eastern North Carolina with above average incidences of chronic and preventable diseases such as obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. The County has a long agricultural legacy, one that extends back to slavery, reaches into the era of sharecropping and Jim Crow, and today manifests in extensive indigenous and black land loss. The effects of racial discrimination continue unto today, with disparate health outcomes experienced by whites and African Americans and a disproportionate amount of agricultural land owned by whites.

As we approached Conetoe, Richard asked if we wouldn’t mind taking a detour. We logged a few miles on back roads until we reached a funeral home; Richard needed to stop in to check on the funeral arrangements of one of his parishioners, a mother who had died in her forties, leaving a young child behind. As we pulled into the funeral home parking lot, Richard shared that in his early days of ministry, he presided over 30 funerals for congregants under the age of 40. The majority had died from chronic and preventable diseases, all tied to food and diet, with the compounding effects of poverty, lack of economic opportunity, stress, and intergenerational trauma.

Before the CFLC began growing food, Conetoe’s residents lacked access to fresh, affordable produce. Richard observed that merely preaching from the pulpit about the importance of healthy eating wasn’t enough; the community needed to give itself access to healthy eating by growing food itself.

After the funeral home stop, we made our way the Chapel at Conetoe Missionary Baptist Church. We arrived nearly the same time as the funeral florist: bouquet after bouquet emerged from a car.  I carried one inside and placed it before the altar, next to the deceased’s casket. The reality and tragedy of her early and preventable death nearly brought me to my knees.

Richard offered to show me the church. We wound our way through its many halls, past offices and Sunday school classrooms, and reached the fellowship hall. I noticed pamphlets speaking to the importance of healthy eating and exercising. I also saw jars upon jars of pickled produce: okra, beets, peas. Richard generously sent both me and Jen home with an armload of jars.

As we drove back to Rocky Mount, Richard drove us by Conetoe’s gardens. I had visited one garden, the biggest site, nearly a year before as I conducted research for my public policy thesis on faith-based community gardens and farms. I recalled the rows and rows of planted vegetables and the old school bus that housed part of the Center’s bee operation.

In our conversation Richard reflected that a faith community experiences the greatest joys and sorrows of its people: birth, marriage, and death. As people of faith gather to worship, mourn, and celebrate, they bring not only their beliefs, but their physical bodies, broken and healed. He described the faith community as a hospital for the healing of souls – but also as a site for implementing preventative care and for promoting physical health.

In the book chapter we co-wrote for the Practical Playbook, we describe the challenges inherent to Conetoe’s social determinants of health: poverty, structural racism, stress and trauma, poor infrastructure, lack of economic opportunity. We also describe the ways in which the CFLC is addressing each of these social determinants and catalyzing healing through strategic partnerships and through connecting with the land to reduce stress, growing healthy food to nurture hungry and poorly nourished bodies, training youth with skills to instill a sense of pride, and growing social enterprises to spur economic activity.

Several times during our conversation that February day, Richard cited The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

In his work, Richard and the Conetoe faith community seek to serve the least of these: those living in poverty, the hungry, and the sick. The faith community, when organized towards transformational and positive change, can be a powerful force for improving public health.