The Black Church Has Long Been a Place Where Meals Serve Fellowship with Obesity


After the Fourth Sunday of Advent Service in December, members and guests of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, a mostly African American church on Chicago’s West Side, celebrated by hosting a special Advent brunch. 

And special it was. Spread out on two long tables were big aluminum containers of ham, turkey, fried chicken, spaghetti, mashed potatoes, gravy, slices of white bread, salad, salad dressings and collard greens. For dessert, there were peach cobbler and several varieties of cookies, along with hot coffee, tea, sodas and water.

Church members sat on folding chairs, balancing their plates on their laps, eating, talking and laughing, often going for seconds.

Father Christopher Griffin, St. Martin’s pastor, held a plate overflowing with food in one hand. His stomach sticks out well over his belt buckle. When I asked him if he was concerned about his weight, he said, “Sure, I’d like to lose weight. Doesn’t every American?”

The gathering went on for several hours before members, who also include Asians, Hispanics and whites, washed the plates, pots and pans before cleaning the kitchen to go home.

There was so much food, church members saved the leftovers for the dinner that would be served after the Christmas Eve service. In addition to the special meals, there’s coffee hour, held most Sundays, at which large amounts of food are also served.

High Obesity Rate

Dinners served after church services have been used by some to explain the high obesity rates among blacks.

At the same time, the calorie-laden dinners also provide fellowship for African Americans, a sense of easy community they may not experience elsewhere during the week, particularly given the prevalence of racially motivated slights, the tense anticipation of slights, or worse, the possibility of violent physical assault.

African American men and women who eat high-fat comfort foods, such as macaroni and cheese, register higher rates of obesity than most other groups in the United States.

These men and the women, however, took different paths on the road to excessive girth.

In both cases, many African Americans end up suffering from such debilitating physical ailments as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease that shorten their lives compared with other racial and ethnic groups.

Eating to Reduce Stress

African Americans eat high-fat foods as a way to reduce stress, which comes from living in poverty and residing in neighborhoods with inadequate housing and high crime rates, said James S. Jackson, Ph.D., of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, during a seminar at November’s Gerontological Society of America conference that was held in Orlando, Fla.

He explained that even middle-class or wealthy blacks suffer from daily microaggressions–subtle or not so subtle racist insults—in which they are unjustly viewed as thieves or suspected criminals because of their skin color.

Women clutch their purses in fear when they see black men. Armed security guards follow black male shoppers throughout stores believing black men may be there to steal, not to shop. A cop in a retail store gripping the butt of his gun at the sight of a black man who is minding his own business sends an unambiguous message of threat.

Security guards at the former Marshall Field’s Department Store on Chicago’s State Street called black men “88s.” That’s a white-supremacist term for “Heil Hitler,” a black security guard told me. “The letter “H” is the eighth letter of the alphabet; thus the term“88.”

“Many black Americans live in chronically precarious and difficult environments,” according to the study “Race and Unhealthy Behaviors: Chronic Stress, the HPA [hypothalamic pituitary adrenal cortical] Axis and Physical and Mental Health Disparities Over the Life Course.”

Jackson and coauthors Katherine M. Knight, Ph.D., and Jane A. Rafferty, Ph.D., wrote, “These environments produce stressful living conditions, and often the most accessible options for addressing stress are various unhealthy behaviors, e.g., smoking, drinking, drug use and so on.”

They continue, “These unhealthy behaviors may have a salubrious effect by helping stave off mental health disorders among some race groups.” But, they found, those behaviors combined with stressful living “create large physical disparities that are unfavorable to blacks.”

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Source: New America Media | Frederick H. Lowe