Faith-Based Cardiovascular Education Program Helps Congregations Become Heart Smart

Before Reverend Dr. Rose Ellington Murray became a HeartSmarts Ambassador, she wasn’t practicing what she was preaching when it came to her health.

As a health care professional, she knew the importance of taking care of her body, but it wasn’t until she began teaching the HeartSmarts curriculum to her congregation in Harlem that she began actually doing it.
“Sometimes when you are in the health profession, you think you know a lot,” said Murray. “We tell people to do things we are not doing. I now do what I tell people to do.” That means drinking more water, which she originally found unbearable until she began putting lemon slices in it. That also means not just buying anything because she is in a rush and checking food labels for things such as sodium. If it’s too high, she looks for a low-sodium alternative.
Those are lessons she learned from HeartSmarts, a twelve-week faith-based cardiovascular health education program, which aims to educate high-risk communities about heart disease and its prevention. In addition to heart disease, the class focuses on high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stress, diabetes, nutrition and the importance of including physical activity into your daily routine.

It is sponsored by the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute at the New York Presbyterian Hospital\Weill Cornell Medical Center. It was created by Dr. Naa-Solo Tettey in conjunction with Dr. Holly Andersen and Dr. Carla Boutin-Foster.
“I noticed initially that there were programs that were in the churches, but usually they were created by other organizations,” said Tettey. “While it had a health purpose, it did not incorporate the faith system of the church itself.” To help participants immediately see how health is directly linked to the word, the first chapter of the curriculum is entitled “Your Body Is a Temple – Know Your Risk for Heart Disease.”
For Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Murray is the pastor, the inclusion of scriptures was key in helping the congregation become healthier.

This was especially true for the older congregants who have become more flexible about taking control of their health because they are able to see it in the scripture. “With scripture for the people, they can identify that the spiritual is not detached from the physical and that the physical is not detached from the emotional,” said Murray.
Because of it, her congregation has made an active decision to dilute juices, serve more vegetables than meat at gatherings as well as serve more wholesome snacks like bran muffins for programs. They are also practicing portion control, which Murray drives home by retelling the story of the two fish and five loaves. The story discusses when Christ was on the mountain and was able to feed 5,000 people with what appeared to be not enough food.
For Marie Lucette Momplaisir, a 20-year member of Our Lady Refuge Church in Brooklyn, the program couldn’t have come at a better time.

When she began participating in the program, she was having difficulty getting up the stairs. She was also concerned about her heart and her sugar. Though she is also in the health profession, she believes that she has learned so much with each class that she taught. She views the program as a way to continue education and she plans on doing it for a long time.

“Even me, when I finished with the twelve sessions it’s not enough,” said Momplaisir. “You have to continue doing it. You eat for today, but you have to eat for tomorrow.” Her congregation will graduate from the program on February 22.
For 44-year-old Barry Braxton, the reason to participate was a personal one. He lost his mother and one of his aunts to strokes. While he had participated in other health-related programs, Braxton was looking forward to participating in this program because of the inclusion of scripture. He is a deacon at the DRC Fellowship Inc. in Queens and knew his knowledge of the word and health would ensure his success in the program.

During the course of the program, Braxton lost two inches from his waist and dropped 10 pounds by limiting things that were not good for his healthy lifestyle choice such as pork, fried food, eggs, milk and cheese.
He said maintaining a healthy lifestyle has always been a main concern at his church, but now they have the information to help them achieve their goals.

“When it comes down to information as far as science is concerned, we didn’t have the information,” he said. “Now that we have the numbers and what it means, we can take it to the next level of being a real healthy church.”
Jennifer Thompson, 44, has always been passionate about health and teaching others. That is one of the main reasons she became a HeartSmarts ambassador. The other reason is to set an example for her two young girls.

Thompson, a nurse by profession, loves that the program teaches the importance of eating well. It’s one of the things she hopes her girls will retain while they grow older.

Though it’s harder to get them on-board especially seeing their classmates eating donuts, chips and bagels, she explains that eating well will help them become who they want to be when they get older. “A healthy breakfast will really boost your mind power and your capabilities,” she said. “All of these things will play an important role if you don’t want to be sick or go to the hospital.” For her, participating in the program is about putting you and your health first.

“It’s not being selfish, it’s about being good to yourself” said Thompson. “It’s loving who you are and saying to yourself I am going to do what it takes to make sure that I am well whether it’s physically, spiritually or emotionally.”
She went on to say that we have to retrain our brains to know that putting ourselves first is about recognizing self-worth and importance.

Thompson is the health coordinator for the Flatbush Seventh Day Adventist Church in Brooklyn. She became an ambassador in 2012.

The next HeartSmarts training will begin on March 2, 2015 and last until May 18, 2015. Classes will be held at the Weill Cornell Medical Center Campus of the New York Presbyterian Hospital.
For more information, email Dr. Naa-Solo Tettey at

Above:  Dr. Naa-Solo Tettey, Director HeartSmarts Program