Michael Bransfield
Bethany Romanek  /  The Wheeling News Register
The Most Rev. Michael Bransfield, bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Catholic diocese in West Virginia, shown here in Wheeling, W. Va., Oct. 18, devoted his first pastoral address to health care and the importance of healthy living.
By Associated Press Writer
updated 10/24/2006 6:55:54 PM ET 2006-10-24T22:55:54

With American obesity at record levels, it might seem that only a miracle can get people fit.

The Most Rev. Michael Bransfield, bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Catholic diocese in West Virginia, hasn't gone quite that far, but he is directing the church's gaze at one of the country's least healthy states.

This month, Bransfield issued his first pastoral letter, titled "A Church That Heals." It's a comprehensive address on health, ranging from public policy to individual spirituality.

Although the Catholic Church has a long history of advocacy on health care as a political issue, this may be the first time an American bishop has devoted a pastoral address largely to healthy living, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bransfield's appeal is part of a trend among Christian churches. Alarmed by national statistics they see reflected in their flocks, some churches are adding personal health to their ministries.

The American Baptist Churches USA, for example, give "wellness grants" to promote fitness among their pastors, while Southern Baptist groups offer health screenings and sponsored walks at regional gatherings. And a host of Christian-themed diet books have reached the market, including a few best sellers.

Spiritual approach to health
One of the oldest and most far-reaching programs is First Place, which started in Houston's First Baptist Church in 1981 and has now spread to thousands of churches worldwide. First Place combines a focus on healthy eating and regular exercise with a spiritual approach to what it sees as the psychological roots of poor health.

About 500,000 people have been through the program in 25 years, said Carole Lewis, national director of First Place.

Although she can reel off examples of people who have lost dozens of pounds on the program, Lewis said the group is careful only to publish testimonials from people who've kept the weight off for at least five years.

"If you haven't done that, you haven't really lost the weight," she said.

Bransfield, who came to West Virginia 18 months ago, addresses a state facing serious public health problems, fueled in part by bad eating, physical inactivity and lack of access to health care.

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West Virginia leads the country in high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. It ranks third in adult obesity and cigarette smoking, and West Virginians are likelier to lose all their teeth by age 65 than residents of any other state.

"We are far from the place called health," Bransfield wrote.

Bishop calls for widespread change
To help remedy that, he calls for more funding of social services and public health insurance, a transportation system less dependent on cars, and healthy meals in schools.

But Bransfield isn't waiting for others to act. He also announced that $400,000 in grant money will be given to schools, parishes and nonprofit groups working to implement the letter's recommendations.

"It might be as simple as a parish wanting to do a cholesterol screening," diocesan spokesman Bryan Minor said. "People at the local level often have the best ideas about how to proceed."

The pastoral letter, sent to West Virginia's 100,000 Catholics, has so far been well received.

"It's going to reach a lot of people," said Martha Tiu, a parishioner at Our Lady of Seven Dolors in Triadelphia.

"You see a lot of people who don't take responsibility for their health," said Tiu, a doctor's wife and mother of two doctors. "People have to understand not only are you your brother's keeper, you're also your own keeper."

Church involvement could prove effective where other public health efforts have failed, said Dr. Harold G. Koenig, co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University in North Carolina.

"That whole network and belief system, that social factor, can influence people more than public service announcements or doctors people only see every six months," he said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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