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Pacific churches promote healthy hearts

By Julia Stuart

If you go to a Pacific Islands church feast in some parts of Auckland these days, you may be surprised by what you are offered.

Yes, there are tables heaped with delicious fruits and taro but they are no longer drowned in cream and coconut. There are vegetables – but they are steamed or in salads, without the heavy mayonnaise. There may be corned beef too but it’s lean with the fat drained off.

You’re visiting a ‘Health Promoting Church’, and it’s all down to an innovative approach by the National Heart Foundation. The Foundation recognises the importance of church in Pacific culture and the effectiveness of church in getting across a message to the Pacific community.

Most Pacific churches in New Zealand are structured like an island village, with clearly defined leadership. They are not simply places of worship and fellowship but also places people share information. And nine out of 10 Pacific people belong to one.

Because of this, Pacific churches were the obvious places for the National Heart Foundation to launch its Health Promoting Churches strategy, the Foundation’s community liaison officer Henga Amosa told the recent Public Health Association Conference in Christchurch.

“Pacific people in New Zealand have high risks of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and obesity, and a third of them smoke,” Henga says.

“Much of this comes from the impact of the Westernised lifestyle. Despite lots of Pacific-targeted health promotion, there has been very little health improvement. But reaching out through churches brings in an effective combination of tradition and authority.

“What the chiefs and church ministers say, most if not all families and the congregation follow.”

The pilot programme involved National Heart Foundation workers visiting Pacific churches. They presented the project to ministers and congregation. They used a formal memorandum of understanding between the parties, and a willingness to be flexible on the Heart Foundation’s part.

Henga says the Heart Foundation had to go by the churches’ time-frames because they have full schedules and events such as funerals take priority.

The programme provided training and support to church health workers, education programmes, with nutrition and cooking demonstrations, meal planning and budgeting, physical activity classes and healthy hearts information.

Two churches involving 272 people took part in the pilot. They joined in church-organised physical activity, exercise classes, increased their awareness of healthy food choices and grew their own vegetable gardens. The evaluation found a significant change in attitudes of congregation members.

The pilot churches were the Samoan Open Brethren Assembly and the Assembly of God Walmsley Road congregation. They are continuing in the project along the Congregational Christian Church of Te Atatu, the Pacific Islanders' Church at Avondale and two Tongan congregations in Glen Innes.

Henga says that the church leaders are a vital part of getting the health message across. “They know if they include health promotion messages in their services on Sundays, their parishioners are empowered to make positive life-style changes.”

The programme is now being extended to other congregations in the Auckland area. So far, six churches and one community group are enrolled in it, and more church are interested in taking part.

So next time you go to a Pacific church feast, you can make the most of the hospitality, knowing that it’s going to be good for your body as well as your spirit.