COLUMBUS, Ohio After the fourth death in a week, the Rev. Keith Troy decided enough was enough.
Midway through Sunday services, he looked out at his congregation and asked all the men to rise. Then he asked: Would the deacons and associate ministers please assemble in the aisles with paper and pencil? Would every man write down his name and a phone number where he could be reached?
Too many church men were dying of preventable illnesses related to poor health, the Rev. Troy told the congregation at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, a predominantly black church of about 4,500 members, including about 900 adult men.
Their pastor of 24 years issued a simple order: Every man in the congregation will see a doctor in the next three months. If they can't afford it, the church will help pay. If transportation is a problem, someone from the church will drive them.
"But one way or another," the Rev. Troy said that Sunday in late November, "every man in this church will be checked out."
"Amen," parishioners responded. "Amen."
The last straw had come three days earlier when Roland Burks, 58, died of complications from diabetes and high blood pressure, the day after he delivered Thanksgiving meals to the homeless.
"I plead guilty to being a pragmatist," the Rev. Troy said in an interview. "What we do on Sunday has got to impact Monday through Saturday, and if not, what are we doing?"
He said he stood in the pulpit that Sunday and happened to see two doctors, members of the church, in the congregation.
"It just kind of came to me," the Rev. Troy said. "We didn't have 900 meetings about it it was just one of those moments of inspiration."
Statistics show black men are among the least likely people to see a doctor regularly. Black men also have higher rates of high blood pressure than white or Hispanic men and a higher risk of dying from strokes than men and women from any other group. Black men also have higher obesity rates than white men or women.
Last year, the Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina, a predominantly black denomination, announced a partnership with the state to educate people about disease prevention and healthy living.
In Colorado, Denver's Center for African-American Health works with about 80 black churches to increase awareness among parishioners about preventing diabetes, heart problems and other chronic diseases.
"When the message comes from the church and the pastor, it comes with a very important push behind it and people do tend to trust that message," said Dr. Michelle Gourdine, a member of Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the deputy secretary of health for Maryland. The 1,300-member church in Randalls-town, Md., offers annual programs on reducing cholesterol and high-blood pressure and runs a 10-week exercise class for just $10.
Fear of being perceived as weak keeps some black men from seeing doctors, as does historical distrust of the profession. Concerns about the cost of medical care also play a part. A 2004 survey by the Ohio Department of Health found that more than one in four black men in Ohio were uninsured, compared with fewer than one in five white men.
"We don't generally seek out health care unless we become incapacitated," said Dr. Augustus Parker, a black physician and a member of New Salem. "'I got a bum knee?' you wait until it's bone on bone and you can't walk. 'That chest pain I have? I just drink a bottle of Maalox and I feel better."'
The Rev. Troy's order made Jimmy Logan, a church volunteer who helps handle parking on Sundays and a friend of Burks, realize that if he wants to continue serving others, he'd better look out for himself first.
He went to the doctor and had an arthritic knee drained but otherwise got a clean bill of health.
"It's one thing to preach the gospel. It's another thing to also have a sincere heart of caring while you're doing that," said Logan, 46, an adviser at a bank. "The combination of the two has left many of us just speechless."
The Rev. Troy's call to medical action was not the first time he's departed from his Sunday script. In June, he asked all teenagers to stand up and talk about what they wanted to do with their lives after a boy in the congregation was murdered two weeks before graduation.
Since word got out about what he said that day from the pulpit, other churches have called for information, and local hospitals have asked if they can help.
The Rev. Troy gets weekly updates on how many men have seen a doctor so far. He doesn't have a count yet but says many of the church's men have participated.As for himself? The 54-year-old pastor sees a physician annually and considers himself in good health.
On the Net: New Salem: www.nsmbccares.com/