James Tate used to arrive early at First Baptist Church of Glenarden so that he could find a wider seat in the handicapped section of the Upper Marlboro sanctuary to accommodate his 415-pound frame.

But today the 33-year-old former high school lineman from Southeast Washington can sit anywhere in the church because he has lost more than 200 pounds, thanks to a  church-based weight loss program.

“It feels good to be an example that people can follow,” said Tate, who works as an information technology specialist and is in school to become a certified nutrition and fitness instructor.

First Baptist is among many big African American congregations locally and across the country that in recent years have decided to make health and wellness a major priority. The health ministries’ efforts range from nutrition to Zumba classes to showing parishioners how a healthful lifestyle is promoted in scripture.

The programs are a response to rising awareness of illnesses caused by obesity, fueled by a national public health focus on the issue, including first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity. High blood pressure and obesity, both of which can be alleviated with proper diet and exercise, have a disproportionate impact on African Americans, who are 1.4 times as likely as whites to be obese, according to a 2012 report from the Office of Minority Health at the Department of Health and Human Services.

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