Marketing From The Pulpit

October 5, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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In marketing a health program to the inner city, it pays to have God on your side. Or at least a sympathetic minister.

Pam Chapman, community relations liaison with Spectrum Health HeartReach, successfully advertised the Sisters in Action program this year with help from some of the churches in Grand Rapids that have predominantly black congregations.

Her marketing strategy paid off; she was hoping to fill 160 openings in the free health-and-nutrition program offered to inner-city women. She easily filled the first six-month session and had hundreds of names on the waiting list for the next one that started in September.

According to Chapman, there are about 85 churches serving the black community in Grand Rapids. She said any of them will help get the word out to their congregations for a good cause.

"I love to market through churches; it's the best way to reach a large number of African-American people. And I have good relations with the ministers," she said.

"We do storefronts, too. They're just as valid," she added.

Among the black pastors who have helped her promote the Sisters in Action program are the Rev. Charlie Jones of the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church on Dennis Street and Rev. Nathaniel Moody of Brown-Hutcherson Ministries on Jefferson Avenue.

Chapman said some churches printed information about the program in their Sunday bulletins, but in some cases, the minister — such as Rev. Jones — actually spoke about the program from the pulpit on Sunday.

"I used scripture," said Jones, beginning his comments about Sisters in Action with a reference to Hebrews 12:1-3: "Let us lay aside every weight …" 

"I said we were overweight for many reasons, physically or mentally, and it can stop our progress," he said.

Jones, 72, has been the pastor at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church for 31 years. He came to Grand Rapids at the age of 15 from Tupelo, Miss. On an average Sunday, up to 325 people show up for services at the Baptist church, which seats 400. The total membership is close to 600.

Chapman also held an informational meeting for interested women at the church right after one of the Sunday services. On another Sunday, she made a brief presentation to the congregation.

The Sisters in Action program was a somewhat delicate marketing message to communicate, because the target audience is females who are overweight or obese. Chapman said she had to carefully craft a message that would not turn off her audience, especially the younger females. The program is open to teenage girls — "the hip-hop group" — as well as older women.

"We have to get our young people. In our recruiting, we didn't use certain words such as 'fat' or 'obese.' The younger girls, they don't think they are fat," said Chapman. That word would be offensive to them, but they will concede they are "thick." So that's the word Chapman uses.

Another example Chapman gave of using the right marketing terminology was the distinction between "sisters" and "sistas."

"We wanted to be able to separate the girls from the women, so we called the teenage girls 'sistas,' because that's how they talk," she said.

The flyer she wrote about the Sisters in Action program reflects a positive approach by asking if the reader wants to wear a smaller size, lose some weight or get some exercise.

The program, which meets for two hours, two nights a week, includes transportation for the participants from their churches to the David D. Hunting YMCA in downtown Grand Rapids. Child care is also provided at the Y for mothers who bring their children with them.

Chapman said lack of transportation and child care are two barriers to participation by inner-city women in many beneficial activities.

According to a news release from Spectrum Health, a health assessment survey in Kent County revealed that "44 percent of the African/Black American participants have a BMI (body mass index) of greater than 30."

BMI is a measurement of weight in relation to height, and reflects the amount of body fat an individual has. According to the National Institutes of Health, a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered healthy. A person with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, and a person with a BMI of 30 or more is considered obese.

The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids and Spectrum Health joined forces to create Sisters in Action. The two organizations received a federal grant from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Women's Health.

Chapman said the program also received assistance from the John M. Burgess Wellness Center, operated by St. Philips Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids.

Co-coordinator of the program with Chapman was Cassandra Hankins at the YMCA. "When we reach the end (of each session of exercise, health screenings and nutritional classes), we tell them our goal; we tell them, 'we hope you go on with this the rest of your life,'" said Chapman. HQX

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