In many churches, the first lady is the pastor's wife and sits next to him on the pulpit. While her husband's chief concern might be his parishioners' souls, hers often is what the church can do to improve parishioners' lives and well-being.
Tracey Alston — whose grandmother was a first lady — thought about this in 2008 when she sat down with representatives from the Chicago Department of Public Health, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and the Walgreen Co. and came up with the idea of the First Ladies Health Initiative.
The organizations had been working with many of the city's African-American churches and knew that with growing health problems in the black community, much more needed to be done.
Alston is president of the Danielle Ashley Group, a public relations firm handling the Walgreen Co.'s outreach efforts in the black community. Her job was to help devise a plan.
"It started with us trying to find a way to get HIV-testing into more churches," said Alston. "We know that women get things done so I said, 'What about the first ladies?'"
Now in their fifth year of working together, the women behind the First Ladies Health Initiative organize a health day every September that has included about 40 churches from a variety of denominations across the city. They have screened thousands of people for mental illness and diseases ranging from diabetes to breast cancer to HIV.
A luncheon every June is designed to inspire churches to continue their good work and to bring more of them into the fold. This year's luncheon will be on Saturday at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and will feature Sherri Shepherd from the daytime television show "The View."
This year's First Ladies Health Day is scheduled for Sept. 22. The event is always on a Sunday, either during or after a participating church's main service.
The Rev. Doris Green, director of correctional health and community affairs at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, attended the original 2008 meeting. She said that in the beginning, she wondered why there was a need for a luncheon.
"But when you see the women break bread together, embrace each other and get excited about what they can do for their parishioners, you get it," said Green. "It's an opportunity for them to recruit new churches, share resources and begin planning for September."
At last year's September health fair, according to the initiative's follow-up report, about 2,000 people were screened for high blood pressure, more than 5,000 for diabetes, 300 for high cholesterol, 870 for HIV and 600 for hepatitis C. Women were also able to get vouchers for mammograms and bone-density tests. Some churches even hosted CPR training sessions.
Green said that after the screenings, parishioners who require follow-up care are referred to agencies or hospitals.
Miche'al Brooks is the first lady at Canaan Community Church in the Englewood neighborhood. Her church has been involved with the initiative since the beginning.
She said that one year a parishioner attending Canaan's health day had blood pressure that was so high she needed immediate medical care, and a deacon drove her from the church to the hospital.
"She was admitted and put on medication right away," said Brooks. Months later, "she wound up later having a minor stroke. But she's fine now."
Brooks believes that the woman's outcome might have been far worse had she not been screened and gotten treatment.
She said her church's health fairs have made the entire congregation more aware of their eating habits, and how foods affect glucose levels as well as obesity.
For the church's after-service meals, the cooks now offer a greater variety of salad selections and chicken that's often baked rather than fried. The church has also swapped out vending machines that contain junk food for those dispensing healthier alternatives.
Green said that while it's important to address an array of health issues, when she first started with the initiative she was desperate to find a way to encourage churches to talk more about HIV and AIDS, which remains at epidemic levels in the black community.
According to the city's Health Department, blacks make up 36 percent of Chicago's population, but account for 55 percent of recently diagnosed HIV infections.
"For many churches, it's about … homophobia and how we're not aware that there are people in our churches who are HIV-positive but afraid to say something because they fear the stigma of being considered gay," Green said.
"But we have heterosexual people in the church who are HIV-positive. We have children who were born with it and senior citizens who have it."
She said at times persuading some churches to give out free condoms also has been challenging because some ministers don't want to appear to be sanctioning premarital sex.
But Alston said the focus has to be on saving lives, and she hopes more churches will open their doors for HIV testing and to the initiative. And, if a church doesn't have a first lady, an "ambassador" can participate.
"The African-American church teaches people about spirituality, but what about their body and mind?" she said. "People are hurting. They're broken. The church is the hospital, and these first ladies are part of the triage."