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South Carolina Churches Focus on Diabetes Prevention

Rev. Robert McClinton, 69, sits on a pew in Old Beaver Dam Baptist Church Sunday Nov. 20, 2022, in Newberry, SC. He led members of his congregation in a one-year, faith-based program, the Southeast Diabetes Faith Initiative, to lose weight and improve health.
Photo by Gavin McIntyre

The Rev. Robert McClinton has held quite a few titles during his 69 years—“reverend,” of course, “assistant superintendent,” “doctor of ministry.” One honorific he never planned on was “biggest loser.”

But after McClinton led members of his congregation in a one-year, faith-based program to lose weight and improve their health, his 35-pound loss topped them all.

“I didn’t set out to be the biggest loser,” says a laughing McClinton, who pastors Old Beaver Dam Baptist Church, in Newberry, about 40 miles northwest of Columbia. “I just set a goal for myself. I do try to be a good role model.”

Many of the church’s 80 or so congregants were overweight and had health issues such as type 2 diabetes, McClinton notes.

“This program motivated them to really be conscious of their diet, be more active and keep a close check on their health by going to the doctor and eating the right things,” he says.

AARP’s national office is funding an expansion of the program, the Southeast Diabetes Faith Initiative. It’s run by the nonprofit The Balm in Gilead—a name that harks back to an African American spiritual with a special resonance for Black churchgoers.

AARP Rev. Robert McClinton preaches during the service at Old Beaver Dam Baptist Church Sunday Nov. 20, 2022, in Newberry, SC. McClinton, 69, led members of his congregation in a one-year, faith-based program, the Southeast Diabetes Faith Initiative, to lose weight and improve their health. Credit: Gavin McIntyre.
Gavin McIntyre

Several churches in rural South Carolina have participated in the diabetes prevention program since 2018, says Pernessa Seele, The Balm in Gilead’s founder and CEO. With AARP’s support, the program is expanding to Columbia and Charleston, aiming for five participating churches in each city.

“For African Americans, the most trusted institution is still the Black church,” Seele says.

More than a quarter of South Carolinians are African American, so racial disparities in health are a major focus for AARP South Carolina, says Jo Pauling-Jones, its advocacy and outreach director.

A 2021 AARP-funded study showed that Black South Carolinians have higher rates of death from heart disease, higher rates of diabetes and a greater incidence of high blood pressure, compared with white residents.

“If a person is not healthy, nothing else matters,” Pauling- Jones says.

Expanding to more cities

A South Carolina native and former medical researcher, Seele started The Balm in Gilead 34 years ago as an education program on HIV/AIDS. The organization is based in Richmond, Virginia, where Seele now lives.

The nonprofit’s diabetes prevention program is in six states where dozens of churches participate. It uses curricula developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that are targeted toward individuals who have been diagnosed with prediabetes or who are at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Participants get information to help them adopt healthier lifestyles. The program trains life coaches to guide discussions on eating healthy, staying active and tracking progress. AARP funding pays for educational materials such as cookbooks.

The Rev. Alvin Larke, 75, who pastors Cumberland AME Church, in Aiken, was skeptical about the program at first. But he eventually got involved as a coach and participant. Larke, his wife and members of his congregation prepared healthy meals for their Wednesday night Bible studies. His blood glucose numbers improved.

It was “a learning process,” he says, to make changes such as enjoying chicken cooked with vegetables rather than fried. “People want to be healthy, and this showed them how.”

AARP South Carolina offers a variety of health-focused programs, such as online fitness sessions and cooking classes. Go to and select Events. Its “Living Well” series can be viewed at

Linda H. Lamb is a writer living in Columbia.

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