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Mitchell: Pastors' wives unite to save lives

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First Ladies used to be easy to spot.

They were the women sitting in the front row wearing the widest hats.

But that stereotype has given away to something entirely different.

Quite often, you find first ladies standing behind pulpits or leading in other areas of ministry.

The largest demonstration of this new order can be seen Sunday at about 70 churches in the Chicago area and Northwest Indiana when first ladies of all denominations come together for the seventh annual First Ladies Health Day.

OPINION

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The event is the brainchild of Tracey Alston, president of the Danielle Ashley Group, a marketing agency.

“This is the best example of the non-for-profit, corporate and faith-based organizations coming together to help decrease the incidents of preventable disease that plague the African-American community disproportionately,” says Alston, who also is executive director of the non-for-profit health initiative.

Reared in the AME church, she is the granddaughter of a pastor and first lady.

“I grew up watching what the women were supposed to do — from fund-raising to lifting all the weight behind the scenes,” she says. “I watched my grandfather being on site for every request from, I need you to marry me to I need you to bury me.

“What we see today is those roles may have expanded but haven’t changed. The pastor’s wife is responsible for supporting their husbands, taking care of their families and their church.”

Seldom are the efforts of first ladies publicly honored. But Thursday night the Blue Cross Blue Shield building was illuminated to kick off the health event.

At past screenings, people have learned they have HIV and other diseases. Last year, a woman’s blood pressure tested so high that she ended up being hospitalized for three days.

About 30,000 people took advantage of the First Ladies Health Day in 2014.

New this year is a challenge by Canadian-based bioLytical Laboratories, which donated 800 of its INSTI 60-second rapid HIV testing kits to the First Ladies. For every test administered, the company says it will donate a free INSTI HIV test to the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation in South Africa.

In this country, one in 32 African-American women and one in 16 African-American men will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetimes.

Shauntai Stowers, the First Lady of Mars Hill Baptist Church in Austin, says these first ladies have done something most of their husbands haven’t been able to do.

“We have Pentecostal, Baptist, non-denominational and every type of denomination that you can think of participating,” Stowers says. “We have first ladies who are between 30 and 87 years old, and small churches with less than 100 members and churches with up to 3,000 members.

“We put aside our differences and opened up our doors to other churches and our community to help shed some light and give free health screenings on things that are affecting the African-American community,” she says, ticking off a list of illnesses. “HIV / AIDS, diabetes, high blood pressure — and one that is really trying to hit our baby boomers is hepatitis C.”

The “First Ladies Health Day” is a gift to the entire community. For some, that gift may prove to be a lifesaver.

For a list of participating churches, go to: http://firstladieshealth.com

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