‘When we know better, we do better’

Orangeburg Circuit Parish Nursing Healthcare Ministry helps community stay healthy

By Jessica Brodie

Three sister churches in the Orangeburg District are using their passion for health to help their community. And it’s making a difference, transforming lives one blood test and one testimony at a time.

Their efforts started in September 2021, when the Orangeburg Circuit—comprising Bethlehem, Mount Nebo and St. John United Methodist churches—was struggling to keep meeting safely as a congregation amid the pandemic. Their pastor, the Rev. Lawrence Cantey Jr., had been successfully leading “parking lot services,” and he approached several nurses in the congregation about how they could continue meeting in a healthy way, eventually transitioning the church back indoors. The nurses are a part of a nursing sorority, Zeta Eta Eta Phi, which is a chapter of the Chi Eta Phi Sorority Inc.

The nurses, along with health-care advocate the Rev. Annie Sistrunk, sprang into action, developing guidelines in tandem with the Centers for Disease Control and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to keep the congregation safe.

Now mobilized, the Orangeburg Circuit Parish Nursing Healthcare Ministry kept their work going, realizing their churches would benefit from ongoing health and wellness education. The committee—Elaine Leonard, Sarah Murph, Evelyn Pauling, Jamie Guinyard, Josephine Edmonds and Sistrunk, who as the self-proclaimed non-nursing person calls herself the “mouthpiece” of the bunch—began organizing Fifth Sunday wellness services.

“We started by making sure everyone had COVID shots, letting them know about hand washing and taking temperatures, using hand sanitizer and masks, keeping the church safe by making sure to sanitize the sanctuaries, and DHEC would come in every time we had a service,” Sistrunk explained.

Evolving over time

That first Fifth Sunday service fell on Halloween, so they combined it with a trunk-or-treat event for the community to add some fun, starting with a brief worship service and then incorporating health experts to speak on various conditions affecting their community.

As the outreach ministry evolved, so did their speakers.

“We had people speak on different ailments and topics so individuals could start paying attention to their health—doctors, nurses, some in person and some via Zoom. The individuals come from within our congregations to give their testimonies about how they survived different ailments, from heart problems to how they made it through harsh times,” Sistrunk said.

One Fifth Sunday Sistrunk offered her own testimony as a kidney disease survivor, a surprise diagnosis that changed every aspect of her life. They also did an enlightening kidney health wellness program that helped attendees understand the importance of doing blood tests, monitoring symptoms and knowing their creatinine level to avoid kidney disease or other kidney-related issues. Especially with the pandemic, Sistrunk explained, a person is at greater risk of dangerous COVID complications when they have underlying health conditions. 

“Our parish nursing ministry is awesome,” Sistrunk said. “They are off the chain! These nurses come from all different types of nursing backgrounds, and I am so in awe of these women. The Orangeburg Circuit would not be where we are healthwise without this ministry.”

Leonard said the ministry is her spiritual calling, but what they do is not just about religion.

“We do anything from heart health to domestic violence to end-of-life care,” Leonard said. “We just want to make sure all our congregants have the maximum amount of information they can have to be healthy.”

And it’s not just the circuit, she and Sistrunk noted. The wellness events are for the entire community.

In addition to the Fifth Sunday services, the churches host a back-to-school bash, fall festival and other events, all featuring health components, including handy health kits for people to take home. The fire department and local sheriff’s office come, fostering a better relationship with their neighbors. For their fall festival, the Caw Caw Volunteer Fire Department was there along with their fire chief, as well as Marc Briggman from the Calhoun County Development Department. 

One Sunday, a woman, Yolanda Robinson, who is both a breast cancer survivor and a domestic violence survivor spoke, offering her own testimony so others can understand how important it is to be strong in body, mind and spirit so we can be all we can be for the Lord. She also spoke on suicide awareness.

Other services explore issues like mental health, stress, diabetes and more. December’s service focused on end-of-life concerns, including palliative care and hospice.

“We have to keep ourself spiritually connected with God in order to receive the healing and blessing we need, in order to be an overcomer,” Sistrunk said. “Being an overcomer is not about lording yourself over anyone but about you realizing, ‘I am important to God and myself, and if I don’t take care of myself first, I can be no good to anyone else.’”

Leonard agreed.

“God talks about how our bodies are temples, and we’re to take care of them like we take care of the church,” Leonard said. “If we don’t take care of our bodies, how can we do God’s work?”

She said prayer is important, but work and follow-through are also required. We also need to remember that doctors and nurses are also often sent to help from God, she said.

‘I am a living testimony’

Sistrunk is no stranger to the concept of being an overcomer, and her personal health journey ties in strongly with the newfound passion she has for helping her sister churches be strong in their health and wellness.

While she had always stayed on top of checking her kidney levels, about five years ago she discovered her creatinine levels had skyrocketed within just six months.

She immediately went to the doctor and got sobering news.

“The doctor said either you get dialysis or get a kidney transplant or you’re going to die,” Sistrunk recalled. “I was close to Stage 4 kidney disease.”

The next week she was able to get into a nephrologist’s office, who changed her medication and helped her get started on other needed health changes, such as seeing a nutritionist.

At first she told no one her story, continuing to minister and pastor as usual even though it was difficult.

Eventually she began to share her story, and now she offers it to others as a way of helping people understand how important it is to know your creatinine levels and be on top of your health, whether diabetes, cholesterol or your general family history.

“When we don’t know our numbers or our family health background, we are our worst enemy,” Sistrunk said. “It’s said when we know better, we do better, and I am a living example of this.”

In five years, she has gone from having almost Stage 4 kidney disease to a low Stage 3, from creatinine levels over 4 to now almost back to normal, to working with an endocrinologist to get from a double-digit A1C glucose blood test to now under 7 and improving daily.

“I am a living testimony to what God can do,” Sistrunk said. “When God says no weapon formed against me shall prosper, what the devil meant for harm I’ll turn for good, I am that living testimony that God can turn all the harm around and put a hedge of protection around me the same way he did for Job.”

A mindset of self-care

That’s what drives Sistrunk and the others who are part of the Orangeburg Circuit Parish Nursing Healthcare Ministry—helping others have that same level of health knowledge so they can be all they can be for God and do God’s kingdom work.

She lifts up the words of Romans 12:1-2, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (NKJV).

Having lost her husband to a massive heart attack, her sister to breast cancer, her mother to pancreatic cancer, and almost lost her son to pancreatitis, “I’ve just seen so much,” she said.

“I want us to be mindful of taking care of ourselves,” Sistrunk said.

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