Beverly Propes is on a mission. Maybe not from God, but one she wages in his house each and every Sunday.
While her fellow parishioners come to the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis to renew their faith, Propes comes to check their blood pressure.
The retired school nurse sits at a small table in the church’s lobby — stethoscope in one hand, blood pressure cuff in the other, Bible at her side. For almost a decade now, she’s been there every Sunday, waiting for the sanctuary doors to open.
“Before you go out, you can’t miss her. She’s standing right there,” said Bill Huff, a church deacon. “She doesn’t let people walk by. She’ll say: ‘I need to take your blood pressure.’ And people don’t usually say no to Beverly.”
As a longtime health professional and avid churchgoer, Propes is a familiar face in both medical circles and in the Twin Cities’ constellation of black churches. Now in her 70s, the soft-spoken firebrand with a runner’s physique is focusing her energies on a higher purpose: improving the collective health of African-Americans in her community, one body at a time.
She prods young and old alike: Stop eating fried foods. Stop drinking soda. Please exercise. Please read the labels. And while we’re at it, let’s check your blood pressure, she’ll say. Propes hopes her personal crusade — she also teaches nutrition and CPR classes — will help turn the tide on the escalating rates of diabetes, heart disease and hypertension plaguing African-Americans.
Minnesota has some of the nation’s widest racial health disparities, a dilemma Propes has been tackling from the front lines since the problem came to light in the late 1980s.
“When I realized that the whole issue of disparate health was so profound in the African-American community, I just decided that I needed to do something about that,” she said.
Struggle to save lives
Propes was put on her path decades ago, when as a girl growing up in St. Paul she met a nurse at church.
The woman, Propes said, was the first African-American public health nurse to graduate from the University of Minnesota. But when Propes herself attempted to enroll in a Ramsey County nursing program, she was rebuffed.
“They told my father and I that I could not become a student there because they did not accept, in those days they called you, ‘Negro students,’ ” she recalled.
Undeterred, she enrolled at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where she was the only African-American student in the one-year nursing program at the time, she said. Propes went on to earn a master’s degree, propelling her into a long career in the health field, including years as a nurse at North High School in Minneapolis.
Today, Propes finds herself facing a new and different struggle — getting her neighbors and fellow worshipers to break a legacy of unhealthy habits.
“From a cultural perspective, we’re used to eating the foods that grandmama used to eat, so we have a taste for it,” she said.
On a recent Saturday, she was back at church, this time at nearby Wayman AME, leading a health class that went beyond checking blood pressure.
“All right, everybody. On your feet!” she called out to the small group of churchgoers, most in their 60s and 70s.
She led the men and women, many at risk for diabetes, in a series of stretches. Gripping the ends of a stretching band, she raised her arms high above her head. The others followed suit. More stretches followed, and the class remained dutiful until the smell of mustard greens filled the air from the church kitchen.
Propes tried to coax them to do one more stretch, but they protested loudly. They wanted to sample the “15-minute greens,” a healthy version of a favorite side dish.
“All right, let’s eat,” Propes said, relenting at last.
Back at her own church, Propes’ gospel of good, healthful food is so well known that churchgoers invoke her name even when she’s not around.
“When we are planning events that involve foods, there is a consciousness to make sure there are some healthy foods there. Sometimes you might even hear people joke, ‘Is Sister Propes around? Can we do this?’ ” said the church’s interim pastor, the Rev. Leonard Thompson. “She is a reminder that you only have one body to take care of.”
The death rate from diabetes for African-Americans is almost twice the rate for whites, according to the latest state health department figures. Stroke rates are lopsided, too. From 2005 to 2009, African-American men died from stroke at a rate 22 percent higher than for white men, while the stroke death rates for African-American women were 36 percent higher than the rates for white women.
“There’s a lot of evidence that says if people change unhealthy eating habits, they’ll live a lot longer,” Propes said, launching into a public health message. “If they watch their sugar and salt intake, then they’ll reduce their risks of not only diabetes, but glaucoma and kidney disease.”
She added: “I have a 100-year-old uncle. I want everybody — and myself included — to live as long as he does.”
‘So much water!’
When Rev. Thompson first came to Fellowship Missionary Baptist last June, he was struck by the abundance of bottled water.
“I have never been to a church where I have seen so much water!” he said.
Bottles of water appear at all church events and even up in the pulpit. It was Propes’ doing, of course.
“You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” Thompson said, adding, “She has the ability of not only bringing the horse to the water but the water to the horse. And to encourage you to at least try it.”
Church picnics now include turkey burgers. After a funeral, the luncheon features both fried chicken and, at Propes’ urging, baked chicken, as well.
These victories, Propes said, are small but lasting.
Just ask Mitchell Adams. On a recent Sunday, the 67-year-old parked himself at Propes’ station outside the church sanctuary. He removed his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeve. His blood pressure used to be a problem, but for a year now it’s been under control, thanks, in part, to Propes’ vigilance.
Said Adams: “She’s the reason I’m living.”