Church lady's mission: Say your prayers, then check your blood pressure

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 19, 2014 - 4:59 PM

This Minneapolis church lady, a retired school nurse, practices what she preaches : the gospel of good health.

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.

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  • Beverly Propes checked the blood pressure of Ade Kuku after a recent Sunday service at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis.

  • Propes has made it her mission to increase awareness of diabetes among African-Americans by meeting them where they worship.

  • From left, Laverna Arnold, Jean Coleman and Regina Tarver joined Beverly Propes for some greens cooked by Coleman during a recent health class at the Wayman AME Church in north Minneapolis.

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