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'Healthy Churches' national conference planned for Hilton Head to address health disparities

Pernessa Seele

Pernessa Seele is the founder of Balm in Gilead. Provided

Pernessa Seele, who grew up in Lincolnville, found herself a long way from the Lowcountry at the height of the AIDS crisis. 

An immunologist by training, Seele worked with HIV/AIDS patients in New York City in the 1980s and couldn't help but wonder why churches weren't doing more to educate their congregations about the growing epidemic. 

"We don’t want to talk about certain diseases," admitted Seele, who now lives in Richmond, Virginia. "Some of us still don’t want to talk about HIV. Some of us still don’t want to talk about cancer, either."

More than 20 years ago, Seele founded Balm in Gilead, a national nonprofit group that partners with faith-based organizations "to prevent diseases and to improve the health status of individuals who are disproportionately affected by high rates of health disparities, especially HIV, hepatitis C, cervical cancer and sexual violence," according to its website. 

Numbers published by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control show that black men will more likely contract AIDS than white men and that heart disease death rates are also higher among black men. Black adults, both male and female, are more likely to suffer from diabetes than white adults, too. Several other health disparities continue to impact black patients in greater numbers. 

In November, Seele will bring Balm in Gilead's national Healthy Churches conference to Hilton Head. She wants to encourage church leaders from the Lowcountry to attend the three-day event, which will features speakers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the American Diabetes Association, Wake Forest University and more.

Seele said the conference has been designed to give health information to church leaders, who can then return home and pass the information along to their worship communities. She said research that shows black church-goers will more likely take a brochure about heart disease or diabetes or cancer if they receive that brochure at church. 

"If you give that same information out in the church, it has more value and a longer pass-along effect," Seele said. "In the African-American community, it still is true that the most influential voice is the faith leader. Whether they’re right or wrong, it’s the faith leader."

The Healthy Churches conference will run Nov. 14-17 at The Westin Hilton Head. For more information about the event, or to register, visit

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Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598. 

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