The Rev. Brian Clater preaches that God can heal.
“That’s not just what I heard or read in the Bible,” he says. “It’s happened to me.”
The pastor was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma and endured eight months of aggressive chemotherapy. The treatment left him frail, barely able to walk. He lost 40 pounds.
With the support of his wife, Dorothy, he not only survived cancer but thrived. He changed his lifestyle, exercising regularly – he runs regularly -- and eating habits.
Some 13 years after his diagnosis, at age 61, he’s a living testament of how faith and personal effort can transform a life.
It’s a message he imparts to his congregation at Mount Olive Baptist Church in the Mount Hope neighborhood off of Market Street. It’s one of the faith organizations participating in the Southeastern San Diego Cardiac Disparities Project, organized by Be There San Diego in in partnership with United African American Ministerial Action Council.
The project is made possible by a Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Entering its fourth year this fall, the project works closely with African America faith organizations in that low-income area to help them develop their own plan to improve their members’ heart health through education, increased physical activity and healthy eating.
The project emphasizes that each congregation tailor its plan to their members’ unique background and needs. Pastor Clater said many of his members come from “broken situations where they have been hurt before. They are distrustful of organized religion, of people who can take advantage of them.”
He says he’s worked hard to earn their trust in the ten years he’s led Mt. Olive, where he and his wife have grown the congregation to about 140 members from under 20 when they first arrived.
Pastor Clater brings his own unique background to the pulpit. A native of Oklahoma, he came to San Diego as an urban planner and worked for the City of San Diego for three years. As a “preacher’s kid,” he says, the last thing he wanted to do was become a preacher. But he was invited to work at the large congregation of Bayview Baptist Church and decided to leave his successful career as a planner to answer the God’s calling.
Some 14 years later, he was invited to lead the small congregation of Mt. Olive. While researching that church, he says, he discovered that about one-fourth of the members were cancer survivors like he was.
He knew he was meant to be among them.
For the health project, he’s had to take into account his members background as he promotes heart-healthy messages.
“This is a congregation that knows how to cook,” he says, adding that many have long worked in the food service industry, and it wouldn’t be smart to ask them to abandon their cooking traditions.
While the faith organizations in the project have instituted formal programs that offer cooking classes and regular exercise sessions, Pastor Clater is gradually introducing the concept of healthier lifestyle.
For instance, he’s suggesting healthier options at the meal the congregation shares with the community after Sunday fellowship, starting with no sodas or sugar-laden drinks, and moving on to having fresh fruits and vegetables.
“I do the slow IV drip of healthy messages,” he says, recalling his experience during chemotherapy, where the medication was doled out slowly but did its job over time.
There will be a time to launch a heart-healthy program at his church, he says, “but we’re not there yet.”
He’s living proof of what’s possible, says Rev. Clater, who also has successfully managed a pre-diabetic diagnosis.
“If you eat healthy and exercise you can have a healthier life, a stronger life, and a more vibrant spiritual life.”
He says his congregants are responding. This is what they tell him:
“If you’re doing it, then I can do it.”