HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (BP)–A Southern Baptist congregation’s emphasis on health and fitness has sparked a primetime series devoted to reversing a trend in a city regarded as one of the nation’s most obese.
Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” is set for a two-hour premier March 26 at 8 p.m. Eastern on ABC, and First Baptist Church in Kenova, W.Va., in the Huntington area is featured throughout the six-week series.
“I started noticing all the health problems we had due to obesity. It sounds so strong, but that’s what it was,” said Steve Willis, First Baptist’s pastor, said. “We had a lot of health issues. I also started noticing when I was traveling around to other cities that people were just in a lot better shape.
“Just walking around the malls out in California and the beach area, people were in a lot better physical condition than here,” Willis told Baptist Press. “I remember saying to my wife, ‘It seems like every direction I go from home, everybody gets thinner.'”
Willis discussed the matter with the church leaders last summer and told them that even though it’s an uncomfortable issue to address, obesity is a serious problem.
“Unlike the sins of pornography and just about every sin that we commit, people that struggle with gluttony, it’s very obvious,” Willis said. “So if I start preaching about that on Sunday morning, people are going to feel singled out. We discussed for about a month how to go about this, and they didn’t really feel comfortable about it, but they agreed that the Lord put this on my heart and they agreed it probably was a problem.”
The Friday before Willis was planning to broach the subject in a sermon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study declaring Huntington the fattest city in America, with nearly half of the metro area residents classified as obese.
“So I took the report and shared with the church, ‘This is something the Lord has put on my heart for a long time. I just didn’t know how to say it,'” Willis recounted. “‘Here’s hard and fast proof that we’re the largest city in the largest region in the largest country. When I say largest, we’re the most obese.'”
Amid the negative press about Huntington that emanated from the study, a member of First Baptist Kenova called the K-LOVE radio network to report that the church was taking steps to curb the epidemic by implementing exercise programs and healthy eating lessons.
“What I did was give an invitation and say, ‘We’re going to do our own Biggest Loser here and everybody who is more than 40 pounds overweight, I want you to join and I want you to start getting in shape,'” Willis said. “‘This is what God wants you to do: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.’
“We talk a lot about the heart, soul and mind, but we don’t talk a whole lot about loving Him with all our strength,” Willis told BP. “We have these covered-dish fellowship dinners where we pile on the food, and it’s not godly. Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. So we needed to address that.
“So we started working out, we started eating healthier, we started doing our Wednesday evening fellowship meals a little bit healthier, and K-LOVE started running the story of what we were doing,” Willis said. “ABC picked it up, CNN picked it up, the national news wire picked it up and Jamie Oliver heard about it over in England.”
Oliver, a noted chef and media personality, had been working on a project with school lunch programs in England and called First Baptist Kenova to inquire whether he could help improve the school lunch programs in Huntington.
“I said, ‘Absolutely. We’d love to have you,'” Willis said.
A crew started filming in Huntington last fall, and they’ve wrapped up everything except the final 10 minutes of the series, the pastor said. That will happen after Easter. The show focuses on the local school cafeterias, chronicling Oliver’s efforts to introduce healthier foods and methods.
“I’ve seen the shows, and the church is the common denominator that is always shown in a positive light,” Willis said. “I had a concern when they first came to town that they were going to make us look like dumb hillbillies and a bunch of condescending Baptists.
“Usually ABC doesn’t necessarily present Baptist churches in the best light. But they assured me and there were some likeminded believers on the show that said we were going to be painted in a positive manner. Sure enough, they have, all through the show,” he said.
The film crew asked Willis to preach again his sermon addressing obesity, and part of that is included in the show.
“Then they show me working with a family in the church, some visitation I’ve been doing. One of the families that goes to the church was having some health problems due to dietary issues and a lack of exercise. Then they start focusing on that family and how we’re trying to get them healthier,” Willis said.
As the series unfolds on television, First Baptist Kenova continues to offer exercise programs and special dinners showing people how to prepare food in more healthy ways in an attempt to reach out to the community.
“We are just trying to raise awareness,” Willis said.
The pastor expressed frustration with fellow Southern Baptist pastors who are reluctant to address one of the nation’s fastest-growing problems.
“We’ll jump on every bandwagon and talk about drinking ourselves to death and smoking ourselves to death, and we’ll talk about the institution of marriage, and I agree we need to address those things,” he said. “But more people are dying and more families are being disrupted because of eating disorders — gluttony included — than these other issues. More people are dying due to complications from obesity than alcohol and tobacco use combined.
“Why isn’t the church at the forefront of this? It’s frustrating to me that nobody wants to talk about this,” Willis said.
The secular media has pummeled him with requests to talk about the issue and the week of the series premier Willis was in New York to promote the show. But he hadn’t gotten much response from fellow Christians, he said.
“God wants us to take care of our bodies,” Willis said. “As pastors, especially in Baptist churches, people see us as hypocrites when we address smoking and alcohol abuse but we don’t address issues concerning gluttony. There are a lot of people in our congregations that are severely overweight, but we don’t address it nearly as much as the other issues. And it’s killing us. It literally is killing our congregations.”
Though it’s a difficult topic to address, Willis urged pastors to pick up the mantle anyway.
“What we struggled with here … is you have to say it with grace and people have to know that you love them when you say it,” he said. “There’s nobody out there that’s obese who doesn’t already beat themselves up over it. They need to be encouraged. They don’t need to be condemned.
“Consequently, I had to get with some leaders in our church and some people who knew something about physical fitness, and it was a godsend with Jamie Oliver coming. I didn’t know anything about nutrition, and nobody here at the church really did either. But we had to give people nutrition lessons and let them see what fatty foods were doing to them. We had to start exercise programs down here at the church,” Willis said.
“Those are the two big things: raise nutritional awareness and provide exercise opportunities. But it has to come from the pulpit.
“Romans 12:1 says, ‘Therefore I urge you to present your bodies as living sacrifices.’ When we don’t control our eating habits, we’re not presenting our body as a sacrifice. We’re more like what Paul said in Philippians where our god is our stomach.”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.