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Church’s First Place group sheds 1,200 pounds, 695 inches in year

TAYLOR, Mich. (BP)–Some folk at Evangel Baptist Church, Taylor, Mich., are wondering why a women’s group is half its former size.
Fact is, however, they haven’t lost a single soul, just a lot of excess baggage.
From January 1997 to January 1998, members of the First Place weight-loss classes at the suburban Detroit church dropped more than 1,200 pounds and 695 inches off their collective bodies. And the weight is continuing to vanish.
“We don’t need a building program because we naturally have more room,” joked senior pastor Ron Graef. “And all the pews have gotten larger,” chimed in assistant pastor Ken Pyne.
All kidding aside, Graef said he has noticed a marked difference in the 66 women currently enrolled in the church’s weight-control classes.
“First Place: A Christ-Centered Health Program,” published by the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, carries with it a spiritual emphasis and focuses on giving Christ first place in all areas of life — physical, mental, spiritual and emotional.
“You can see their determination; their sense of satisfaction; their victory and their camaraderie,” Graef said.
Camaraderie seems to be a byproduct of accountability, one of the most important elements of the spiritual weight-loss program, according to Evangel’s First Place director, Nancy Simmonds, who has lost more than 100 pounds since beginning the program in January 1997.
“First Place is different than all the other weight-loss programs I’ve tried because of the accountability to each other and to God,” Simmonds said. “We encourage each other often. Because we are humans, we tend to see the negative, so we use the tools of First Place to be positive.”
Taking partners, the women in the program pray for each other daily, she said. They also make phone calls of encouragement.
“One First Place commitment (there are nine) is to make one phone call a week to encourage or pray with someone, and I know the women do this. Sometimes God leads them to call a friend in the program at a certain time without them really understanding why. And many times, it turns out the girl is just going through a difficult time.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in the women taking this program,” Simmonds said. “I’ve noticed their peace, confidence, and felt the spiritual change. When you start talking to people in the program, you realize it’s not only about weight, but about Bible study and prayer.”
Simmonds said “desperation” was the driving force behind her latest attempt to lose weight.
“A year ago, it was a struggle for me to walk from the front of the house to the back. I was not an active person at all. My body was not a body to serve God. I couldn’t do the ministries I could have been doing if I didn’t have all that weight.”
Before becoming too self-conscious of her body, Simmonds said she had been involved in her husband’s ministry to the deaf at their church. She stood with him to perform sign interpretation during Sunday worship until she began to feel her appearance was a hindrance to his work.
About four years ago, Simmonds said, she and other women at the church tried starting a weight-loss program in which she prepared the materials.
“We met every week, but it was hard, and we didn’t have any accountability as far as the women writing down everything they ate,” she said. “We prayed for each other and we encouraged each other, but we weren’t losing any weight.”
Later, a water aerobics class failed in a similar fashion, she said.
“Then one of the girls approached me a year ago last October and said she heard about First Place, so I called (the Sunday School Board) and they sent me some pamphlets and preview material.”
After a lot of prayer — Simmonds refuses to make a move without first talking to God about it — seven women decided to start the program.
“We stuck it out together. We knew this was going to be a day-by-day process. And then at the end of that first session, we had lost some weight, but we weren’t ready to ask anybody else to join us.”
But by the end of the first year, four of the seven women had lost 100.5 pounds, Simmonds said. Two lost 50 pounds.
“Four of us prayed to lose 100 pounds and we all lost more than that, and we lost exactly the same amount. Two of the women — one who lost 100 pounds and one who lost 50 pounds — got pregnant their first week in the program. They both had healthy, beautiful babies and they still lost that weight. In fact, they both came back the week after their babies were born and they had each lost 20 pounds in one week.”
While the individual women may be shrinking, the program is growing. The original group of seven grew to about 20 in June 1997. By November, there were five groups and a total of 66 women taking the class.
“And we haven’t even announced in the church,” said Simmonds, who exercises five to seven times a week for an hour.
Prayer, not advertisement, has spurred the success of First Place, she said. “Before I even started First Place, one of my commitments was that I would always do everything in God’s timing and not my own. There are things, I can tell you, I would like to see happen, but I’m convinced if I push it to happen, it would not be successful and could be harmful to the function of First Place. Our first step is to pray about it.”
Before beginning First Place, pizza was the food that had power over Simmonds. “I still have a food addiction to pizza. Before First Place, I couldn’t have just one piece; I could have one pizza. I remember the first time I had pizza after being on First Place for six months. I enjoyed it so much that I cried.
“A lot of losing weight has to do with being obedient to God,” Simmonds said. “I was hungry all the time, but when I started studying the Bible, I lost that need for food. I found that if I held the Bible in my hands, I couldn’t hold food in my hands.”
Debe White, Simmonds’ right-hand First Place assistant, and a member of the original group of seven, has also lost over 100 pounds — that’s 10 dress sizes — since beginning the program.
“Before First Place, we tried everything, and we were just getting fatter and fatter and fatter,” White said of herself and Simmonds. “I was getting more and more depressed. Every morning when I got up, I couldn’t find anything to wear.”
Like Simmonds, White said she was addicted to food and eating.
“I would eat for everything — happiness, stress, love, celebration.”
White said she joined First Place rather halfheartedly.
“I didn’t have it in me to give it my all. I didn’t put any of God into it.” Still, after the first session, she had lost 19 and three-fourths pounds.
“But during the summer session, I actually gained a pound. Then, I started listening to the girls who were losing weight talk, and they were all celebrating. It just broke me.”
The very next session, she lost 43 pounds and the session after that she lost another 40.
“It just takes putting God into it. You’ve gotta put him first,” White said.
First Place member Roxanne Owen had an addiction to the soda, Mountain Dew, and Elayne Bielby had trouble with sweets.
Bielby, who has lost 36 pounds since June and is on a maintenance program, said she now works for any dessert she eats. Recently, she walked 18 miles and drank 15 glasses of water before indulging in a piece of apple pie “with a big ole’ scoop of French Vanilla ice cream on top.”
Owen, who has lost 14 and a half pounds and only has a few more to go, said the “Lord told me to focus on giving up one thing, and that was Mountain Dew.”
“I prayed for the love of good food and the hatred of Mountain Dew.”
Owen, who hasn’t popped the top of a Mountain Dew for five months, said she feels like she’s been released from bondage.
“I needed deliverance. I was bound to Mountain Dew, but now I have a freedom from bondage to food.”

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  • Terri Lackey