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‘Food Revolution’ sparked by church
Erin Roach, Baptist Press
March 26, 2010

‘Food Revolution’ sparked by church

‘Food Revolution’ sparked by church
Erin Roach, Baptist Press
March 26, 2010

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — 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 tonight 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.

Steve Willis, pastor of First Baptist Church in Kenova, W.Va., and Jamie Oliver, host of ABC’s “Food Revolution,” exchange a key to the city of Huntington during a quest to improve the health of local residents.

“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.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Roach is a staff writer for

Baptist Press.)