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.
“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
The film crew asked Willis
to preach again his sermon addressing obesity, and part of that is included in
“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,”
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
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,”
“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