HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — While the TV persona of British chef Jamie Oliver has added nationwide attention to the topic of nutrition, there was a spiritual spark to his “Food Revolution” in Huntington, W.Va.
In addition to a local Baptist pastor saying God sent Oliver to this Ohio River city, Yvonne Jones has no doubt the Lord arranged the visit.
Jones, executive director of the Huntington-based Ebenezer Medical Outreach, saw Oliver discussing healthy cooking on the “Today” show two years ago. She said she prayed, “Lord, it sure would be great if he came to Huntington.”
“Then Pastor Steve (Willis) was saying he was talking with his congregation about the need to eat healthy and (Oliver’s) production company called him,” Jones said. “Why his church (the Huntington-area First Baptist Church of Kenova) of all the churches in this area? Because God planned it that way.”
Although the six-week mini-series concludes tonight, the revolution it started will continue at the local storefront kitchen venue that Oliver used during filming last fall. Renamed Huntington’s Kitchen, Ebenezer assumed its operations Feb. 3. The Christian-based ministry offers a series of 10 healthy cooking classes during the week and two Saturdays a month. Attendance ranges from four to 12 people, with classes already booked into June.
Although First Baptist had offered some cooking classes in the past, the church now sends interested individuals to Huntington’s Kitchen.
Combined with its exercise classes and the attention generated by Oliver’s show, Willis hopes the parallels between physical and spiritual health will become stronger in the public’s consciousness.
“People are beginning to see that how we treat our body is directly related to how we treat God and our neighbors,” said Willis, teaching pastor at the Southern Baptist church. “Scripture says to honor God with your body. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and it’s almost as if we’ve forgotten that in our society. For us to live for God with all that we have, we have to take care of our body.”
There is a practical application for churches, Willis added. In the past he had seen numerous parents who were so overweight and out of shape they didn’t have the energy to spend the time needed with their children, such as helping them with homework.
In addition, he said their reliance on fatty convenience foods ran up their food and medical bills. That means money that could have gone toward ministry through a local church was spent on medical care, Willis said.
First Baptist member Stacie Edwards can vouch for the truth of that statement. Edwards, whose family was featured in Oliver’s first two episodes, said in the past she felt lethargic because of a diet of pizza, chicken nuggets and other calorie-laden food.
Not only is she 20 pounds lighter and off the medications she once used, Edwards said her family is drawing closer together.
“It’s been tremendous,” Edwards said. “I’m doing what God wants us to do with our body. He doesn’t want us to fill up on junk food and stuff like that. “One great thing is my husband is getting so close to Christ right now,” Edwards added. “I think maybe this whole thing has put him closer. He sees what the church is doing and what Jamie is doing and he sees what I do.”
Richard Lykins, another First Baptist member, also sees a spiritual benefit to the healthy emphasis stirred up by Oliver’s program.
“God tells us to take care of our bodies — that our bodies are a temple,” Lykins said. “We haven’t been doing that. That’s part of fulfilling God’s plan, to take care of ourselves and our families by taking care of our bodies.”
That is a message Willis thinks isn’t emphasized enough in the body of Christ. Despite hundreds of interviews with secular media, the pastor said he had not received much feedback from Christian leaders during the run of Oliver’s show.
Leaders play a key role in the conditions that need to change in churches, Willis said. Church potluck dinners all too often feature items like fried chicken, rolls and mashed potatoes and gravy, which may be OK as an occasional treat but can’t be the staple of one’s diet, Willis said.
“I’m not going to lie to you; we still see some of that here and I still like fried chicken,” Willis said. “But you just have to make wiser choices. You can’t have pizza tonight, fried chicken tomorrow night and McDonald’s (food) the next night.”
However, he sees pastors as the key to turning this situation around.
“Pastors need to realize that people aren’t serving God and aren’t able to love God until pastors get in the pulpit and say, ‘We’ve got to love each other enough to keep each other accountable and improve the way we eat,’” Willis said.
Or, as Oliver put it in his closing remarks for the final episode: “It takes all of you — parents, lunch ladies, principals, teachers and cooks — to make this happen. If any of you don’t get involved, it stops working.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Walker is a freelance writer in Huntington, W.Va.)