The Gospel of Health
The Gospel of Health
A pastor's inspiration to improve the physical health of his flock brings impressive results.
I drove my riding mower into the garage, glad to have the yard work behind me. I’d done it all in a half hour. Record time. Now to put the finishing touches on my sermon for tomorrow, a few lines encouraging my flock to lay off the fried chicken and gravy, the ham hocks, the lard-laden cornbread.
I’d made that my mission for the last 13 years, ever since I became a minister. I was known as the preacher who banned fried chicken. But it was slow going. In the South, especially here in the Mississippi Delta, fried and food just go together.
I went to the bedroom and pulled off my barely damp shirt. My wife, Lottie, was making the bed. She patted my stomach. “You’re getting a little chunky,” she said.
I looked down. My belly drooped over my belt. Way over. I tried sucking it in.
“I don’t think so,” Lottie said with a gentle laugh. Reluctantly I got on the bathroom scale. The needle shot to 245 pounds. Sure, I was 6’1”. But that was fat. I was fat. The very thing I’d been preaching against all this time. It was embarrassing.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “We eat healthy. Fruits and vegetables, almost no red meat.”
“Maybe that’s not enough,” she said. “Maybe you need to do something different, practice what you preach.”
Through the years I’d tried all kinds of ways to preach my message. We started a health fair, created low-fat menus for church potlucks, even put a sign up in front of the church to encourage people to walk laps around it. It was right there in black and white: 7½ laps = 1 mile. What more could I do?
I slipped on a fresh T-shirt—trying to ignore how snug it was—went to my computer and pulled up my sermon urging people to change their unhealthy habits. I’d been so sure that’s what God called me to do. Yet every Sunday I’d look out on my congregation and see people filling in the pews in more ways than one.
I remembered when I first became a pastor, 50 pounds lighter and full of passion. I’d moved back home to the Delta after spending 10 years in Boston. I’d graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics, worked in sales. But I felt lost, unfulfilled.
Then one day in my car I heard a voice: “Preach my word.” I told Lottie and my minister. “I know a church in Hernando, Mississippi, that’s in need of a pastor,” he said.
In 1995, after I’d been in ministry for a year, I headed to Hernando and preached my first sermon at Oak Hill Baptist, a rural congregation whose 50 or so members met twice a month.
That first Sunday, shaking hands after the service, I couldn’t help but notice that nearly everyone there was seriously overweight. This wasn’t the Delta I remembered.
I’d been raised on a small farm in Mississippi by my grandparents. On Saturdays, I toiled beside Granddad from dawn till dark, hauling hay, loading and splitting firewood, feeding the cows and pigs. Sundays we went to church, my muscles aching from my chores.
Everyone had worked like that, hard physical labor. But not anymore. People were working office jobs, pushing papers instead of a plow.
The more I got to know my flock, the more their health worried me. Nearly every week there was a call to visit someone in the hospital. Was there a way for me to make a difference to more than their spiritual well-being, to minister to body and soul?
I couldn’t just order people to stop eating fried chicken. I’d be gone the next day.
I needed allies. So I called a meeting of my ushers. “I want you to be my church leaders,” I told them. “We need to be more relevant. Find ways to talk about important topics like, say, health.”
“What about a health fair?” someone suggested.
“Beautiful,” I said.
The fair had free blood pressure checks, cholesterol and glucose screenings. But we needed to do more.
The ushers made calendars with monthly health tips and handed them out with the church bulletin. I started slipping in lines in my sermons about diet and exercise being a form of stewardship, of taking good care of the bodies God had blessed us with.
Each time I heard a few more “Amens” and “That’s right” in response.
More folks were coming to services. We started meeting every Sunday. Soon we needed a bigger place to worship. In October 2003 we dedicated a church with a new sanctuary, a fellowship hall and a parking lot nearly encircling the building.
That Sunday we held our first potluck dinner. Platters were set out, fried chicken, meatloaf, meatballs, sausage and egg casseroles. Then there were the desserts, chocolate cake, brownies, lemon cream pie.
I knew everyone had meant well. They’d brought their favorite dishes to share, an expression of their love for God and each other. I needed to show them that we could enjoy the same fellowship, but with healthier foods.
Before our next dinner I asked the ushers to assign people dishes to bring. “We need broccoli and carrots, a tossed salad,” I said. “And the chicken? It needs to be baked.”
There was grumbling, but no one stayed away. It was going to take more than baked chicken for Baptists to pass up a free meal.
Next we started a program called Taste Test Sunday, comparing two versions of the same dessert, one made with sugar, the other Splenda. People were amazed. They couldn’t tell the difference.
One day that next spring, walking into the church, I noticed something unusual. Three women walking in the parking lot, circling the church.
“How far have you gone?” I asked.
“We’re on our fourth lap,” a woman said. “But we don’t know how far that is. Do you?”