'The Book of John Gray' reality show star and Lakewood Church pastor thought diabetes was a death sentence; then he found a reason to live.
Apr 13, 2017
Before Pastor John Gray took the stage at UCLA’s Royce Hall for Oprah Winfrey’s day of inspiration Super Soul Sessions last week, who knew the Bible story of Jesus and the woman at the well could be both poignant and hilarious? Acting out both Jesus’ role and the Samaritan woman’s roles (with a towel over his bald head as a stand-in for hair) Gray spoke in modern vernacular to explain how Christians should be “relational, relatable and relevant,” and had the audience of 1,500 people deep in thought—and howling with laughter.
It’s his dynamic and comedic preaching style that has helped Gray as associate pastor of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston. In just four years, Gray has grown the Wednesday night service from 2,500 attendees to 10,000. But beyond his presentation, what really connects with church goers is his vulnerability. He’s used both the pulpit and his international platform to share his own struggles with self-worth, abandonment, and even diabetes.
Now, his ministry is expanding. With both a Super Soul Sunday interview with Oprah and a reality show with his wife and ministry CEO Aventer Gray and their two children, John Gray, IV (5) and Theory Aspyn-Sky (4) on OWN called The Book of John Gray, Gray will have an even larger platform to show his life as both a preacher in the Houston community, and a regular husband and dad battling diabetes.
“It doesn’t look like it’s actively killing me,” Gray tells Guideposts.org of the disease at the OWN headquarters the day after his Super Soul Sessions speech. After all, the 6’3 preacher was full of life and athleticism during his talk, at one particularly humorous point even kicking his leg up chest-high and grabbing his toes. But the consequences of the disease are far from funny.
“My father died of a diabetic coma on December 7, 2000, on the corner of east 23rd and First street in Manhattan,” Gray shared. “I was the last person to see him alive. I saw him 4 times in my life. And so diabetes has a legacy of taking the things that matter.”
Even with the knowledge of what diabetes can take, Gray says when he was diagnosed about 6 years ago, he didn’t exert much effort to work on his health. After initially losing 10 pounds with diet and exercise changes in the first week of his diagnosis, Gray quickly went back to his old habits.
“I’ve never seen a man in my family win,” he says. “In my mind, I’m already defeated, so why try?”
That’s when Mrs. Gray stepped in.
“My wife came up to me last year and said, ‘You don’t love us. You chose that meal over us. You chose that food over us. If you keep choosing that, you’re not going to be here for us.’” That perspective shook Gray into action. Though all he knew growing up was that the men in his family had a history of abandoning the women and children, he did not want to carry on that history because of an addiction to unhealthy eating. Even with a beautiful family and a booming ministry, he struggled to see why his life even mattered.
“[I asked my wife:] ‘don’t you want a better man than me?’ That’s how non-valuable I thought I was. It’s not just a physical disease; it takes a toll on your emotions, it takes a toll on your mind,” says Gray. “My wife’s on me and it’s because she loves me. And for me diabetes actually shows me who loves me. Because if you love me, you’ll fight for me when I can’t fight for myself. She said, ‘you’ve got to change, now.’”
“As a household, we had to throw out everything, wipe it clean,” Mrs. Gray shares off the process of making healthy eating something the whole family would engage in.
“Our children love what they love and they’re a product of what we love,” she says. “We have to trick them into eating their vegetables. We don’t want them to have the same struggles. We want to give them the best chance at life, but what are we showing them? So we keep that in mind first then we’ll pass on the legacy of healthy eating from now.”
The keys to success for the Grays are no shame and incremental change.
“[We can’t] stay there, beating ourselves up about what we could have done differently. We’re making the necessary changes now, incrementally. Because when you try to cold turkey, shut it all down, you’re more likely to recess. We’re hopeful that we’ll keep this thing going because we need the energy for the babies.”
They also need the energy for their multi-hyphenate careers. Not only does Mrs. Gray run Gray’s for-profit company as CEO, she’s also the dance director at Lakewood Church, a first lady, and mom. Gray’s ministry takes him on preaching engagements all over the world.
“It’s hard [to eat healthy] because he travels so much,” Mrs. Gray says. “He says yes to everybody so he can try to get the word of God out to people and then of course you preach, you eat late, you sleep, you’re on a plane. The habits and the constant travel have not been conducive to a healthy regimen or consistent routine that will help us in our healthy drive to him coming off of insulin and being more health conscious.”
As a result, the Grays have hired a nutritionist to help them plan and prepare their meals as well as a trainer to help them exercise. So far, it’s paying off. Gray says he’s down about 14 pounds and is drinking much more water. Mrs. Gray, a former health professional with a bachelor’s in cardiopulmonary science and a master’s in health service administration, checks Gray’s urine to be sure of that. For Gray, being around to give his wife the love and honor she deserves for all that she does for him, their family and their ministry, is why he is determined to change.
“Had it not been for the love of Aventer, I would not have made even the incremental changes I’ve made now,” he says. “I have a reason to fight and a reason to live. That’s what she gave me.”
Watch Pastor John and Aventer Gray on The Book of John Gray this Saturday night 10/9c and on Super Soul Sunday on Sunday at 11 a.m. on OWN.