Nearly 17 years ago, a pastor at a small African-American church in Hernando, Mississippi found that the traditional Delta diet of fried anything had produced a super-sized congregation. He set out to change that.
On a recent Sunday morning, rainy and wind swept, roughly 70 members of Oak Hill Baptist Church in Hernando worship with their Pastor Michel O. Minor at this small, rural church on the hill.
“Jesus was concerned about daily living,” Minor preaches from the pulpit. “I know some folks are givin’ me a hard time because I talk about health. Why the church should be concerned about health? But look at Jesus. Amen. He was concerned about people’s well being. We got to be concerned about our fellow man, our fellow woman.”
And while today’s sermon is really about Jesus as his flock’s guide, Pastor Minor can’t resist a quick detour to his own hobbyhorse.
“But what Jesus is teaching and showing us is that we’ve got to be concerned and care about the whole person – mind, body and soul!” he exclaims. “If you’re sick how can you come to church and really get into worship?” he asks. Minor has been a pastor at Oak Hill for nearly 17 years.
“When I first arrived here I saw several round members that [have] special sizes,” Minor explains. “And those special sizes weren’t going to be sustainable in the long-term. And I said, 'What can I do to help them get off those special sizes?’"
So he began the quest to slim down his flock. First Minor banned fried foods from church dinners. Then he taught them how to cook healthful meals.
Minor says that was a challenge because he found that most of his congregation “cooked” their prepared foods in the microwave. So Minor decided to teach his flock how to cook for themselves.
While his congregation may not be mistaken for a group of aerobics instructors, very few are now truly obese. Many still need to lose weight, but the message has sunk in.
Mary Bledsoe is the church’s choir director. She’s been part of the congregation her entire life, some 40+ years. At first, she says, change was hard. Bledsoe says, “It’s helped me to exercise more, to eat right and put away the salt and it’s helping my blood pressure, too.”
If any state needs to ditch the sodas and chips it’s this one. Just this week, a national report ranked Mississippi again dead last in overall health. More than a third in the state is obese. Fixing the mess won’t be easy says Governor Haley Barbour.
“Mississippi has the highest incidences of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Sometimes literally worst in the United States,” Barbour says. “Our health disparities are primarily related to poor eating habits and lack of exercise.”
Pastor Minor’s idea meanwhile has gone national through an outreach program of the National Baptist Convention. He’s been invited back to the White House…this time to present to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign his ideas for improving the health of faith-based groups. And although his flock may grow weary of hearing the chorus on healthy lifestyle over and over he’s not about to let down his guard.
“Everybody is a recovering food addict.” Minor continues, “So, if you don’t keep reinforcing that message they are one piece of fried chicken away from going back to the old ways.”
One small sign that it’s working might be that the pastor’s wife who was trying to give away leftover cake after the service found not a single taker. One congregant sighed, patted her belly and told her that she really did not need any extra pounds before the holidays.