DTS Magazine

Winning the Food Fight: How a Pastor Ministered to the Body and Soul of America’s Unhealthiest City

Long before celebrity chef Jamie Oliver arrived to film a miniseries in Huntington, West Virginia, a pastor had been praying for the community’s spiritual and physical transformation. 

While hiking in California, Steve Willis (ThM, 1996) experienced difficulty breathing. “The spare tire around my waist had been developing for several years,” he recalled. Steve and his wife agreed: most everyone they saw in California was thinner than the people back home in West Virginia, where Steve served as lead pastor of First Baptist Church of Kenova, outside of Huntington. 

Can a Pastor Talk about Gluttony?

If you are not giving God control of your body, it is impossible to fully serve him

Soon after he returned home, Steve watched as a friend died from complications of heart surgery. That friend had been 150 pounds overweight and had battled high blood pressure for years. That’s when Steve decided to address the issue of obesity with his congregation. Though he worried about the backlash, he felt confident that getting his congregation to live healthier lifestyles was biblical. “If you are not giving God control of your body, it is impossible to fully serve him,” he said. “The elders told me I could preach on anything but gluttony. They were afraid someone would get offended if I called them ‘fat’ from the pulpit.” He wondered, “Why can we talk about all matters of sin in the church, but we don’t talk about the sin of not taking care of the temples (bodies) that God has given us?” 

After two months of prayerful consideration, the elders encouraged Steve to proceed. And as he wrote his sermon, he prayed for help. 

A few days before he was set to preach, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study that identified Steve’s city as America’s fattest and unhealthiest. It ranked first in the nation in adults who did not exercise, prevalence of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, circulation problems, kidney disease, vision problems, and sleeping disorders. In Steve’s church alone, 46 percent of adults were obese. The study gave Steve the evidence needed to confront the people in his care. “People were dying, and many were members of my church.” 

Educating the Body and the Soul

In the year that followed Steve’s sermon, the congregation lost a ton of weight—literally. Yet even after their initial success, Steve recalled, “I was praying: ‘Lord, the problem is what we eat. I need help with how to cook healthfully.’ The next thing I know, I am getting a phone call from Jamie Oliver—who knows how to cook healthfully—wanting to partner with us. When Jamie called, I knew the Lord was in what we’re doing.” A producer for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, ABC’s Emmy Award-winning show, told Steve the British celebrity wanted to come to Huntington and film a miniseries that taught people about nutrition by helping school lunch cooks prepare more healthful meals. The caller wanted Steve to serve as the local contact. 

During filming, Chef Jamie did more than help the community learn about nutrition. He also helped the church raise the additional funds needed to pay for a family life center. That final step allowed First Baptist of Kenova to offer free walking and exercise classes. (Watch Season 1 of Food Revolution online)

Today, the church’s fellowship dinners still include mashed potatoes and gravy, but the menu also lists healthful options such as salads and fruits. Snacks prepared for preschoolers during Sunday school now consist of fresh-cut fruits—not cookies and Kool-Aid. 

We cannot separate who we are physically from who we are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually

“Our experience has taught us that many who struggle with their physical weight also struggle with emotional and spiritual issues,” Steve said. “We cannot separate who we are physically from who we are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.” 

After appearing in the series, doors opened for Steve to share his message on other national TV shows such as Good Morning America, Nightline and Larry King Live. In addition to these national TV appearances, Steve has spoken to more than 500,000 people and shared the gospel in venues that he said “otherwise would have never been open to a pastor like me.” 

Steve said, “The greatest thing throughout this whole process is that God took something that even our fallen culture understands is a problem. The world knows this is an issue, and they want the church to speak out on these issues of justice. I have been able to share the good news about Christ and how the Bible is relevant today to hundreds of people who would never step into a church.” 

Also, ask your local library to order Steve’s book, Winning the Food Fight: Victory in the Physical and Spiritual Battle for Good Food and a Healthy Lifestyle, in which he introduces readers to the stories of real people making the journey toward God-honoring transformation.

Steve Willis (above, with his daughter and a friend) serves as a lead pastor in the town once labeled as America’s fattest and unhealthiest. Today his church provides healthful food for more than a thousand kids every summer. The children’s feeding program, he says, “brings in kids from the community, and they stay after the dinner for Bible school, basketball camp, or sports camp. If parents want a meal, they are welcome to sit down and eat with us, and we are intentional about sitting down at round tables, starting up conversations, and sharing the gospel. Any church could do this.” Photo: Megan McKenzie

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