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Trimming the fat:

Pastors tackle obesity

By Mark A. Kellner

If the expansion of the U.S. national waistline isn’t enough to get your attention, think about this: A leading medical school predicts obesity will cause the next generation of Americans to have a shorter life expectancy than the current one, a first in the nation’s history.

Such a development will reach into the Christian community as much, if not more, than some others. Bible-believing Christians tend to eschew tobacco and alcohol, leaving food — and often lots of it — one of the few excesses that are socially acceptable in church circles.

“Some of the best cooks in the world are Pentecostal,” says Gary Rogers, a former competitive weightlifter and ex-firefighter who pastors Coweta Assembly of God in a Tulsa, Okla., suburb. “It’s hard to have fellowship without having food. Almost everything we do revolves around food.”

The national concerns were restated in November by Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, which is establishing a “Comprehensive Center on Obesity” to battle the problem medically.

“Obesity — and its complications — is the epidemic of our time,” said Dr. Lewis Landsberg, founder and director of the center and former dean of the Feinberg School. “There’s been an astonishing increase in obesity in the past two decades.”

According to the university, more than one-third of U.S. adults — more than 72 million people — now are obese, and nearly 20 percent of children and adolescents are overweight. Northwestern reported that Americans’ lifespans may be shortened by obesity’s ever-lengthening list of health complications: type 2 diabetes (especially in young people), high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, breast and colon cancer, arthritis and possibly Alzheimer’s disease.

Some of those issues are popping up in Coweta, where 600 people attend Rogers’ church.

“Over and over, that’s one of the first things I hear people say their doctor told them: They wouldn’t have the problems they have with their joints, arthritis, knees and heart if they weren’t overweight,” he told Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

The church has added an outreach center where people can play basketball and volleyball and engage in other physical activities “and not have it center around food,” Rogers says.

In his community, Rogers is reaching out to nonmembers by serving as an unpaid personal trainer of sorts for clients at a fitness center run by a Coweta Assembly member.

“I designed some programs and set up circuit training for them,” Rogers says. “I’ve been their personal trainer at no charge. It’s helped me become acquainted with people outside the church.”

While his time at the fitness center has not brought any influx of visitors to the church, Rogers says it has increased his visibility in the community and people call on him when pastoral care is needed.

Rogers says there is a need for Christians to manifest self-discipline.

“We really need to take care of ourselves better,” he says. “It helps us to shine better for Christ. We Christians need to take care of ourselves so we can last longer. I want to be able to do physically what God tells me to do spiritually.”

Such physical empowerment is reaching into many churches nationwide, according to Steve Reynolds, a Southern Baptist pastor whose “Bod4God” program claims to have shaved 2 tons of fat from his congregation in a suburb of Washington, D.C. With a book and activity guide, Reynolds has been featured in local newspapers and on cable television as a weight-loss evangelist.

“I’ve struggled with weight all my life,” Reynolds says. He tipped the scales at more than 100 pounds in first grade, and his weight ballooned to 320 pounds a couple of years ago.

“I just felt the need in my own life to bring my belief system — where I felt the need to take care of my own body — in line with my behavior,” Reynolds says. “You’re not going to lose weight until you’re ready to lose weight. It’s got to come from your heart.”

That inner motivation hit home for Rogers when Paula, his wife of 36 years, finally tired of being overweight herself.

“I’m like a lot of Christian wives and mothers, and I did a very good job of taking care of children’s health,” Paula Rogers says. “But I didn’t take care of myself very well. I had a couple of health issues that came up in my mid-40s. One of the side effects was to put on weight and not be able to take it off.”

More than the health issues snagged her attention, she says. She ended up wondering how she could help people struggling with addictions if her own issues with food got in the way.

“Wagner County has the highest rate of drug and alcohol convictions in the nation,” she says. “There are a lot of people who come to church with past problems. Here I was trying to speak into their lives and talk about personal discipline, and I was not being personally responsible and disciplined in my approach to diet and exercise.”

Finally, she took action, and lost 45 pounds in nine months. Now other women at church are looking to her for advice and encouragement.

“As Christians, we are called upon to be Titus 3 women in mentoring younger women, and this is an area we should not neglect,” she says. “We shouldn’t let the world kidnap our self-image and morph it into something that’s not godly.”

MARK A. KELLNER is a freelance writer based in Columbia, Md.

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