The 700 Club with Pat Robertson

Dave Bruno


Author, Winning The Food Fight (2011)

Pastor, First Baptist Church (Kenova, West Virginia)

B.A., Psychology, West Virginia University

Attended Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M., Educational Leadership)

Attended Southern Seminary (Ed. D., Leadership)

Attended, Southern in Louisville, KY (Ph.D., Anthropolgy & Human Development)

Wife, Deanna (21 years); 3 Children: 15, 13, 11


Steve Willis: Winning the Food Fight

“America is in a food fight, and right now we are losing,” says Steve Willis. Steve is the pastor at First Baptist Church of Kenova, West Virginia, and best known nationally for his efforts to curb childhood obesity, and for his role on ABC's Emmy-Award winning Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution.  Well before he teamed up with Jamie, Steve recognized that his community faced a growing problem.  While hiking in California, Steve was confronted with difficulty breathing, and he realized the gravity of the problem. “The spare tire around my waist had been developing for several years.  For the first time, I was painfully aware that my body was out of sorts,” he says.  Then, as he and his wife looked around, Steve realized he wasn’t the only one who had let himself go.  Steve and his wife agreed: most everyone they saw in California was thinner than the people back home in West Virginia.  “Neither of us could think of any place in the world where people were in as poor physical condition as in Huntington,” he says. 

Shortly after returning from California, Steve watched as a friend died because of complications from heart surgery. Steve’s friend had been 150 pounds overweight, and had battled high blood pressure for years. “I will never forget the look in his wife’s eyes when the heart monitor beeped for the last time,” he says.  “Pain, regret, and anguish flashed through dark pools, reminding me that as much as I would miss him, his family would be hurting much, much more.”  That’s when Steve made a decision. He would address the issue of obesity with his congregation.  Though he worried about backlash, he was confident that getting his congregation to live healthier lifestyles was Biblical.  “If you are not giving Him [God] control of your body, it is impossible to fully serve Him.  Jesus came that we would have a full life, but the devil came to steal, kill and destroy,” Steve says.  As he wrote his sermon, he prayed.  He’d need nothing short of a miracle to persuade his congregation how serious the threat was to their community.  Just a few days before he was set to preach his sermon, the CDC released a study that listed Huntington at the center of the obesity epidemic.  Pastor Steve’s community had the distinction of America’s Fattest City.  They were first in the nation in adults who did not exercise, first in the prevalence  of heart disease, and first in diabetes.    First (as in worst) in high blood pressure, circulation problems, kidney disease, vision problems and sleeping disorders.  “While other cities may come close to our percentages in some categories, no one else touched the whopping 46 percent of adults who were obese,” Steve says.  He had what he needed to go in front of his congregation.  “Residents were suffering from the nation’s highest rates of obesity and numerous resulting illnesses,” he says.  “My personal experience bore out those statistics.  People were dying and many were members of my church.” 

“Change will never take place until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain it takes to change,” Steve says.  In the year following Steve’s sermon on the obesity epidemic in his community, many members of his church decided to make healthy changes to their lifestyles.  Within that one-year timespan, his congregation  lost a ton of weight… literally!  About sixty people from his church each had  an average weight loss of about  thirty to forty pounds, and together they lost more than 2,000 pounds.  Steve jokes that they made room for several new members  in their church pews.  Yet even after great success, Steve wanted more for his congregation.  They’d made good exercise decisions, but didn’t have anyone to guide them  in healthy eating.  Steve prayed again.  The very next day, Steve got a phone call from a producer for Jamie’s show.  “He wants to come to Huntington and teach people about nutrition,” the producer told Steve.  Jamie wanted to focus on helping cooks in the school lunch program prepare healthier meals and film a new mini-series about it.  He wanted Steve to be his local contact to help him gain access to the residents in the community.  Another prayer was answered.

The Food Revolution brought more attention to the cause Steve had taken on.  “My purpose is to spread the same passion tht drives this renowned British chef: encouraging people to eat healthier so we can all reap the benefits,” Steve says. Jamie’s goal to provide better nutrition to students was close to Steve’s heart as well.  In fact, Steve’s family benefitted from that very thing.  His son had tested poorly on standardized tests, earning 40s and 50s in math, and was having a hard time focusing.  He was taking prescription drugs for hyperactivity.  Steve and his wife decided to change their son’s diet, taking away sugar, pop, and unhealthy oils and replacing them with healthier choices like fruits, vegetables, and omega-3s.  Their son’s test scores have since risen to the 80s and 90s, and he no longer needs to take medications for hyperactivity.  There are many stories like these among residents of their town who have seen benefits from healthier lifestyle choices. 

Today, Steve and his congregation continue to make changes.  During the filming of Food Revolution, Jamie helped the church raise the additional funds they needed to cover a family life center.  That final step allowed them to offer walking and exercise classes. They also have healthier choices at potlucks and have a weekly family dinner where they serve healthy food to entire families for just $10.00.   They’re also currently developing weight loss/total health makeover camps that integrate physical fitness, proper nutrition and overall spiritual health. “Our experience has taught us that many who struggle with their physical weight also struggle with emotional and spiritual issues,” Steve says.  “We cannot separate who we are physically from who were are mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  When we do, even if we temporarily lose weight, we'll turn right around and relapse into another unhealthy lifestyle.  Physical problems are usually manifestations of internal struggles.”  He says that just as not everyone will write a check when he preaches on tithing, not everyone will listen when he preaches on healthy living, but he says he’ll keeping preaching the message in hopes of reaching those who need to hear it.

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