Congregation makes it their mission to get healthier

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 4, 2011

By Henry Bailey
The Commercial Appeal
HERNANDO, Miss. (AP) — Dr. Michael Minor, pastor of Oak Hill Baptist Church south of Hernando, draws a healthy lesson from the Biblical passage where Jesus fed the multitude with only five loaves of bread and two fish.
“His disciples were annoyed with Him. They were actually on a retreat and one of the reasons they were upset was this was supposed to be their ‘downtime,’” said Minor.
The lesson? If people make getting proper, regular rest a priority, they’ll have more energy and stamina to deal with surprises — even ones at mealtime that are met by a miracle.
“We need to be good stewards of what the Good Lord has given us,” Minor said.
It might take something of a miracle to lift Mississippi out of a health crisis rooted in obesity, but Minor, 46, is trying to do just that by promoting a health-conscious congregation.
Obesity contributes to the major chronic disease killers in the state: heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers, said the Mississippi State Department of Health.
Minor practices what he preaches in urging churches to play an active role in members’ health: “Our view is a ‘Trinity of Wellness’ — body, mind and soul,” he said.
His schedule would challenge any athlete. In addition to pastoral duties, Minor does consulting work on nonprofit business development and faith-based health and wellness advocacy.
He’s busy linking programs of the Healthy Congregations movement, which he chairs, with the National Baptist Convention, the country’s largest predominantly African-American Christian denomination with 8.3 million members among some 31,000 congregations.
He’s a member of the eight-county Regional Health Council aligned with the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, and working on a pact between the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education and the American Diabetes Association using his church’s “Taste Test Sunday” as a model.
Members of Oak Hill Baptist blind taste healthy and non-healthy versions of the same food and give their results during services. Minor said this program, in its third year, is a simple but effective way to show that small changes to recipes can make foods — especially desserts — healthier while still tasting the same as they did before.
“People can do a good job of eating right, but they can get into trouble with desserts,” he said.
His church also includes a health lesson in the bulletin each week, allows only healthy fare at church suppers, and has a trail. Minor also wants to add a “one-hole golf course.”
The Oak Hill Community Walking Trail is a basic affair around the perimeter of the church, but it tracks the resolve of people with “not a lot of resources but a lot of determination,” he said. The sign said: “7 times equals 1 mile on the outer perimeter. 3.5 times equals 1/2 mile.”
Fried chicken and sugary soft drinks aren’t missed by two regular walkers, Anise Jefferson of Southaven and Minnie Wilkinson of the Hernando area.
“Giving all that up was easier than I thought it would be,” said Jefferson, a lifelong church member.
“When he took the soft drinks away, I thought, ‘Oh Lordy, how will I make it?’” said Wilkinson. “But then he brought in Crystal Light lemonade and that’s just fine with me.”
Cleanliness might be next to godliness, but healthiness is pushing for No. 2 here.
“You’ve got to be healthy to do all the things He wants you to do,” said Jefferson.
Minor, a Coldwater native with an educational background that includes a degree in economics from Harvard and a doctorate in education from the University of Memphis, has been Oak Hill Baptist pastor for 15 years and has been pushing healthy living from the pulpit for 10.
“If you do something short-term,” results will falter, “but if you do it as a real ministry, people will notice,” he said.
“He’s doing great stuff,” said Hernando Mayor Chip Johnson, who serves with Minor on the Regional Health Council and ranks him “one of our health champions.”
It’s a story not unlike the parable of the tiny mustard seed, soaring and branching out to be a tree fit to give rest for the birds of the sky.
“It’s all a consequence of what started here at our little country church,” Minor said.
Mississippi continually tops the list with the highest rates of childhood and adult obesity among the 50 states. Nationwide, childhood obesity rates have more than tripled since 1980, and there are fears among health experts that today’s youth will be the first ever to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
The 2010 edition of America’s Health Rankings, released in December, showed Mississippi unchanged as 50th and last while Tennessee rose two slots to 42nd place and Arkansas fell eight slots to 48th.
The report assesses the relative health of state populations based on behavioral, environmental and medical measures that include obesity. It is published annually by the United Health Foundation, the American Public Health Association and Partners for Prevention.
In Mississippi, a 2007 state law required every school district to adopt a wellness program.