REBECCA ROBERTS, host: When it comes to health, Mississippi has a less than stellar reputation. The state ranks first in rates of death from heart disease, second in rates of adult diabetes and adult obesity, and dead last on the list for life expectancy. In the Delta region, fried, greasy foods have been on the menu for generations. Reverend Michael O. Minor is trying to change that tradition by delivering the message of healthy eating from the pulpit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SERMON)
The Reverend MICHAEL O. MINOR: Yeah, you said Mama and Grandmama did it. Amen. But they were in the fields too, weren't they?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yeah.
MINOR: Huh? We eat up and go home and lay down. Huh?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yeah.
MINOR: Amen. You look down like this, and used to be you could see your feet. Talk to me, somebody. And now you see your belly button. Come on. Hallelujah.
ROBERTS: The Reverend Michael O. Minor leads the Oak Hill Baptist Church in Hernando, Mississippi. He spent over a decade preaching against obesity and bad health, and the message is starting to spread. The National Baptist Convention has asked him to devise a health campaign for their nearly 10,000 churches.
How does your community of faith address health issues? Tell us your story. The number here is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Michael O. Minor joins us now from member station WKNO in Memphis, Tennessee. He was recently profiled in The New York Times. Welcome to the program.
MINOR: It's good to be here. How are you today?
ROBERTS: So we know that there have been some drastic changes made to the menus at your church, it's a no-fry zone now, but tell us what a traditional Sunday would look like without rules like that?
MINOR: Well, you'd have a lot of good fried chicken, and you'd have some greens with some fatback in it. And you'd probably have - maybe have some neck bones and some peas. And you'd have some good old apple pie and some good sweet tea with lots of sugar in it, and probably some ice cream on the side. That'd be your normal - oh, got to have the cornbread, yes. Got to have the cornbread with it as well.
ROBERTS: Now you're making me hungry. So what do you have now?
MINOR: Well, what we do now is, well, we still want to have chicken. But instead of being fried, we have grilled chicken or baked chicken. Yes, we still have greens, but we'll have turkey necks with them. And we have - instead of having all that tea with all the sugar in it, we have water, and we have Crystal Light made with Splenda. And we'll - and also work on portion size. Still have the cornbread or rolls, but we try to make sure the ingredients are light and not greasy and fattening.
ROBERTS: Well, given that that big Sunday spread is as much a part of Sunday as actually going to church is, what has the reaction in your congregation been?
MINOR: Well, at first, it was trouble. The pastor has banned fried chicken. What is he, out of his mind? But then after a while, people understood that we have to be an example. The church has to lead by example. And once they've started coming by and now realize - they realized that, look, if you're going to go and eat, this is the only thing you're going to have. Besides - come on now - if it's a free meal - it'd be a different ballgame if you were buying it, but it's free, so people, after a while, got used to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROBERTS: What made you decide this was something worth preaching about?
MINOR: Well, I mean, I was in Boston for 10 years in college and working for a while, came back home, and I started seeing people in community. And then when I started pastoring Oak Hill, I saw people that were of special sizes, and I knew that we had to do something about that. And met resistance early on, and I started working a number of ways I knew to start getting the message out. So that's what really got me going about - a little over about 11, 12 years ago.
ROBERTS: Are you a lone voice in the wilderness?
MINOR: I used to be, but praise the Lord, I'm no longer Moses by myself. I got some help out there. A lot more pastors are catching the fever and speaking this good, healthy Gospel message.
ROBERTS: Are you seeing a difference?
MINOR: Yes. We are. We are starting to see a difference. I'm getting reports back anecdotally from all across the Delta that people are getting healthy menus. They're losing weight. What we're trying to do now is work with some of our research partners so that we can actually document it, so we can actually show that we are making this difference.
ROBERTS: I understand that some churches in your area have started Taste Test Sundays. What are those?
MINOR: Well, about three years ago in North Mississippi, we decided in - we'd make the third Sunday in March Taste Test Sunday, where we put two different desserts, one made with sugar and one made with Splenda, to show people there's really no difference in the taste between the two desserts. And it's starting to catch on, not only across the state but across the country. It's an opportunity for folks to discover that, hey, you can eat desserts, but they don't have to be made out of that bad sugar and stuff like that.
ROBERTS: And do people think the replacement sugar tastes just as good?
MINOR: Well, see, the key is the cook.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MINOR: Regardless of the ingredients, the cook has to be right, now come on. In my church, I will say that I was able to produce both cakes, and they actually like the Splenda cake. Matter of fact, several of the people that were in it thought it was a sugar cake. So - but then you go to some other places and people don't know exactly how to cook it, then it's going to be a problem. You still have to know how to prepare it regardless of the ingredients.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Blake in St. Louis. Blake, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
BLAKE: Hi. Thanks for having me on.
BLAKE: I wanted to call in because this is a subject that's near and dear to my heart, both geographically and personally. I grew up in a little town really close to Hernando, pretty close, called Fort City, Arkansas. The Reverend might have an idea where that is.
MINOR: Oh, yes. I know where that is.
BLAKE: So, yeah, a real small town, big family. And our pastor, I guess, you know, preaches along the same lines that you do. He makes a big point of letting us know that our body is God's temple. And just like we wouldn't let the church go into disarray, we wouldn't let the plumbing get clogged up and not fix it, we wouldn't, you know, let light fixtures be hanging - same thing with our bodies. We have to treat our bodies as God's temple or God won't want - who wants to dwell in a, you know, an unfit temple?
And so, you know, he has gone to asking us to view our bodies in such a way. And when you think of your body as a temple, you know, you don't want to do certain things to it because you just kind of put your body on a higher plane of existence in a kind of a way, is the way he has us look at it. And it's made a big difference. You know, he asks us not to bring fried foods to fellowships, you know. And other churches would come and at first, you know, they're kind of in shock. Like, where's the chicken, you know? Or where's the fried chicken, that is.
But, you know, after a while, people got used to it and, you know, it's caught on. You know, I wouldn't say that 100 percent of the food at the fellowships is, you know, healthy, but you know, it has increased a whole lot. And I've seen a lot of weight dropped at in our church. I mean, myself, I've lost 98 pounds. I could not - I don't think I could have done it without the church changing too.
Because I mean, growing up in the South, I spend three days in a week in church, you know, Bible study, choir rehearsal, what have you. So I was at church all the time. So it's, you know, church hadn't changed. I don't know that I would have been able to.
ROBERTS: Blake, thank you so much for your call. Congratulations on your health changes. You know, he talks about the amount of time someone spends in church in terms of community and how much eating you're doing there. But also this explicitly Christian message, that there is something Christian about being healthy. Is that part of what you preach?
MINOR: Yes. I have to say that God has blessed us with our bodies. We need to be stewards of our bodies. We don't have a second chance at this. I think some people believe they can mess up with their health and come back again. Well, you got to take care of it on the front end. And one thing about stewardship is that we have to recognize we don't own it. It's somebody else's, and we're taking care of it. And I do want to say what Blake is talking about - churches have to lead the way.
I don't know if you realize this or not, Rebecca. Some years ago, many of us got away from serving wine because we're concerned about people being alcoholics. But there are people out there who are foodaholics, who have been striving every day to eat better. Then they come to the one place that they're looking for help, and they come to a prayer breakfast. And there, at the breakfast, a bunch of greasy bacon and eggs and sausage, and they fall off the wagon. The church has to be the place where people can find that help.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Chester in Romulus, Michigan. Chester, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
CHESTER: Hi. I would just like to say I'm a member of the original Seven Day Adventists. And according to the Bible, the original diet, man was vegetarian. And we believe in going back to the vegetarian diet and eat everything as close as original, either fruits and vegetables, and stay away from sugar and stuff. Because in the new heaven and Earth, there won't be any meat eating in the new heaven and Earth.
ROBERTS: And do you get that message from your church leaders, that vegetarianism is one way to practice your faith?
CHESTER: Oh, yes, yes. It's in the original Seven Day Adventist. Some Seven Day Adventists, they believe in Leviticus Chapter 11, which is eat clean meats. You know, pork is not clean, so they don't eat pork, catfish and stuff like that. But we believe that the original diet is no meat, period. It's in the Bible.
ROBERTS: Chester, thanks for your call. Yeah. And Chester brings up an interesting point. Obviously, dietary guidelines are no stranger to a lot of difference faiths, whether it's keeping kosher or being a vegetarian, as he mentioned to be as Seventh Day Adventist. It seems that the degree that eating has a guideline, especially in Southern Christian faiths, it's the opposite. It's eating a lot.
MINOR: Well, I think one of the things we have to realize, though, I get a lot of resistance, and they're saying that my grandmama, great grandmama ate all of those things. But the idea is that we grew those things. They were prepared, and we grew them in our own gardens. We prepared them with fresh ingredients. And now things all come from the store and through middle men and stuff like that, and it's not the same thing.
And I will say that even if you do follow those diets, from - a vegetarian diet, if you're buying it from the store, it's still not necessarily that you're really getting all the appropriate ingredients. I really think we have to go back to more community gardens, church gardens. I don't care if you're in the city. There's nothing like eating something that's actually grown out of the ground and that you see it yourself.
ROBERTS: My guest is Michael O. Minor. He's reverend at the Oak Hill Baptist Church in Hernando, Mississippi. He's joining us from Memphis, Tennessee.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Do you find that people look at what you're putting on your plate at fellowship events? You know, do you have to practice what you preach quite a lot?
MINOR: Oh, all the time. But actually it's, know, I practice what I preach. I mean, when I get up in the morning, I have my turkey sausage. I have my waffles. I have my grits. I, you know, I probably eat a steak maybe once a month, but I actually don't even have the desire. I mean, the other day I was at - going to a fast food place and I was getting some chicken and I wanted the grilled chicken. And would you believe they put fried chicken quote-unquote by mistake? And I had to come back and bring it back.
But I try to do that because people are looking at us, and pastors have to be those leaders. In our denomination, our national president, Dr. Julius Scruggs, has told us that we have to be relevant. And I think as denominations become more relevant, not only in health but in other things, we'll start making our country a better place.
ROBERTS: And what about the exercise side of the equation? Are you able to address that?
MINOR: Oh, yes. You know, the thing about it is people want to get all these exercise bikes and treadmills. Find things you normally do. I cut grass. And so instead of getting a riding mower, I have a push mower. I do that about every five days, and I get in the yard and do yard work, and that's exercise. Or try to walk in a park, in the - when I go somewhere, I park on the other side of the parking lot to give me extra steps in. So exercise is all about how you can do things, because we all are busy. Come on. We have full days. Try to find something in which you exercise, tied into your normal routine.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Cathy in Peoria. Cathy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
CATHY: Hello. Thank you for taking my call. My comment was basically I just wanted to chime in and give a non-Christian variety a chance to say that we also agree in eating healthy and, basically, eating organic and as close to earth as possible.
ROBERTS: Oh, Cathy, I'm afraid you cut out.
ROBERTS: Yeah. Go ahead.
MINOR: But (unintelligible) what Cathy's saying, is that I think it's something that resonates with everyone regardless of your faith. We all need to learn how to do better. Besides, when you're healthy, you feel better. And remember, health is not just body, but it's mind and soul. We find some people have eating issues because they don't feel good about themselves, so we have to look at the whole person as we're trying to make this thing work better for everyone.
ROBERTS: Do you think, if you had stayed at home and stayed in the Delta and not gone to Boston for a few years and come back, that you would've noticed the problem quite so dramatically?
MINOR: No, I would not have. Because what happens is, if you're around people that I say are of special sizes, you think that's the appropriate weight people are. And it was a big difference, a big shock for me, coming to the Northeast for those years and seeing that most people there were not. And it really was a big difference when I came back home.
ROBERTS: Tell me about the Hope Health Initiative for the National Baptist Convention. What's that about?
MINOR: Well, our, again, our national president, Dr. Julius Scruggs, National Baptist Convention, USA, Incorporated, has determined that we have to do some things that are relevant with our people where they are. The Hope Health Initiative is part of our effort to get a trained health ambassador in every National Baptist church. And what that is, is not just a person talking about health, but who's trained in how to put together an appropriate health ministry. We launched it this summer in our national congress. And over the next year, we'll be setting up training sessions and get out, getting boots on the ground to preach the same message across the United States.
ROBERTS: And is it specifically about obesity and healthy eating, or is it health in general?
MINOR: It's health in general. The Hope stands for Health Outreach and Prevention Education; an idea that if you have some health issues, that's the outreach. But we want to get to the prevention part so we can keep you from getting to those problems that you have. It talks about all - with each month, we have an observance. And so our churches across the country will be having the same health observances.
We're trying to get them to do something in their worship guides every week. And it covers the whole gambit of health issues. And that's why we look at the whole life thing about if we meet you where you are - if you're sick, we want to help you deal with your situation. Or if you're well, we want you to stay well.
ROBERTS: That is Michael O. Minor. He leads the Oak Hill Baptist Church in Hernando, Mississippi, he also directs the Hope Health Initiative for the National Baptist Convention. He joined us from member station WKNO in Memphis. Thank you so much for joining us today.
MINOR: You're welcome. And also, you can go to our website, www.nationalbaptist.com, for more information.
ROBERTS: Any good recipes there?
MINOR: Not yet, but guess what, you're letting out one of our secrets. We're working on a National Baptist Convention healthy recipe book.
ROBERTS: Excellent. We'll keep an eye out for it. Thanks so much for joining us.
MINOR: You're welcome.
ROBERTS: Tomorrow: truckers face long days away from home, aggressive drivers, strict regulations, but so many of them just love the open road. We will talk with truck drivers about what they do and why. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.
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