Disrespecting President Sign of Bigger Problems

President Donald Trump visited our town last week for a rally. I had only seen a president in person once before, going to Denver’s old Stapleton Airport to see Ronald Reagan during his second term. (In copies of photos I sent to friends, I joked that the small speck in several pictures was indeed the president.)

Although I momentarily contemplated going to Trump’s appearance for the sake of personal historical significance, several things held me back.

The first was the mob scene generated by a presidential visit. The city started closing streets around the civic arena at noon, and the parking garage nearest to the facility shut down three hours prior to the rally.

In addition, officials advised arriving early to get a good seat, which meant showing up several hours early—an unrealistic prospect on a working day.

However, what cinched my decision to forego the rally originated with the fact I had a prior commitment that evening, and I decided honoring it came first.

(Ironically, so many streets were blocked because of the president’s motorcade I wound up being an hour late to the meeting. Fortunately, everyone else was late too.)

Crossing Lines

Prior to the rally, we prayed that no violence would erupt and no incidents occur that would put a blemish on our city during its time in the national spotlight.

That concern was heightened by a threat—deemed not credible—by a Trump supporter to take revenge on the coterie of protesters who gathered nearby to air their grievances against the president.

Free speech is a guaranteed by the First Amendment, and as a free speech advocate, I have always supported unfettered expression of ideas, opinions and open dialogue.

And yet, in the maelstrom of public criticism that has raged against President Trump since last November, I fear that our society has crossed the line of rational thought and whipped itself into an irrational frenzy.

It is the kind of frenzy that led to June’s mass shooting of Republican congressional representatives at a baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., and could result in something worse.

Indeed, had anything serious happened to Trump here, I can imagine half the country would have been raising hearty cheers and dancing in the streets.

Praying for Leaders

I am quite aware of the intense criticism aimed at our president. My purpose is not to defend him or debate his policies, temperament, or fitness for office.

It’s to point out that the refusal to accept election results and constant carping against whoever is elected president has gone on for more than 35 years and is tiresome.

The reason this is such a problem is its reflection of a growing lack of awareness of biblical guidance and wisdom. Take such verses as:

  • Romans 13:1 and 7 (MEV): “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are appointed by God.

. . . Render to all what is due them: taxes to whom taxes are due, respect to whom respect is due, fear to whom fear is due, and honor to whom honor is due.”

  • Psalm 84:9: “Behold, O God our shield, and look upon the face of Your anointed.” I wrote in a previous blog (http://kenwalkerwriter.com/shooting-lays-bare-need-pray-leaders/) about our need to pray for our rulers and respect those God places in office.
  • Exodus 22:28: “You shall not curse God or curse the ruler of your people.”

Disrespecting Authority

Exchange “Trump” for “Obama,” “Bush” or “Clinton” and it’s the same: vitriol, hatred and disrespect on a national scale for the person serving in the nation’s highest office.

Underlying this is a spirit of contentiousness, disregard for authority, and a lack of appreciation for God establishing government and installing leaders, whether good or bad.

This raises the question of how we can expect God’s blessing on our nation when we as a nation spend so much time carping about those He installs as our leaders, be that at city hall, the statehouse, or the White House.

Pulitzer Prize Uncovered Shocking Pill Pushing

We West Virginians can be excused for puffing out our chests a little bit over the recent news that Eric Eyre, a reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail won a Pulitzer Prize recently for investigative reporting.

Especially since such awards routinely go to staffers from the New York Times, Washington Post and other major newspapers with larger staffs and more prolific resources.

However, my point is not to brag about a small state newspaper winning a Pulitzer. Rather, I want to call attention to the outrageous reality of what Eyre documented: drug wholesalers shipping 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to the state from 2007 through 2012.

Mind Boggling Figures

Pulitzer Prize Uncovered Shocking Pill Pushing | Ken Walker WriterWith less than 1.9 million men, women and children, that works out to roughly 430 of the little buggers for every person living in the state.

While I’m glad that a few dozen hydrocones were available when I was recovering from open heart surgery in 2008, these figures are mind-boggling to an extreme.

So extreme that it gives credence to old-fashioned conspiracy theories. I remember when I first heard that crack cocaine was a plot by the CIA to destroy inner cities, and scoffing at the idea.

Sure, it wound up a discredited theory, but to imagine that powerful people have never taken advantage of the powerless is to engage in flights of fancy.

So what did pharmaceutical companies and their reps think they were doing shipping enough painkillers into the state to anesthetize everyone here 10 times over—and all the cows, pigs and sheep to boot? That we all had bad backs?

Seeing Dollar Signs

More likely all they saw were dollar signs, and the heck with the collateral damage it caused along the way.

This isn’t some wild-eyed theory. Former Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quinones spells out the role of the Big Pharma marketing machine in his excellent book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.

When I heard him speak at Marshall University in the fall of 2015, Quinones laid out the story of how companies pushed the idea that people were in too much pain, and that the pills they had invented to address the problem weren’t addictive.

Yeah, right. And now we pay the price. Like the man in our area who lost his wife and only daughter to a drug-addled driver who was constantly prescribed pain killers by a doctor.

That particular physician lost her license. But I wonder if the pharmaceutical companies who encouraged doctors to prescribe all these opioids—and pharmacies to stock them like candy bars—will ever be held to account.

Trail of Devastation

Now, it’s not like we’re alone in our misery. Take the lawsuit filed earlier this year by the Seattle suburb of Everett, Washington, against the maker of OxyContin.

The suit came after the LA Times revealed in an investigation last year that the company allegedly had extensive evidence pointing to illegal trafficking across the nation, but often didn’t share that with law enforcement or cut the flow of pills.

The company has been sued hundreds of times over its marketing of OxyContin to doctors and the drug’s risk of addiction to patients, the Times reported. However, “Everett’s suit is the first to focus narrowly on what the company knew about criminal distribution of the painkiller.”

The company will get its day in court, if the case even makes it that far. In the meantime, we can only hope that more reporters will uncover the abuses that have left such a trail of devastation in their wake.

Healthy Eating a Long-Term Battle

cleaneatzUntil I read about the pending opening of a Clean Eatz franchise in Huntington over the summer, I had never heard of the North Carolina-based restaurant chain.

I was impressed with their proclamation that menu items are a maximum 500 calories, and that the owners’ goal is to help people adjust to a healthy lifestyle. Having had my own struggles with weight ever since I seriously injured my back in 2013, I need all the reminders I can get.

Making a quick check of the web site, I learned the Huntington location is the eighth in three states, with 16 more planned in six states. Sounds like an idea whose time has come.

Obesity struggles

The news on the obesity front can easily discourage anyone who hopes to see our nation embrace healthier living.

Huntington got tagged in 2008 as the nation’s fattest city in a Centers for Disease Control, which resulted in famed British chef Jamie Oliver filming his award-winning ABC mini-series here.

Initially, rates dropped, school menus changed, and Oliver’s storefront filming studio became Huntington’s Kitchen, a local resource that teaches healthy cooking classes and serves as an advocate for healthy living.

Yet, long-term trends are evidence of a continuing problem. When I checked recently, the “State of Obesity” web site reported West Virginia’s rate tops 35 percent, compared to 23.9 percent in 2000 and 13.7 percent in 1990.

The only state that ranked above ours: Louisiana at 36.2 percent. Colorado has the lowest at 20.2 percent—although with one in every five people tipping the scales at a body mass index of 30 or higher, Colorado has nothing to brag about.

Receptive to Healthy Eating

Receptive to Healthy EatingDespite the setbacks, I see Clean Eatz coming to our town as a sign of a receptiveness to healthier eating that didn’t exist prior to Jamie Oliver’s visit. This area has become home to so many 5-Ks, 10-Ks and even marathons that some people have tagged us “Runnington.” Traffic detours or race-related delays are so common I try to remember the need to detour around various areas on certain weekends.

There are subtle signs of changes on a national scale as well, starting with the long-term decline in soda consumption. Earlier this year, Fortune reported that sales had fallen to a 30-year low in the midst of declining for the 11th consecutive year.

It reminded me of long ago, when a friend who worked for the Jefferson County Health Department in Louisville, Kentucky, mentioned there were 10 teaspoons of sugar in a 12-ounce can of soda.

After checking the calorie count for that size serving, I realized that it had as many calories as beer, meaning a soda gut could be every bit as bad as a beer gut. After eliminating my nightly habit of alternating cream soda and cola, I shed 12 pounds in six weeks.

Subtle Impact

Interestingly, the same week I read about Clean Eatz coming to town, I saw a story about McDonald’s announcement that it was eliminating some unpalatable ingredients from its most popular menu items.

That included making its famed Chicken McNuggets and other items without artificial preservatives and removing high fructose corn syrup from its hamburger buns. The changes come as Mickey D’s tries to reverse declining customer traffic the past three years.

When an international chain like McDonald’s is removing leading offenders in the fat-sodium-sugar triumvirate line-up that worsens our obesity battles, it means the grassroots efforts that largely go unnoticed are making an impact. Which is why I can now can enjoy a meal at Clean Eatz.

A Masterful Vision Comes to Life

Artisans Express Silver TrainLast year I wrote a blog about the impressive public art project in Huntington, West Virginia known as the Artisans Express. 

A fund raiser for the Hoops Family Children’s Hospital, it was sponsored by the Cabell Huntington Hospital Foundation.

The organization invited artists to submit their interpretations for train engine models (trains being a key element of a city founded by railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington).

After a winnowing process, a foundation committee selected 42 designs. Molds shipped from Nebraska—which arrived amid a foot of snow—were delivered to the artists, who created their masterpieces.

After a special unveiling at the Facing Hunger Foodbank in early May, they were placed throughout the downtown area and at Marshall University.

The creations were stunning in their originality and wide-varying array of designs. The display officially ended last October, with models then going to the sponsors who had purchased them. However, a number of the owners left them in place.

Coffee Table Book

Artisans Express Coffee Table BookThis colorful collection now lives on in another way, through a 132-page, full-color coffee table book recently released by the hospital foundation. Reasonably priced at $30, the volume is available at Empire Books downtown, or can be ordered online.

Seeing the models in person was a fascinating experience. The first night they were placed downtown, the area hummed with activity despite it being a normally laid-back Sunday night. People touched the trains, climbed on them, photographed them, and “oohed” and “ah-ed” over them.

And yet, sitting back to appreciate them in print adds a new dimension to the exhibit. For one thing, this book collects all the engines in one place. Even though I attended the unveiling, inspected them on the street, and did some editing of the book, it wasn’t until I had my copy in hand that I gained a full appreciation for this project’s dazzling nature.

At the unveiling, there were simply too many trains to “see” all of them. Nor could we get around to look at each one. That’s why the multiple angles of the trains and accompanying artists’ photos give readers a unique look at this display.

This is more than a picture book, too. It contains historical information about the city and how the project got formed, and offers behind-the-scenes details about the artists and the concepts that went into their creations.

Widespread Appeal

Artisans ExpressAs I noted last year, public displays of sculpture have appeared everywhere from Chicago (pigs) to Lexington, Kentucky (horses).

And, while I recognize that the primary interest in this book will originate in the surrounding Tri-State Area of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio, it still retains universal appeal. Anyone who appreciates trains or fascinating artwork grounded in the limitless imaginations of their creators will find this book worthwhile.

The Artisans Express demonstrates that vision, artistic ability, and community spirit live well beyond the nation’s major metropolitan areas.

The Miracle of Prayer

huntingtons kitchenIt’s been more than five years since Jamie Oliver’s Emmy-Award-winning Food Revolution aired on ABC, thrusting Huntington, West Virginia into the national spotlight.

The series also prompted Winning the Food Fight, the book I helped Pastor Steve Willis (featured in two episodes) write.

Although progress in the obesity battle is slow and often frustrating, this focus on healthy eating has paid many dividends. They include Huntington’s Kitchen, the downtown storefront space that served as Oliver’s cooking studio and is a valued community resource.

Setting the Stage

In our book, I wrote about how Oliver’s production company called Willis about being part of the program. However, they weren’t aware that the day before Steve prayed and asked God for help in teaching his members how to cook healthier. The reason? So they could see more progress in their weight battles. Talk about an answer to prayer!

Equally miraculous is the story I never shared publicly about how Food Fight even came into being. Although after interviewing Steve at a filming session, I told him pastor I had helped a number of authors by ghostwriting their book. Three months passed before the conference call with my agent where we agreed to move ahead with a proposal right before my wife and I left for a vacation.

When we returned, I called Steve to arrange a lunch where we could discuss some of the background of Oliver’s call and subsequent visit to the area.

Malfunctioning Equipment

Still stuck in the Stone Age at that point, I hadn’t acquired a digital recorder (which, ironically, is often of inferior quality to a cassette recorder, since it picks up every little sound in a public place).

lightstock_150776_medium_user_3597598Right before dashing out the door, I checked my cassette recorder to make sure it was running and had adequate battery power. Unfortunately, I did so while it was still plugged into my phone line.

Turns out that it didn’t record anything when on its own—a fact that I didn’t discover until after a 45-minute discussion with Steve. When I ran the tape back and hit “play” in the restaurant, all that came out was a low-pitched hum.

“Wonderful,” I thought. “He’s probably wondering what kind of amateur he just asked to help with his book.”

The Spirit’s Leading

Many people consider prayer an utter waste of time. In commenting on one of my blogs about a year ago, a reader posted a profane comment on my Facebook page, saying there was no God.

I beg to differ. Not just because of Oliver’s call, but what happened after I prayed and asked God to help me reconstruct that lunchtime conversation. And, to lead me by His Holy Spirit as I wrote the first chapter.

Steve and I had lunch on a Friday. By the following Tuesday I had finished the first draft of a 4,000-word chapter. The Spirit helped me to recall numerous details and guided me as I wrote.

That chapter launched a full-scale proposal that we had to complete in just one month. Nearly four more would pass before a publisher made us an offer. During that time I made nothing for my work on the book. Yet I survived.

Writing Highlight

winningWinning the Food Fight has never generated a huge return in royalties. Even when Rick Warren included a chapter about what had happened in Huntington in his bestselling The Daniel Plan, we didn’t see a spike in sales.

Yet my participation in this project will always be a highlight of my writing career—if for no other reason than God bailing me out of trouble before it got off the ground.

Still Touching Lives

will-grahamAlthough I wrote a story earlier this year about evangelist Billy Graham, I had forgotten he turned 97 on Nov. 7. That is, until I saw his grandson that evening. Will Graham was in Huntington, West Virginia, for a three-day celebration.

After coming on stage, the younger Graham mentioned he wanted to film the audience singing “Happy Birthday” to his grandfather. In true 21st century fashion, he videoed the scene on his smart phone to take home to North Carolina.

Historic Occasion

The event marked a personally historic occasion. Over the past 28 years I have seen Billy Graham (twice, in Denver and Cincinnati), his son Franklin (in Lexington, Kentucky,) and now his grandson.

One thing that struck me was how much times have changed over the past three decades. When Billy Graham came to Denver in 1987, he spoke for six consecutive days. A week before the event started, The Sunday Denver Post ran an extended feature story on him. When we went with a group for the Sunday finale, there were about 50,000 in the crowd at Mile High Stadium.

Thirteen years later, Franklin spoke at Rupp Arena in Lexington, to a crowd that on the second night of a three-day event was less than half the Denver finale.

The total attendance at Will’s celebration in Huntington was less than 6,000.

Billy Graham speaking used to be a huge event for churches and others who wanted to see the famous evangelist. Though no less effective a speaker than his grandfather or his father, Will Graham made a far less marked impression on the public’s consciousness. And yet, it very much changed lives.

A Notable Contrast

Festival-HighlightIt wasn’t just the smaller turnouts that made this celebration as so different from the preceding events I had attended. Unlike his grandfather and father, the younger Graham never wore a tie. He spoke in a more laid-back banner, with his sense of humor and easy-going banter an interesting contrast to Billy’s more serious demeanor.

But the real difference came in the music. The upbeat, vibrant, praise-filled tones echoing across the civic arena auditorium were a far cry from the traditional hymns Billy Graham favored.

Indeed, when featured performer Lacey Sturm took the stage it took on the feel of a rock concert. I couldn’t understand a word of her first three songs, although I noticed the young people who had gathered in front of the stage enjoyed them.

I didn’t grasp too many of the lyrics to the fourth one, either. What caught my attention, though, was Lacey’s remark beforehand—that the song expressed how she sensed God all around her the day she planned to commit suicide. The experience was so powerful that she knew there had to be a God.

Afterwards, when her band left the stage and she did an acoustic number, she shared the full story of how God had touched her so dramatically. Although at first I didn’t care much for her music, by the time she finished my opinion completely shifted.

Making a Difference

praise-3I had another surprise. The second night of the celebration, the crowd looked pretty small—filling less than half the arena (although full for the final evening). I wondered what kind of response Graham would receive.

Yet, when he concluded his remarks about having a purpose in life, dozens of people came to the front to pray with Graham and talk with counselors. The floor was full a third of the way back from the stage.

We can get so hung up on numbers that we think because the crowds for a Graham evangelistic event are smaller than they used to be, they aren’t as significant. More than 340 people who responded to Will’s invitations that weekend would argue that point.

Public Art Inspires

Photo Credit: Ken Walker

Public displays of sculpture or art aren’t a new idea, having been done in such places as Chicago with pigs. And, horses in Lexington, Ky., and Newnan, Ga.

Yet the display of 42 fiberglass, small train engine models that recently went up in Huntington, W. Va., is every bit as impressive as the online photos I’ve seen of similar public art displays.

In fact, photos don’t do this collection of artwork justice. To be fully appreciated, the Artisans Express demands a personal inspection. Only up close can one touch, feel, read and reflect on the artist’s vision.

As with all great art, the interpretation belongs to each person. The viewer brings to the object his or her own background, memories, thoughts and ideas, and leaves uplifted, pondering not only what has been but what can be in the future.

More than a Fund-Raiser

Photo Credit: Ken WalkerOriginating as a fund-raiser for the new Hoops Family Children’s Hospital at Cabell Huntington Hospital, the project has become much more.

For one, it celebrates the city’s railroad heritage (founded by railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington.) Yet just as importantly, this project brings to light the wellspring of artistic creativity residing in the Tri-State Area where West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio converge along the Ohio River.

In the interest of full disclosure, I recently secured a job editing a coffee table book about the Artisans Express project that is targeted for an October release. Some may mistakenly perceive this as an attempt to “hype” that book.

True, I gained a much greater awareness of this project after meeting with the author who helped pull together this display. But my appreciation for the fullness of its potential occurred a day after the private unveiling of the engines.

Springing to Life

Photo Credit: Ken WalkerThe reception, complete with greetings from the mayor, a band, and delicious food, occurred May 9 at the Facing Hunger Foodbank. Volunteers were then scheduled to transport the engines and place them on pedestals. Although primarily in the downtown area, one also sits across from the student center at Marshall University.

The next evening, I suggested to my wife that we head downtown to see some of the trains in their public settings. The effect was so overwhelming it left me (a writer) nearly speechless.

For starters, I noticed how many people were walking around downtown. The numbers were far greater than my last visit.

Not only were more people out, many were obviously inspecting the models, each painted and decorated in a unique style. Families and groups of friends were slowly surrounding them as children read, parents nodded, many smiled, and some commented on their significance.

Inviting Inspection

Photo Credit: Ken WalkerThe sheer array of styles invites closer inspection. There’s the train standing on end like a monolith, with colors of the rainbow dripping down and creating the image of a fine sculpture. Another covered in gleaming silver, as if it were a mirror to the area’s spirit.

One standing in the window of Huntington’s Kitchen (which served as Jamie Oliver’s cooking studio during his award-winning 2010 mini-series) commemorates the victims of the 1970 Marshall University plane crash that claimed 75 lives.

The Jungle Express sits on a pedestal crafted of bamboo. The Orphan Train calls attention to Forever Changed International, which operates an orphanage in Guatemala. I could go on, but you get the idea.

The trains will remain on display until October before their final destination of the sponsors and others who purchase them to help raise money for the children’s hospital. Yet the exhibit will live on in countless memories for years to come.

Pipe Dreams

photo credit:  Anghel AdrianMy wife and I recently attended two community forums organized by a woman concerned over the calamity in our city wrought by heroin and other drugs.

We were shocked to learn that heroin overdose deaths in 2015 in our city are projected to be six times the national average.

Nor does it matter where you live, since communities from coast to coast battle the same crisis. It has taken on a personally-relevant tinge for us, with two shooting deaths in recent weeks in nearby neighborhoods. One was clearly linked to drug use and the other rumored to have a connection.

Legalizing Drugs

What is the answer? It’s safe to say that many of us feel overwhelmed by the staggering nature of the problem.

One answer is to legalize drugs. When I recently lamented the rolling train of marijuana legalization, a friend told me he would have agreed—until he read about a pair of books that argue the case for legalization of drugs. Such a move often leads to reduced crime and usage, my friend said.

Nor is legalization a new argument. Even conservative commentator Pat Robertson advocated for the legalization of marijuana more than three years ago.

“I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” Robertson told the New York Times. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”

Continuing problems

photo credit: lindsayΔlachanceIf there’s one encouraging point that has emerged from the current crisis, it’s the recognition that we can’t arrest enough dealers to stem the tide. Unless we reduce the appetite for drugs, they will keep flowing. Treatment needs to replace the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach.

Yet, even if were we to call off the admittedly-ineffective war on drugs, I’m not confident that it would resolve all our difficulties stemming from their abuse.

As exhibit A, I recall the story about the campground store at Mammoth Cave National Park in southwestern Kentucky canceling alcohol sales in 2013—just one year after they started.

The reason: the year prior, when people had to bring their own bottle if they wanted a drink, there were 12 alcohol-related incidents in the park. After people could purchase it there, such incidents more than tripled.

Chief Park Ranger Brad McDougal told an NPR station that the result DUIs, public intoxication, and other violations created too much of an increased workload for personnel.

“Before we began selling wine and beer in the camp store it was 35 to 40 miles to nearby Warren County to buy package liquor,” McDougal said. “I knew [an increase in incidents] was going to be a probability. I didn’t know it was going to be this kind of a jump.”

Unintended Consequences

photo credit: Anghel AdrianSo if people can’t handle the ready availability of beer and wine, what will they do when instead of relaxing with a drink, they indulge in a drug whose sole purpose is to get high?

Again, I have a personal connection to the legalized marijuana issue. Someone close to me lives in Colorado and attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

He says legalization has created enormous problems for people attending NA meetings. Some rationalize if it’s legal, then it must be OK. No wonder he frowns on it.

If it weren’t bad enough that it’s legal, recently Time magazine published a story titled, “Dope Dreams.” It described entrepreneurs seeking to cash in on the growing marijuana legalization movement to create national pot brands.

I think of this as one of many unintended consequences that will create a long-lasting morass for society. Indeed, many states will rue the day they opened the door to this “innocuous” substance.

The Food Revolution Continues

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution March marked the fifth anniversary of the premiere of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. The six-week ABC mini-series won an Emmy Award for “Best Reality Series” and catapulted Huntington, West Virginia into the national spotlight.

Not only did the lush, colorful scenes that opened each installment put an attractive face on the area, it brought permanent change. Granted, in the ongoing battle against obesity it often feels like two steps backward for every step forward, but optimistic signs exist.

A Book Begins

Until the filming of the final installment, my only connection with the series was watching it at 9 o’clock on Friday nights, along with millions nationwide.

However, near the end of the series, I read that parts of the last show would be filmed the following week at First Baptist Church of Kenova. The first episode had featured Pastor Steve Willis preaching a sermon on the damage obesity was doing to the region.

Thinking the Baptist Press news service might be interested in a story on the wrap-up of the series, I e-mailed the executive in charge, who gave me a green light.

winningKnowing that once the event kicked off, Willis would likely be besieged by other reporters, I called him the day before to ask if I could interview him beforehand.

As we talked, he mentioned his toughest challenge was keeping up with the flood of calls and e-mails prompted by his appearances on several national TV shows prior to the series’ debut.

Without thinking about what would follow, I asked, “Why don’t you write a book and tell people to read it?”

Ironic that is exactly what happened. Willis sought my help to write the manuscript and see if my agent could shop it to publishers. The resulting Winning the Food Fight has received renewed interest lately, hitting #35 last week in Amazon’s “Heathy Living” category.

Signs of Progress

Steve Willis

Steve Willis

Last year, I wrote an update on the battle against obesity for Mature Living. Huntington had just reclaimed the ignominious honor of recaptured the nation’s “most obese” title, with a rate of 39 percent.

Still, that was seven percent lower than five years before when the city first gained attention for its obesity problems. And Willis sees a great impact, tough reflected quietly.

He mentioned the ordinary mothers who now cook healthy meals. The child his wife babysits who calls broccoli her favorite food. The middle-aged folks who shifted habits to avoid adding weight year after year.

“The reality is the culture here among 20- and 30-year-olds is healthy now,” he says. “I’m not going to say the culture of those in their 40s and 50s has changed as a whole. But without question adults in their 20s and 30s are not going to allow themselves to fall in the same trap.”

Great Story

Two weeks ago the Huntington Herald-Dispatch carried a story about how health experts are optimistic even though statistics haven’t changed over the past five years.

Among the many signs of progress the story cited:

  • A dramatic increase in fresh foods and “scratch” cooking in school cafeterias (compared to the breakfast pizzas and flavored milk served in the past).
  • Nearby Barboursville’s efforts to encourage physical activity attracting attention from the National Dairy Council and its “Fuel Up to Play 60” program, coordinated with the NFL.
  • The active roster of healthy cooking classes at Huntington’s Kitchen, the storefront space downtown that served as Oliver’s cooking studio.
  • An expanding local food movement, which includes the Wild Ramp. Nearing its third anniversary, this Kickstarter-funded market moved last year and has turned into a local landmark that is helping expand awareness of natural and organic foods.

Sometimes the best stories don’t attract the biggest headlines.

Prayer Moves Mountains

Sometimes the most significant events take place in relative anonymity, outside of TV cameras, cell phone videos, or news reporters chronicling it as “something important.”

Such was the case at a recent city-wide prayer meeting at the Huntington High School auditorium. The gathering of several hundred individuals followed the Sept. 7 “One Prayer” observance sparked by Mayor Steve Williams.

While the first prompted hundreds of churches to participate, the meeting that followed three weeks later was equally (if not more) exciting.

An Emotional Evening

Drug Program GraduationThe length of the meeting itself—nearly three hours—showed that no one was eager to leave. And why would they, with the palpable spiritual atmosphere coursing through the auditorium?

I knew something was different when the first person to pray that night was the county’s superintendent of schools. Following later were the sheriff, along with representatives of District 3 Congressman Nick Joe Rahall and U.S. Senator Joe Manchin. The latter read congratulatory letters before they prayed.

While this kind of official recognition may demonstrate the pull churches still have in West Virginia, that didn’t excite me nearly as much as people who came to the podium to share what God was doing since Sept. 7.

A Dealer No More

medium_298365574Rocky Meadows, a reformed drug user and founder of a sober living home called Lifehouse, read excerpts from a drug dealer’s note that told of being so inspired by the mayor’s call for prayer he decided to quit the business.

Amazing, to say the least. It promptly reminded me of one of the snide remarks that appeared in a letter to the editor of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. Noting a shooting spree that erupted at a downtown Huntington bar after the “One Prayer” day, the writer questioned what good the mayor’s move had accomplished.

What the letter writer failed to mention was that in the aftermath of the shooting, the bar’s owner voluntarily surrendered his liquor license. So the troubled night spot is no longer open. Sounds like God at work to me.

Likewise for the drug dealer who quit the business.

Tower of Hope

Drugs and povertyOne of the speakers at the city-wide prayer meeting was Shane Polan, part of a prominent family with interests in business and real estate. One of its holdings is a 13-story hotel two blocks from city hall that in recent years had been converted to low-cost apartments and attracted numerous drug users. Some had overdosed there.

However, after his brother kicked a three-decade-long drug addiction after making a decision to follow Christ, Shane has his own spiritual awakening last year. Ironically, he had already started the process to turning the hotel into a long-term residential facility called Hope Tower.

Working in cooperation with the city’s largest church and evangelist Eddie James, Polan recently welcomed the first group of converts from James’ Atlanta-area ministry to the building. The group of young men is helping convert one floor of apartments into a dormitory space for single men.

God at Work

The story of Hope Tower is itself something that is likely to one day attract nationwide attention. So is Mayor Williams taking a very public stand for his faith.

As the concluding speaker that evening, Williams freely quoted from the Bible and sounded like a preacher. He also told of receiving calls from around the region and beyond from government officials wanting to know how to start a similar effort in their community.

Which goes to show that God is at work in many ways today, even if you won’t hear it shouted from the rooftops.