Bridging the Gap

Bridging the Gap

By Ken Walker-

Jamie Oliver taught Steve Willis an important lesson. Three years ago the famed British chef and his army marched into Huntington, West Virginia in hopes of revolutionizing what many pundits had deemed “the unhealthiest city in America.”

Our area earned that label because of a Centers for Disease Control report that listed us #1 nationally in adult obesity rates (46 percent) and problems like heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. (For more details, read our book, Winning the Food Fight.)

The report didn’t surprise Steve, who had noticed the toll poor eating habits were taking on his church. Hospital visits consumed a third of his time. Plus, the report surfaced just as he was preparing a sermon that addressed how gluttony was literally killing his congregation.

For more than a year before Jamie’s visit, Steve pounded his head against the wall trying to get his congregation to exercise more and eat less: “That’s when it dawned on me: It’s not how much we are eating, it’s what we are eating that causes such problems.”

So he prayed, “Lord, please send us someone who knows something about good food and nutrition.” Presto! The next day Jamie’s producers called Steve to say they planned to come to Huntington and wanted to partner with the church to make the city a healthier place.

That partnership left the church with attractive kitchen facilities and the area with a renewed sense of hope. Oliver and his crew trained over 1,000 citizens to prepare healthier meals. Plus, the studio he used for filming has become Huntington’s Kitchen, which continues to teach healthy cooking classes year-round.

Hopefully, it will also pave the way for those from a Christian perspective and other backgrounds (including no faith) to find common ground.

As Steve puts it: “No matter what our religion, political party, age, ethnicity or gender, we ALL need good food.  We ALL need a food system aimed at improving health instead of decreasing costs in order to promote increased consumption.  We ALL need to eat foods that are closer to the natural way God designed them.

“Jamie Oliver and I shared such a common bond that when it came to good food and improving the health of children, our other differences faded away. Though we grew up on different continents and had markedly different lifestyles, we were able to partner together to change the way people here looked at food.

“For all of my talk about the importance of religion and how the Bible steers us in the direction of whole foods (Genesis 1:29), Jamie never seemed to tire of my perspective.

“At the same time, Jamie challenged my thinking about food’s origins, preparation, and the impact it has on the earth. As a follower of Christ, his message of taking care of the planet resonated with me.

“Jamie also understands that for a true food revolution to occur, the masses in America have to get involved. With 80 percent of our citizens identifying in some way with a local church, getting pastors involved is a great place to start.

“Whether you are a secular ‘foodie,’ or an evangelical pastor like myself, don’t you want to see people get healthier? Don’t we all need health care costs to decrease? Shouldn’t every child have access to fresh fruits and vegetables?

“I am convinced that the disconnect between foodies and evangelicals needs to end. Just like Jamie Oliver and myself, these two groups share a common interest. With a problem so monumental, only together can we bring about the change that our nation desperately needs.”

Unfortunately, as Steve notes, the chasm between the two groups is so wide and deep that neither knows where to begin. His attempts at encouraging partnerships between evangelicals and liberals typically brings the response that they have no friends on the “other side.”

Answers for this dilemma won’t come easily. However, since our nation’s public discourse became polarized one step at a time, here is a suggestion for reversing that direction at the grassroots level: Reach out to someone from a different background and listen to what he or she has to say. The point is to learn, not score points in a mindless debate.

As Steve points out in the area of health: “There is a bridge that will connect secularist camps and evangelicals. It is called ‘good food and better health.’ Surely that is a path on which we can all walk together.”  Likewise for many other aspects of life.


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