Churches building stronger bodies, stronger spirits


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

Churches in the Mississippi Conference appear to be eagerly taking one of five initiatives to heart – literally.

Churches across the conference have begun a variety of efforts to improve the physical and spiritual health of members as part of the conference’s emphasis on health and wellness. Most of the efforts are geared toward weight loss and awareness of health issues related to diet and exercise.

Elaine Dye, who chairs the conference Health and Wellness Initiative, applauds the efforts.

“They are responding to the aspect of doing physical changes and exercise and finding out about health issues,” Dye said. “This is a step in the right direction.

“By doing these things we will be able to embrace the full definition of health.”

Churches involved range from large to small and are in all areas of the conference. Recently the Advocate asked churches to share what they’re doing to promote health and wellness.

Healthy habits
Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church in Olive Branch has begun a fitness program.

Directed and instructed by Cristina Catalani, Pleasant Hill’s fitness program offers yoga, pilates and dance aerobic classes five days a week.

Greenwood First UMC corporated health and wellness into its outreach efforts as part of Open House Month in September. The church scheduled a variety of activities to attract people in the community and spread a message of health and wellness, including a health fair.

A women’s group at Crossgates UMC in Brandon is studying Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. “We are learning to reconnect the sacred, the spiritual and our faith with our bodies,” said Belinda Rives. “Dr. Northrup’s goal is to help us to learn to take care of ourselves by teaching us to listen to the wisdom of our bodies and to make choices for healing and transformative wellness.”

Samuel Chapel UMC in Itta Bena has a health and wellness group that sponsors weekly physical activities such as aerobics and walking. The group also educates the members of the church on eating healthy and getting health screenings for diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. 

“Our group is a member of the Delta Health Consortium in the Mississippi Delta,” said pastor Marjorie Walker. “We are trying to inform and educate on the importance of being aware, of taking care of yourself and being involved in preventive health care.”

At Eagle Lake UMC, a group of mostly senior women walks weekday mornings in the fellowship hall, then has a time of sharing and fellowship afterward. The group is called the Eagle Lake Hi-Steppers. “All of us have felt more energy and have grown closer with one another and with our Lord. It is one of Eagle Lake’s ways of carrying out Luke’s admonition to devote ourselves to fellowship by being together as in Acts 2:44,” said pastor Barbara Hite.

Sandtown United Methodist Church near Philadelphia had 30 members lose 602 pounds over about a four-month period. The group used the Fit 4 Life program and met weekly to weigh in and share Bible study.

Another group using weekly weigh-ins is the Hinds Chapel/Horn Lake Charge. “We all weigh in and then have a devotional and prayer which are both inclusive of the word of God and health and wellness,” said pastor Ray Owens. “We then share our experiences and recipes and give encouragement.”

Jefferson Street UMC in Natchez offers circuit training twice a week and has a walking class one night a week. The walking class involves participants of varying levels of ability who walk the streets of the historic downtown or follow the walking path along the bluff above the Mississippi River.

Oxford-University UMC incorporated a plan for health and wellness into the design of its new Activities Center.

“The center not only has a gym for basketball, volleyball and other activities but a walking track on the second floor that is open to walkers and joggers from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. We have a yoga class beginning this fall, and more exercise programs are being planned for all age groups,” said Kara Paulk, communications coordinator for the church.

“Another one of our efforts is a new fall small group called Eating to Live based on 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, ‘Don’t you not know that your body is a temple…therefore glorify God in your body.’”

Creative approaches
Brookhaven First UMC began its health and wellness efforts last year by adding a health and wellness position to its leadership team. The church has a walking group, holds at least two blood drives per year and offers health screenings in addition to special.

This weekend, the church is sponsoring a bike ride along the Longleaf Trace, a 39-mile stretch of former railroad line between Hattiesburg and Prentiss that has been converted to recreational use. Children and their parents have been invited to participate

This spring, the United Methodist Women at the church sponsored a healthy food cook-off. Participant brought dishes prepared in healthy ways (low-fat, low-sugar or sugar free, etc.). Visitors tasted the foods and then voted for their favorites by contributing money in the name of that dish. Funds raised were used for UMW mission projects. In November, Brookhaven First UMC plans a healthy holiday cooking class that will feature nutrition experts showing ways to prepare healthy menus during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Some churches have incorporated health and wellness into their mission efforts.

“We’ve decided to take on a new vision at Gibson Memorial UMC,” said Greg Hazelrig, pastor of the Vicksburg church. “We are the ‘Feeding Church’ where people are fed physically and spiritually. 

“There are many who are hungry for both food and the word of God. Most of our ministries revolve around food in some way - eating, cooking, feeding. Through these programs, we hope that people will be fed physically. And for those who are fed too well physically, we are starting up a First Place diet program. The spiritual aspect comes through our three worship services, which we are trying to fine-tune into more filling and fulfilling and engaging services where God is the one who is glorified.”

Wells Memorial UMC in Jackson annually offers training in CPR and life-saving techniques and has purchased and trained some members on a heart defibrillator.

“We also sponsor 12-step groups for addictions including eating disorders,” said pastor Keith Tonkel. “We have a ‘community nurse’ who oversees some parish needs but whose main objective is to serve and help inner city folks have access to adequate health care.”

Columbus First UMC will soon adjust its menu for church meals to become more health conscious. The church offers a variety of exercise programs and sponsors a 5K run each year with proceeds supporting the Society of St. Andrew, a hunger-fighting program.

In addition, the church has added a counseling ministry called The Shepherd’s Touch, available to the community. Columbus First UMC offers CPR training, has a defibrillator and sponsors blood drives.

“We know the importance of staying healthy because without our health we are limited in our church work and our regular work,” said Lee Burdine, a member at Columbus First UMC. “If our health fails and we cannot work, we cannot provide for our families and ourselves. This creates more hardships that create other actions, and soon we realize that our own personal health may be responsible for the health and well-being of our wives or husbands, or our children or our grandchildren and many others that we care about. 

“Often, poor health is caused by our lifestyle choices, and over time our bodies can no longer function without monthly prescriptions and visits to our doctors.  God sends us answers, and we need to be able to sort through the daily noise and hear them.”