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Church encourages members to work up a sweat

Church member Sondra Bell leads an aerobics class at Anderson United Methodist Church. A UMNS photo by John Gordon.

By John Gordon*
Jan. 4, 2007 | JACKSON, Miss. (UMNS)

Encouraged by a pastor who faced a health crisis, members of Anderson United Methodist Church are sweating their way to fitness.

The Rev. Joe May encouraged church members to join him in losing weight, working out and eating healthier foods. May's day of reckoning came after a doctor told him he would need daily injections to control his diabetes.

"He said, 'And if you don't do it, you're going to go blind, have to go on dialysis, and you're going to die,'" May recalled. "He caught my attention quite well."

May started walking five miles a day and went on a diet, losing 46 pounds between June and October alone. He had never told church members he was diabeti il he challenged them, during a sermon, to get off the couch.

"I was wearing a suit that day that I had not been able to get in for two years," he said.  "That was just as a means of illustrating what we can do when we add faith to any effort we set out to accomplish."

Some 180 church members signed a covenant to join the fitness campaign. The church began sponsoring aerobics and karate classes, with members weighing in at each session to track their weight loss.

A wakeup call

The Rev. Joe May walks five miles a day and watches what he eats. A UMNS photo by John Gordon.

All age groups in the church have taken up the call. Even 11-year-old Wilson Bell, after an aerobics class, admitted giving up some of his favorite foods.

"Before, I would eat a bunch of junk food, eat candy, eat a lot of chocolate cake," said Bell, who has lost 12 pounds.

"I try to lay off the sweets - eat a lot of salad, drink a lot of milk and water," he said.

Church member Ruth Davis said she has lost 10 pounds by walking every day and attending the aerobics class three times a week.

"I'm 61 years old," she said, "and I need to keep this body in (as) good shape as I can. And I'm trying to live longer."

Church member Lapraevian Jackson said the death of his mother from a heart attack two years ago served as a wakeup call.

"She wasn't really overweight," Jackson said. "But that encouraged me to eat better and have a better, healthy lifestyle."

Sondra Bell, who teaches one of the aerobics classes, said working out can also save the cost of a new wardrobe. She estimated that she had lost about eight inches, "which I'm probably more proud of than the weight," she said. "Because there are some dresses and skirts and jeans that I haven't been able to put on for years, and I'm back in them.  So it's a pretty good feeling."

Clergy health

Anderson United Methodist Church offers aerobics classes to help its members shape up. A UMNS photo by John Gordon.

May said he is pleased with the congregation's response. "The cost of health care is escalating at an all-time high. Many of our persons in this congregation, other congregations, are on fixed income," he said.

Clergy are not exempt from health concerns. May said Mississippi Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, an avid jogger, is encouraging pastors in the state to shape up. May's personal goal is to lose more weight and control his blood sugar to avoid the daily injections for diabetes.

The fitness program has even led to changes in some longstanding traditions at the church. Anderson Church has scaled back on a United Methodist staple: the pot-luck dinner.

"We've learned that you can have meetings without feeding people," May said. "If a person is committed to the task, they will come without a meal."

Church member Kathy Wade said she's made new friends in the aerobics class, and she's lost 15 pounds by exercising and changing her eating habits.

"I feel healthy.  I have a lot of energy now," she said. "(I) feel good leaving home every day now."

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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