The Church is deeply ingrained in the fabric of the African-American community and has cultivated many of the most inspiring movements in our history. For many, church is more than a Sunday gathering place for praise and worship; it is also the place to find strength, hope and encouragement for everyday battles. There are so many topics and issues that affect our community, but why not health and how we take care of our bodies? This is arguably an issue that receives little attention.
A 2014 State of Obesity report states that “more than 75 percent of African Americans are overweight or obese.” So the question must be asked: When will the dinner plate be become a part of traditional discussion much like the offering plate? Bishop Joseph Walker, III, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee and his wife, Stephaine Hale Walker, MD, believe that time is now!
In 2011, the couple launched ChurchFIT, a health and wellness initiative to marry personal faith with personal fitness. ChurchFIT not only offers exercise classes like ZUMBA, Pilates, and kickboxing five days a week but the nearly-30,000-member congregation also has access to cooking classes, nutritional guidance, and health coaching. Over the past four years, ChurchFIT has grown from an event into a Biblically-based healthy lifestyle ministry.
Read our interview and discover the inspiration behind ChurchFIT and how the Walkers want to inspire pastors around the country to answer the call to make health and fitness a priority.
BFT: What exactly is ChurchFIT?
Dr. Walker: ChurchFIT is a healthy living, healthy lifestyle program that we have at Mount Zion here in Nashville. It was founded out of my husband’s heart in the basement in our home, after he started to get his health together by working out with a trainer, chef and other resources that we had here. And based on his momentum and the things that he was able to achieve, we decided to go ahead and push the similar resources to the church; but to do it for free for people. And so the ChurchFIT program is really a holistic program – we focus on mind, body and soul. We have exercise classes such as Pilates, ZUMBA, kickboxing and cardio classes five days a week at two of our church locations. We also have cooking classes that are run by two separate chefs, along with a nutritionist and they also host nutrition classes as well.
BFT: In a 2002 article by the American Journal of Public Health called “Role of Black Churches in Health Promotion Programs,” the study discussed in this piece found that there is a genuine interest in health promotion amongst the black church, but there are barriers, such as pastors and clergy feeling overburdened with this responsibility, a lack of resources, suspicion of outside organizations due to the history of research abuse and exploitation in our community. So, with all these obstacles that you may be facing, how do you push for a culture of healthy living amongst the members in your congregation and the community?
Bishop Walker: I think what we’ve been able to do is to really make [ChurchFIT] a fixture within our ministry. It now has become part of the culture in every aspect. It must be programmed within the life of the church so everyone has a buy-in. For instance, even if you came and spoke at our church about something unrelated to ChurchFIT, you will still feel the culture of ChurchFIT because afterwards you come in and you’d be [served] something like a kale salad or baked chicken versus traditional fried chicken.
We also minister to over 3,000 college students alone from eight different campuses and after church we give them a free meal and try our best to make sure it’s healthy. I think it’s also about how pastors really take the lead in teaching and preaching about it. I talk about health from the pulpit. One of the things that I attempt to do is give some theological foundation to this whole idea of health. I use the example that with Jesus Christ, there is no way he could have endured the passion of the cross if he had not been in physical shape, and I use that to suggest that our purposes are never truly fulfilled if we don’t have the energy to actually give in fulfilling them. So part of being in good health is good stewardship because you can’t ask God for more territory if you don’t have the strength to get it going and finish strong.
Dr. Walker: When we first started ChurchFIT people were curious. Bishop and I were getting into shape and they were watching his body transform right in front of their eyes…you can’t have a pastor who is out of shape but telling everybody else to be healthy. So, you have to the best example so that people understand that it’s not just rhetoric but it’s actually something that is lived out every day.
BFT: So if we can, let’s touch on your personal health and fitness journeys.
Bishop Walker: So basically, I was about 230 pounds and I didn’t really feel that I was overweight. It was just a natural thing for me. I wasn’t physically a big guy but you start learning about things like Body Mass Index (BMI) and that you don’t have to be morbidly obese – you could be obese and not look like it. So that really encouraged me and as a result I got a trainer, and started working out and changed what I ate. I used to eat pancakes, scrambled eggs with cheese, I was going hard! Every Sunday morning I was at Waffle House and I had to change. Now I eat egg whites, oatmeal, fruit, grilled chicken and fish. I think it really has helped because the weight just started shedding.
The ironic thing about church is this – and you guys should understand it – when you start losing weight initially it is perceived that something is wrong. You know, “what’s wrong?” Nobody asks that when you’re gaining weight. I had to constantly get in front of my church and say “Guys, I’m well. I’m doing good. I’m in the best shape of my life,” and I had to educate our people about not making people feel guilty for that. Another thing is learning how to say “no” to the cobbler that “Mother Johnson” or “Sister Betty” worked all day in the kitchen to make, regardless of the guilt from not wanting to hurt their feelings. There comes a point when you really have to step away and say “no.” And it actually became a big issue for me to say “no thank you. I just can’t do it. I appreciate the love but I can’t do it.” So that kind of brought a whole new culture to our church and it has worked.
BFT: Dr. Walker, how did you get on your personal fitness journey?
Dr. Walker: Well, I’ve always been somewhat of a fit person but then of course my husband and I got married and going from Boston, Massachusetts to down here in the South, within three months I put on 10 pounds. And of course I walked in my closet one day and couldn’t fit much of anything that I had and I just looked at him and said “this is not going to happen to us. We are going to get it together. We are going to get back to where we know that God wants us to be,” and we started working out together. We got ourselves a personal trainer, chef and a nutritionist because it’s not just about working out but 60% or 70% of getting back into shape and good health is what you eat. People run around or they exercise like crazy and they come back home and eat whatever they want, thinking that they’ve earned the right to, not realizing that they’re really shooting themselves in the foot by erasing all the benefits of actually working out. We didn’t do it overnight but we did it in such a way that we were able to sustain it. So really, it was a complete lifestyle shift but it was one step at a time and I got back down to my normal healthy weight.
We workout fairly regularly when we can. Obviously when we travel sometimes it’s difficult but we’ve done things like put weights and other little things in our suitcases to make sure that if we don’t get to the gym, we can workout in our room. I even have DVD’s that I bought online and use to work out in my hotel room just to make sure that I keep moving. It’s not always about losing weight. It’s not about exercising for hours. It’s about doing something. Get up and be active in some way, shape or form. Sometimes just taking baby steps is good enough to at least get you started.
BFT: How have you seen ChurchFIT grow and develop over the last four years?
Dr. Walker: Wow! It’s grown and developed in such a way that people look forward to it. At first, people were just curious but now understand that it’s something that could really help to transform, not just their life but the lives of their families. We’ve seen an increase in teachers and participation in terms of our youth and children as well, not just the adults. We have seen more of our “senior saints,” (50+) exercising with us. We’ve also added classes, from two to ten. We have two cooking classes with one at each location and added additional chefs. We have also added another component in terms of education and congregational awareness such as hosting campaigns and classes regarding heart health, stroke awareness, and diabetes education.
Bishop Walker: Recently in church we brought attention on how to actually identify strokes. We had a big campaign and that was really awesome.
Dr. Walker: During kidney awareness month, we had professionals come out and do urine screening to check people for kidney disease. We talked about the kidney transplant waiting list and how some of our congregants have actually received kidneys. We also have people who have recently received heart transplants. So when we have teachable moments, we take full advantage of them and make sure people don’t just walk away with 15 seconds of information, but they walk away with a heartfelt story that will touch them. We also do blood drives and awareness campaigns around helping with the need to donate blood for our families who have children with sickle cell disease. You name it – if it’s important, especially in the African-American community in terms of a disease that we’re trying to fight – we definitely focus on those things.
BFT: Do you believe that if we change the food we serve at church functions that this could serve as a motivational tool to eat better outside the church such as at home or dining out?
Dr. Walker: Absolutely. That’s exactly what we do. When Bishop talks about “ChurchFIT is not an event” – it’s something that has formed part of a fabric of the institution in terms of our church. When we have church functions or events in the evening, we have healthy meals that are prepared for pastors after they preach. So we basically show them that it’s possible and that just because it’s healthy does not mean that it tastes bad.
We have amazing chefs that teach our congregants how to cook with the food that’s actually in their cupboards because you don’t always have to go to the store and buy something that’s completely foreign; you can prepare what you already have but just do it in a healthier way. Cut back on the salt; cut back on the butter. Use the healthier oil. Bake it instead of frying it. Grill it instead of frying it. Prepare salads, juices and smoothies that are healthy. So, it’s just really teaching people or giving people [healthier] alternatives. I’m a firm believer that people really do want to get healthy, so it is our job as the church to help. When you think about any huge movement that has taken place in our community, it started in the church. Church was the backbone in many of those movements back in the 60s, 70’s etc. In terms of disparities and healthcare issues that we see these days, the church has to be the backbone. When people go to church they’re expecting a word but they also seek guidance from the church. Often times it’s what their pastor says that they share with their doctors. That’s why it is so important to hear the messaging come straight from the pulpit. It’s also important to see the pastors actually operating within their own lives the things that they’re preaching and teaching from a health standpoint.
BFT: How young do you start to see certain conditions in children, like a predisposition obesity or diabetes, that may point to family history or parent’s issues?
Dr. Walker: That’s an excellent question. They’re doing a lot of studies in pediatrics regarding that very thing. They are definitely showing that there are long-term impacts in terms of what our kids are doing and what they look like as adults, which is why it’s so important because people don’t really take childhood obesity seriously. But for many of these kids, if they’re obese as children, they’re going to end up being obese teenagers, which turn into obese adults. And that’s why we’re starting to see things like type 2 diabetes, which used to be seen in older adults but now you’re starting to see type 2 diabetes in kids!
Health is not just when you go the doctor, health is not just when you call your doctor and tell him that you’re sick or that you have a cold. Health is something that you need to be aware of and think about on a daily basis; a part of the everyday conversation, just not at critical intervals when you’re sick. Because by the time you’re sick, you’re really sick. If you have to go to the hospital because your blood pressure is high, guess what? Your blood pressure has probably been high for years. So just helping people understand the truth that just because you’re feeling good doesn’t mean that you’re healthy. There are so many silent killers. If you don’t know why your hands are aching or why you’re having headaches, go to the doctor. We teach people to ask questions and be proactive about their health.
Bishop Walker: Our schedules are incredibly hectic and I think that it’s really about being very dedicated and carving out time. As my wife indicated, we travel a lot so we find hotels that have nice gyms or we take things with us, simple things, so that we can work out. When you preach three or four times a week it’s just something you have to do. I think that it’s really about being intentional. It’s about really saying “yes life is stressful and all those things” but unless you carve this time out, it can get away from you. And so it’s really about understanding how important that area of your life is and to guard it at all costs, protect it and create opportunities to exercise.
BFT: What are your favorite healthy foods and meals?
Bishop Walker: We’re creatures of habit. I like things like kale, with grilled salmon or grilled chicken — prepared with some flavor — a baked potato and vegetables or brown rice and I’m good! I’m pretty much a salmon or baked chicken kind of guy, and I love berries! So raspberries, blackberries, strawberries – I will just go for those all day long. I like some pastas as well — our chef prepares turkey pasta or something to that nature.
Dr. Walker: I’m similar to Bishop. I really enjoy foods like grilled tilapia. I’ll eat salmon like he mentioned, and I love really good, well-seasoned seafood on top of a salad.
BFT: Now, when you all have a chance to kind of relax and have that so-called “cheat meal” or just a chance to indulge a little bit, what is it that you go to?
Dr. Walker: For me, it would include macaroni and cheese. And if there’s no macaroni and cheese around, I’m from Los Angeles originally, so anything with a Mexican flair, like tacos, burritos or something like that.
Bishop Walker: My cheat meal would probably be going to Chick-fil-A and getting a grilled chicken sandwich and some waffle fries.
BFT: How do we make something like ChurchFIT becomes a staple in the African-American church? How does this become a new standard?
Bishop Walker: Well, I think what we’ve been very blessed to have a ministry that supports, has some resources and the platform to elevate the production and really capture the attention of other churches to take health and fitness seriously and make it a priority. My wife and I represent a different dynamic for a pastor and a first lady, particularly in international reformation. We’re able to influence thousands of churches and millions of people with an agenda that includes health as one of the pillars. We really are able to effect change at the full gospel level within the Kingdom worldwide. It’s something we are very passionate about advocating. Every time that we can talk about we do, we know full gospel is a part of the shift in healthy lifestyle living and others watching see that.
BFT: Have people reached out to you to say “Hey! Bishop Walker, Dr. Walker, how can we do something like this at our church?”
Dr. Walker: Yeah. Definitely. We’re actually in the process of putting together what we call a “toolkit” in order to help other churches, ministries or programs understand what we have done at Mount Zion. Our goal is to create a fairly in-depth toolkit. One of the things we’re not selfish with is information. It’s not ours. It’s for the people. And I think you often times run into that when it comes to research and grants. Things like that, in terms of people being very protective – which is understandable – but with ChurchFIT it’s an open book. You want our information; we’re more than willing to tell you exactly how we did it. Our goal is to try to figure out “ff this is how we did it, then possibly you can try to implement it in your organization or in your church in this way.” But you may need to make some changes because it can’t be cookie cutter. Your needs may be totally different than ours and that’s okay but we can definitely help you figure out a way to make it work for you.
BFT: What are your plans for the future with ChurchFIT?
Dr. Walker: Our goal is to continue to expand, continue to add more classes, continue to branch out in the community in terms of expanding to Full Gospel Churches all over the country, expanding to local churches across the state and internationally. Clearly, we would hope to attract sponsorship to work the programs because again, Mount Zion is doing it but we’re doing it all for free. It doesn’t cost anyone a dime. We know that the real cost of exercise programs can be the thing that’s prohibitive for people in terms of being able to get into shape and being able to reach their health goals. And so, one of our major goals would be to show people “Hey! This really works, come aboard,” and sponsor some of our programming so that we can reach even more people.
Want to know more? Visit Mt. Zion’s website for all things ChurchFIT!