It’s the home of Marshall University, where many local residents love to follow Thundering Herd athletics.
It’s located in a picturesque corner of the Appalachians, a great area to view fall colors.
It also has earned the unwelcomed distinction of being dubbed the fattest city in the United States.
A recent Centers for Disease Control survey identified that nearly half Huntington’s residents were obese amid other health problems such as tooth decay and diabetes.
The largest church in the city took the distinction seriously, and the net result in a short period of time has been a slim-down smack-down.
“Here we are, the biggest church in the state, but we don’t want to be the biggest church in the state,” John Rowsey said in wordplay about the weight issue at Christ Temple Church.
Rowsey is the choir director at Christ Temple, which boasts a non-denominational congregation of about 2,000 members. Rowsey leads an 80-member worship team which includes voices, brass and percussion.
“We have a pretty good time together,” Rowsey jovially remarked.
The weight issue was not a laughing matter.
“We decided to start (losing weight) as a choir and now it is a challenge that has included the entire congregation,” Rowsey said.
Dressed in their robes, the choir went to a local truck stop to collectively weigh in, in January. In addition to creating an active competition between the choir and another group of regular church members, the effort gained national attention on ABC News’ “Nightline.” The news magazine featured Christ Temple in a comparison between Huntington and the so-called fittest city in the U.S., Burlington, Vt.
The intra-church battle between the choir and the congregation is styled after NBC’s popular “Biggest Loser” reality show. The results among the 200 total participants after just six weeks have literally been a ton of fun.
“So far we have collectively lost right at about 2,000 pounds,” Rowsey said. “At first I was hesitant to even bring it up the idea. I was afraid we could have some kind of horrific reaction, but everybody enthusiastically jumped on board.”
Rowsey said many other members who aren’t part of the official competition have taken it upon themselves to work on weight loss as well.
The church was better-positioned to undergo such a program because of some of the attitudes already on display. Pastor Chuck Lawrence and his wife, who is a vegetarian, promoted healthy living within the church before the survey came out. The church already had a juice bar and was starting on a building project that is to include fitness equipment and exercise programs.
“We were probably a little bit on the cutting edge with some of the stuff we were promoting, but there wasn’t always a lot of buy-in,” Lawrence explained. “With the results of the survey, there has been a little more credence to some of the things we’ve talked about.”
Lawrence said the community’s collective weight problem is boosted by what he termed “blind erosion,” where people are so accustomed to seeing weight issues in their lives and those around them that it becomes worse and goes largely unnoticed.
He added that he will occasionally get feedback that someone’s grandparents ate the same high-fat, high-cholesterol foods yet lived to an advanced age. That is where an important distinction needs to be made.
“We lead a much more sedentary lifestyle than what our grandparents and earlier generations did,” Lawrence explained. “We’ve become a much more service-oriented country. There’s really nothing wrong with that and if your work activity is relegated to a desk and a computer, that’s fine, but you’ve got to make up for it somewhere else.
“Grandpa was out in the fields all day or doing manual labor putting a great expense of energy into his work. Now, there is no way we burn up calories like that in most of our daily lives.”
The congregation is urged to do simple tasks to expend more energy such as walking or riding a bike instead of driving when possible, using stairs over elevators and purposely finding distant parking spots while shopping to increase mobility.
“God built us to expend energy and gain energy from food the same when He made us to expand our brain cells by gaining knowledge and using those brain cells.”
From a spiritual standpoint, both Rowsey and Lawrence see the weight loss as a great illustration of where the rubber meets the road.
“I know for myself that I have to be healthy to be the person that God intended me to be,” Rowsey said.
Lawrence echoed that, saying that he preaches fitness as a way to have the energy and drive to fulfill God’s purposes for life. He admitted gluttony is often a taboo sin to bring up in discussions compared to others.
“I think of those lap band surgeries people have sometimes to help them with their weight,” Lawrence explained. “What they do is restrict your intake. I think the church has a role to play there in teaching discipline. It’s about having a God-consciousness and teaching that lap band mentality of restraint.”
Gluttony also gets a short shrift many times because it is considered to be scripturally more insignificant than behaviors that more directly point toward eternity. He cited 1 Timothy 4:8 which says “physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”
“The original Greek translation of that passage talks about physical well-being as being a profit in this life,” Lawrence explained. “It doesn’t mean that it’s not important, although that is how it sometimes can be interpreted. I can’t stress enough the importance of being healthy in this life to fulfill God’s purpose for our lives. It really matters.”
Lawrence also used his own travels in the Holy Land to further illustrate his point.
“It’s obvious Jesus was very physically fit,” Lawrence said. “If you go to Israel and visit the Sea of Galilee and travel through the Kidron Valley, that’s considered a pretty long bus trip and he travelled this area all on foot. It’s really quite amazing.”
The initial stage of the church’s challenge will end Apr. 5, but that’s because Lawrence and Rowsey don’t want it to get stale. It will re-ignite in different forms as time passes to help the congregation continue toward its long-term goals.
“In our society, we are built with a sprint-like mentality, not a marathon mentality,” Lawrence said. “We will do this is a series of short sprints and hope to keep people excited. I hope people will come back and take a look at us six or nine months down the road and see where we are at.”
Christ Temple Church: http://www.christtemplechurch.net/challenge.html