Finding Faith and Losing Weight

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KENT – Poster-sized pictures of Jeanne Ary and Miriam Oakes are perched on the long table, in clear view for the inspiration of overweight women: Ary weighed 200 pounds at the time of the photos, Oakes 293. They tell others at their church that they, too, can be as thin as they are now.

The secret? Rely on God.

Center of Faith Church of God in Christ was hosting its regular Monday night “Pounds Down for Jesus” support group, one of several spiritual weight-loss programs that have flooded the country the past decade. These Christian nutrition programs replace fat-gram counts and portion control with a stronger relationship with God.

Based on the premise that overweight people eat to fill a spiritual void, these programs urge participants to love God more than food.

“If he did it for me, he can do it for anyone,” said Ary, who stands 5 feet 2 inches tall and now weighs about 139 pounds. “This is not just another weight-loss group; it’s getting your health and well-being in order the way God intended us to. We clean our house, we clean our books, but we never take the time to clean our house – our bodies.”

Nine women sit in the ivory-colored, square “missionary” room, talking about God, their weight, the virtues of Gardenburgers and how to make a good salad. Well-worn Bibles lie on their laps while their children play upstairs.

The diet is based on the philosophy that overeating and eating unhealthily are gluttony, a sin. Ary says the second sin is ignoring Genesis 2:16, which says, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat.”

Women begin the program by following a 50-page booklet and “Master Cleanser,” or lemonade, diet.

It consists of six to 12 glasses of lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper and warm water a day. After breaking the fast, they are supposed to eat only a vegetarian diet. Not all participants completely cut out meat.

They come every week to hear 50-year-old Ary, who is dedicated to helping other women at Center of Faith, a Pentecostal church whose 300 members are predominantly African American, lose weight.

Oakes says such diets are particularly important for African-American women because of fattening foods in many of their traditional diets and a greater propensity for heart disease. Oakes, who now weighs 133 pounds, said her diabetes disappeared after about a year on the program.

“I prayed to God, saying, `God, food is my sin, and I need your help.’ I just knew God was going to take care of the problem for me,” Ary tells the gathering.

Brenda Whitlow, a 38-year-old child-care provider, tells the group she sweats to a Tae-bo kickboxing video every morning at 5 a.m. She did the 10-day Master Cleanser fast in May and lost 16 pounds.

“I eat fruits, vegetables, very little cooked food, something healthy in the evening, like salad, rice or baked potatoes,” Whitlow said. “And very little meat, if any. And I’m not missing it.”

“Glory to God,” Ary responds, while the room fills with applause.

Whitlow continues, “People ask what I’m doing, and I make it real plain: God. I don’t want to be a slave to food no more.”

Ary said she grew up heavy and was constantly teased. Before starting the program, she began taking phen-fen, the diet drug no longer on the market. About midway through her prescription, she decided to give up the pills and rely on Jesus Christ.

Ary’s typical pre-diet meals consisted of half a cup of grits with butter, two pieces of sausage, two fried eggs and two biscuits dripping with butter and jelly for breakfast; a doughnut as a mid-morning snack; cheeseburger and fries for lunch; and three candy bars as a mid-afternoon snack. Dinner was often mustard greens with ham hocks, fried corn bread, a cup of beans and rice, a cup of macaroni and cheese, a serving of canned yams and homemade peach cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream.

Now she has cut out meat completely. Instead, she eats tofu, fruits, vegetables and soy-everything. She drinks plenty of water and does the Master Cleanser fast three days a month.

There are no men at the meeting. Ary and Oakes say they hope to start a men’s group soon.

The church’s pastor, Wilbur Vincent, has also struggled with eating problems. After Ary walked into his office and handed him the diet in May, he went out and lost 28 pounds. Now he tells his congregation about it.

“God wants us to be healthy,” Vincent said. “But he is not going to take the food out of our mouths, nor is he going to slap our hands.”

Vincent’s sermons spurred creation of the weight-loss group.

The materials and booklet cost $15. The weekly group meeting is free, though Ary solicits donations at the end.

Center of Faith is not the only church with a weight-loss program: The Weigh Down Workshop, Hallelujah diet, Free to Be Thin diet and others have stormed bookstores and churches throughout the Seattle area.

The Weigh Down Workshop, for example, has grown explosively the past few years, the number of classes having reached more than 30,000 worldwide from slightly more than 2,000 in early 1996, according to the Weigh Down Workshop. The company estimates there are about a half-million participants.

Women don’t leave the Kent group Monday evenings without reciting their motto: “I’m lean, slim, thin and trim and healthy, from the top of my head to the soles of my feet, and all there is in between. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

This article was originally published in The Seattle Times. Click here to read the original.

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