It’s just before 9 a.m. when Australian DJ tyDi’s electronic beats start pumping into a large room on the second floor of the New Orleans Morial Convention Center. Eighteen people are gathered here on a drizzly Wednesday the week before Thanksgiving to hear a host of speakers preach on the subject of worship and working out.
The next eight hours at the first ever Faith and Fitness Conference will be filled with enough testimony to make secular folks and non-Christians blush, but the day’s underlying message will ring true whether you believe in Jesus or not: developing and maintaining healthy habits is nearly impossible to do alone.
Brad Bloom is the man who brought us together. Energetic and thin with short brown hair and the friendly, jovial timbre of Larry the Cable Guy, Bloom is the publisher of Faith&Fitness, a magazine that helps “readers make connections between the Christian faith and their fitness lifestyle.” He’s also an electronic dance music fan.
When the clock strikes nine and his keynote speaker is still stuck in traffic, Bloom takes the mic from tyDi and asks members of the audience to introduce themselves and say a bit about why they’ve come. Most hail from the South: Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia. Some work for church-based fitness ministries they’d like to improve. A few hope to better incorporate their faith into their local gyms. Several are wearing shirts referencing bible versus or Jesus, including the woman next to me who teaches K-8 PE at a local Lutheran school. “How do you show God appreciation for your bodies?” she says she always asks the kids. “Through exercise!”
One man named Dan is a trainer at a tony Fort Worth, Texas, country club. He wants to learn how other people minister to their clients. “I don’t associate myself with the church professionally,” he says. “But I’m a minister every day; it just floors me what people are willing to share in one-on-one sessions.”
“Amen!” say the women who just sat down in the front row. By the time Dan’s done introducing himself, keynote speaker Pastor Debra B. Morton of New Orleans’ Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church arrives with an entourage.
Pastor D, a local celebrity looking trés on fleek in a grey dress, black pumps, and big gold hoops, ascends the stage and tells a story about how her 65-year-old husband runs an hour a day. Because he exercises, his cancer surgery (type unspecified) went much better than it would have otherwise, and now he’s seven years cancer-free. “God just kept saying to us how important health and fitness was,” she says. “I felt a commitment to the African American community—our church is 90 percent African American—and I just saw people who couldn’t walk to the altar for prayer.”
With southern states consistently ranking as both the most religious and obese in the U.S., it imperative, everyone here knows, that churches make the effort to minister to mind, soul, and body. To use fellowship to effect change in their communities. But it’s not easy, a wellness coach in the audience tells me.
“Food is so ingrained in the culture here,” Nettye Johnson says. People feel if you take away their oft-fried local fare, you’re taking away who they are. Even more: people in southern churches often “equate activity with vanity,” she says. They’re desperately in need of a tectonic cultural shift.
Pastor D’s church is trying to help its people physically. Her health and fitness ministry launched its own version of "The Biggest Loser" a few years in a row by putting on walks for causes rather than celebrations centered around food. It also planted a small church veggie garden with tomatoes and collard greens and started a Saturday morning walking group at the beginning of the year. But, she admits, that’s since petered out.
She ends her address in a prayer: “God, we believe it and you said it: we are the light of the world. Help us to be the light, even in the area of health and wellness.”
Throughout the day, six other speakers will mount the stage, flanked by a projector screen and two banners, one of which features photos of a muscley black woman holding a bible and a smiling, jacked-up Hispanic dude lifting a weight plate.
Around noon, they’ll break to do a quick group workout to Christian dance music, mostly to appease a local TV crew. “I’m gonna say something like, ‘You’re here because you believe in the body,’ and you say something like, ‘Yeah, we have faith!’” the host instructs.
As the afternoon AC in the conference room cranks up and the audience starts to chill, a message will emerge from the testimonies that pepper talks with more practically advertised agendas like “How to build a ministry team,” and the final half-hour presentation that ends close to 5 p.m., “How to market fitness ministry.” This message is separate but related to the idea that the church must help its community stay fit.
Sports psychologists in the secular world call it internal motivation: that drive that keeps a person eating well, training consistently, and staying fit forever rather than endlessly yo-yoing. The people here call it having a relationship with God. That, they believe, is where internal motivation comes from.
This shouldn’t really be surprising, even to those who have not, in the words of one presenter, come to Jesus. A litany of pro athletes thank God in post-match interviews. But the message here is that God truly wants everyone to be fit, not just athletes clearly blessed with physical abilities.
Much like step number three in the traditional twelve steps to breaking bad habits, Michelle Spadafora, creator of an exercise video empire called Faithful Workouts, says the first step to everlasting fitness is to surrender to God. “Let God change the way you think, then you’ll know what to do,” she says during a talk titled “Why faith should be part of your fitness platform.”
“How many hours a week do you spend with your clients? One maybe?” she asks. “Once they become believers, how many hours is God with them? 24. God is a 24/7 personal trainer.”