Photo of Rev. Michael O. Minor

Rev. Michael O. Minor

When Rev. Michael O. Minor moved back home to the Mississippi Delta, after 10 years in Boston, he noticed something alarming.

People were dying.

“I was doing a funeral almost every week,” says Rev. Minor, who became pastor of Oak Hill Baptist Church in Hernando, Miss., in 1996, a few years after graduating with an economics degree from Harvard University. “A lot of people were dying from choices, health-wise, that could have been preventable.”

More than 40 percent of non-Hispanic blacks have high blood pressure, also known as HBP or hypertension. HBP is the No. 1 risk factor for stroke. African-Americans also are disproportionately affected by obesity and diabetes, which also increases the chances of a stroke. Among non-Hispanic blacks age 20 and older, 63 percent of men and 77 percent of women are overweight. About 15 percent of all African-Americans age 20 and older have diabetes.

Faced with this grim reality, Rev. Minor made some changes unheard of in the salted, sugared and fried church-supper circles of the South, where food is comfort and there’s always plenty to go around. Today, he’s become well-known as the Southern Baptist preacher who banned fried chicken and sugary drinks from church, the pastor who created a walking track around the church parking lot.

In fact, he’s been preaching the gospel of healthy living for two decades, with word spreading throughout northern Mississippi and beyond.

Churches began to copy and replicate what their neighbors were doing, with a little push from Rev. Minor. Fruit and sugar-free snacks and pies have begun to replace butter- and cream-laden cakes and puddings. Fresh greens and raw vegetables are usurping the place of mayonnaise-rich potato salads, greens with fatback, and cheese-and-sour cream casseroles. Signs declaring a “No Fry Zone” and “Taste Test Sundays” – where congregants bring a spread of healthy foods, such as baked chicken and cakes and cobblers made with sugar-free Splenda, to show healthier food can be just as pleasing – have helped spread the word throughout and beyond the small town an hour from Memphis.

Sure, early on there was some pushback, Rev. Minor says. “It always happens, but the good thing is the meals are free. People are always going to eat it because it’s free,” he says. “Then, when you get the taste, that’s when you win people over. The main problem with doing healthy stuff is taste. The food has to taste good.”

So, his small congregation also has had some informal cooking lessons that encourage members to learn from one another.

Photo of Rev. Michael O. Minor

Rev. Michael O. Minor

Rev. Minor also is leading an innovative campaign called Health Outreach and Prevention Education, or HOPE, for The National Baptist Convention USA, which hopes to put a trained health “ambassador” in each of its churches. The convention, the nation’s largest African-American religious group, claims 7.5 million members and more than 10,000 churches.

“It’s basic, simple stuff,” Rev. Minor says. “It’s body, mind and spirit. Until, you have all three working in sync, you are not truly healthy.”

In the last couple of years, the preacher, who got his master’s in business administration and a doctorate in education from the University of Memphis, says he is working on capturing data on how much change is happening in the Delta churches and beyond, hoping to capture a “multiplying effect.”

He continues to work with various federal agencies, such as the Depart of Health and Human Services’ Million Hearts campaign, in support of faith-based outreach and sustainable lifestyle changes. But Rev. Minor doesn’t just leave his work at the pulpit or his outreach work. His mission for healthy living, especially among African-Americans, is a family affair. He and his wife, Lottie, have three daughters, all in their 20s,  and a granddaughter.

“I’m always on them,” the 48-year-old says. “They try to do the best they can. One of the things they fall prey to is taking the time to eat the right food. You have to take time to think about it. It’s difficult when you work real hard, and I can be just as guilty as them. … But I have got to be the right example for all these people. I have to practice what I preach.”

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