Supersize: Welcoming the Obese in Church
by Garry Duncan | 1 August 2019 |
We have never seen 75-year-old Kevin in our charity shop. He doesn’t get out much. But his friend, Harold, goes shopping for clothes for Kevin every week. He visits all the charity shops in the area, but usually doesn’t find anything for Kevin. You see, Kevin is a size 8X, and most shops don’t stock that size. 6X is the largest size that most menswear stores stock. Shopping for Kevin is more a case of good luck than a one-off shopping excursion.
Stuck at home with a lifelong medical condition that keeps him overweight, Kevin has lived a life of isolation and rejection. Not fitting into the usual stereotype of size and shape, he has endured derision, mocking and scorn in the eyes of others. Seldom does someone say something offensive, but seldom does anyone in public engage Kevin in conversation on his rare visits out of his home, either. Harold is one of the few friends that Kevin has.
Today, however, two of the shop volunteers have decided to help find clothes for Kevin. “We are always helping people who come into the shop. It’s time we did something for those who can’t come in here,” announces Pat, a long-time volunteer. “Yes,” chimes in Shirley. “We’ll phone around other charity shops outside our area to see what they have.” “And we will contact the menswear shops to see if they can do a special order for Kevin,” Pat adds.
Now Kevin has two ready to help meet the supersize clothing challenge. Knowing the determination of Pat and Shirley I know it’s a task they will take on with love, respect and a practical Christianity that doesn’t give up.
However, if Kevin were ever to venture into a health-conscious Adventist church, what reaction would he receive? What is the best response to someone “supersize” who walks in the door of our church?
Here’s what we should do, and what we shouldn’t.
Accept People as They Are
Smiling and being friendly to anyone who walks inside your church is a good policy to follow. For many who have seldom visited a church before, it has taken a lot of courage to enter the door. The first reaction they receive will often be a lasting one. Seeing beyond the physical appearance invites us to meet the person deep inside. It’s what’s inside that counts the most. Accepting people as they are evokes a spiritual lesson for all of us, for God accepts us just as we are.
Love the Person
True love is unconditional. Paul tells the Corinthians that “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV).
When we get to know someone as part of our life, we learn to love different aspects about them. Sharing is caring. Share the time you have, the life you live and the love you have in helping others, no matter their size or shape.
Just as there are shorter and taller people, there are fatter and thinner people. We are socialized to understand that in adulthood shorter people cannot become taller or taller people become shorter. We believe, however, that fatter people can become thinner, and thinner people can become fatter. An ideal weight has advantages in promoting better health outcomes. So we strive to maintain this whenever we can. Some seem to achieve this with ease while others struggle.
Yet in a health-conscious church the overzealous health advocates may not fully realize the struggle some have with weight gains and reductions. Welcoming the diversity of human sizes is more than a sensitivity issue: it’s an accepting and welcoming mindset.
Be Aware of Self-Consciousness
As people age, sedentary lifestyles and metabolism shifts can add pounds, and busy lives make it difficult to shift the weight gain. All too often the weightier church member feels self-conscious about this, especially when hearing health-related messages. Messages about healthfulness don’t encourage them but lower their self esteem when they are unable to achieve a desired weight loss.
And not all bodies respond the same. Eating a higher percentage of whole grains packed with complex carbohydrates and less refined food makes sense for most diets. Yet for some this results in weight gain even with additional exercise.
Refrain from Running Someone’s Life
“It works for me, so it should work for you” advice, while well-intended, can cause grief for someone it doesn’t work for! Telling some to follow strict health advice is akin to trying to run their lives. While there are advantages in lifestyle changes, it’s how these are achieved that is important. Slow and steady weight loss, gradual dietary improvements, and increased physical activity can more easily be adapted than a boot camp approach. Impressive sudden weight loss is seldom long lasting.
Refrain from trying to take complete control of someone’s life. It is their life, not yours.
Hold Back on the Health Tips
Life is more than a series of health tips and adjustments. It’s a holistic approach to life that matters most. Appreciating that balance is important, wise people understand that we vary in our our ability to change size, depending on body type, genetics, and medical conditions. Give encouraging words rather than blanket statements. People relate better to sensible suggestions rather than popular fads or radical adjustments.
Listen to the Experience of Others
Rather than offer health advice as an initial response, instead listen to the life experience of others. Simple clarifying questions may be less intrusive than unwelcome advice. Getting to know the life experiences of the supersize humanizes them. It helps to walk a mile in their shoes, to puff and pant as they do.
Walking together in a shared life journey allows us to stop and enjoy the company of another. Getting out in nature may be a more immediate enjoyable life-changing event than the hard slog of a sweaty workout gym session. Downsizing from supersize could become an achievable goal with a patient understanding friend there on the journey. The invitation to be part of that journey is where trust takes hold and friendship grows.
Find a Common Purpose
Whenever you can find a common purpose in life with someone else, you have a shared interest. Make time to explore what you have in common with others who enter your church doors. Supersize or not, inside is a person with a personality worth engaging. Find joy, find adventure, find a new friend. Share a common purpose and contribute to a better world.
Adopt a NEWSTART
Maybe you are a supersize person seeking a new start in a church full of health tips, advice and ideal-sized bodies. Perhaps you’re feeling encouraged to give it another try. You can start one step at a time with the acronym NEWSTART. You might find some benefit to focus on improving your nutrition, gradually increasing your exercise, taking in plenty of water, enjoying lots of sunlight, living a temperate life, breathing in clean air, and getting adequate rest as you trust in God. Those are the principles at the core of the health message to begin the journey of a NEWSTART.
You might be able to make improvements with the guidance of a helpful physician and supportive friends in a loving supportive church. If that is a journey you embark on, feel free to let them know what is the most helpful approach to take.
Garry Duncan is the manager of a large charity shop in Australia, meeting the needs of the elderly, the shut-in and the marginalized. As a church historian, he is interested in the intersection of faith and society where the vision of God’s Kingdom finds reality in transformed lives.