January 17, 2007
Praise the Lard!
If you’re fat, you’re going to hell:
It is just after dusk on a Thursday night in March. Hun-
dreds of smiling parishioners stream into the Federal style building that houses the Remnant Fellowship church in Franklin, Tennessee, 20 miles south of Nashville. With a stage in lieu of an altar, TV cameras, projection screens and theater-
style chairs, the 650-seat sanctuary seems more like a television studio than a place of worship. The congregants, too, are camera-ready: Not a single participant appears to be over-
weight. That is not an accident. The overwhelming majority of members found their way to this church through Weigh Down, one of the most suc-
cessful Christian weight loss programs in the country.
Tonight, church members are taking part in a live webcast promoting the Weigh Down plan. Ten minutes before airtime, church leaders direct members to fill in the front rows and show joy and excitement once the cameras start to roll. The video begins with messages scrolling across the screen: “There is hope.” “There is an answer.” “You can lose weight permanently.” Next comes a taped introduction from Gwen Shamblin, the 50-ish founder of the diet and the church. “You have got to change, and you can change,” she says. “The way to change is down this narrow path and this truth.”
… I consider myself more spiritual than religious, taking the parts of Christianity I like and leaving the rest. So while Weigh Down’s overtly religious message wasn’t for me, its practical approach got results: In 2002, I started an eight-week class through a church near my home in North Carolina and lost 10 pounds in about a month. My hectic schedule caused me to drop out midway through, but I never forgot the basic principles. When Weigh Down began offering a new online class in 2005, I plunked down $125 for the eight-week Exodus Out of Egypt: The Change Series. The name symbolizes the deliverance of God’s chosen people from slavery (the bondage to food and dieting) to the promised land (being permanently thin).
This time, I noticed stark differences in the program. Weight loss advice was overshadowed by rhetoric implying that overeaters are courting eternal damnation. In class videos, Shamblin was self-righteous, her tone dictatorial. Gradually, I realized that Weigh Down had become a recruitment tool for the church Shamblin founded in 1999. My online class leader stressed the need to leave the “counterfeit” church and its false teachers. “You’ve been lied to all your life,” she posted during one session. I stopped short of replying that she didn’t know me and had no idea what I had been taught.
But Shamblin’s new message is resonating: Approximately 1,200 people have heeded her call to join Remnant Fellowship. Close to 650 of them have left their home and relocated to be nearer to Shamblin’s multimillion-dollar estate in Tennessee, some pulling their children out of schools and cutting ties with friends and family. These developments have prompted some religion experts to worry that Remnant has become more cult than church, a place where obedience is measured in the amount of food left on your plate and righteousness in the number of pounds lost.
“They are hierarchical, authoritarian and demand unquestioned submission,” says Raphael Martinez, a minister in Cleveland, Tennessee, who runs Spiritwatch Ministries, which tracks religious and social fringe groups. Members are not pressured to give up their money, nor are they armed or separatist in the manner of the most notorious sects. Nevertheless, Martinez says, “Remnant claims to be the only true church and exercises intrusive, damaging and manipulative control over its members.”
… The night after the webcast, more than 200 people gather at the church for its summer camp fund-raiser. Hebronica–the church garage band–plays Christian rock while parishioners perform the Daughters of Jerusalem dance, a combination of square dance and Soul Train line. The tune was written by Michael Shamblin; Elizabeth helped create the dance.
Trying to have a conversation about anything other than God and Gwen is virtually impossible. The Remnant script is composed of a few well-honed, insipid phrases. “How was your weekend?” I ask one member.
“I’ve never been so blessed in my life,” she responds.
… Not all of Shamblin’s associates have been happy with the church’s evolution. When she broke ties with mainstream churches in 1999, some Weigh Down employees say they were pressured to leave their churches and worship with her.
… Former member Teri Phillips says she, too, surrendered her will to Shamblin’s, until she began to fear for her health and her children’s well-being. She had joined Weigh Down in 1995 and participated off and on. In 2002, needing to lose 40 pounds, she enrolled in the Weigh Down Advanced class, driving 45 minutes each way from her home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In one fire-and-brimstone lesson after another, Shamblin preached that God would turn his back on her if she fell short. “That hit me hard,” she says. “In the old classes, I didn’t always wait for my stomach to growl and sometimes ate beyond full. I now feared that God was going to kill me if I overate.”
… Phillips also worried about the church’s ideas on punishing children. She says she was urged to spank her 4-year-old girl’s bare bottom for nearly an hour for acting out in church, and a church leader severely paddled her 10-year-old son. In July 2003, Phillips made the decision to leave for good. “I was convinced I was going to hell, but I didn’t have a choice if I was to take care of my family,” she says. The decision to leave was confirmed in her mind later that year when church members Joseph and Sonya Smith were arrested for allegedly beating their 8-year-old son to death. They pleaded not guilty and will be tried in February.
Shamblin calls claims of corporal punishment “totally exaggerated. We are pro-discipline for children, always in a loving manner.” But she was drawn into the Smith investigation when a former church member leaked a tape of a February 2003 conference call in which Sonya Smith discusses disciplining the boy by locking him in his room. “We got everything out of there and locked him in there from that Friday until Monday and only left him in his room with his Bible,” Smith says on the tape, according to press accounts.
“That’s a miracle Shamblin responds. “You’ve got a child that’s going from bizarre to in-control. So praise God!”
With apologies to Mike Leffel.
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