A senior public health official appealed to the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Tuesday to share its expertise on healthy lifestyles with the rest of the world, saying at a conference that the health of the world’s population was going from bad to worse.
World church President Ted N.C. Wilson said the church would press ahead with plans to expand its comprehensive health ministry to every Adventist church, and he insisted on starting with the well-being of the 1,150 people in the audience, asking them to stand up and stretch.
Anselm Hennis, director of the department of non-communicable diseases and mental health at the Pan-American Health Organization, made his appeal at the opening of the second Global Conference on Health and Lifestyle in Geneva, Switzerland.
Hennis cited two internationally recognized Adventist studies that concluded that vegetarians have a lower risk of dying of non-communicative diseases.
“If you eat more vegetables, you will have a lower risk of dying prematurely,” he said.
Hennis, who works for the Americas branch of the World Health Organization, painted a grim picture of deteriorating global health, particularly among low- and medium-income groups, which he said are most prone to non-communicative diseases like heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, and diabetes.
“We are sitting on an evolving epidemic on all levels,” he said.
The theme of the conference is non-communicable diseases, which cannot be passed from person to person and are caused by poor diet, tobacco, alcohol, and a lack of exercise.
Government Regulations Not Enough
Hennis said Mexico passed the U.S. as the “fattest country in the world” last year. He added that it was no coincidence that Mexicans are the world’s biggest consumers of sugary beverages, drinking an average of 163 liters per person annually compared to U.S. citizens in second place at 118 liters.
But Mexico is taking the global lead in adopting laws meant to regulate better health, introducing an 8 percent tax on junk food and a 1 peso per liter tax on soft drinks in January 2014, he said. The 1 peso tax alone is expected to reduce soft drink consumption by 5 percent.
Hennis said, however, that government regulations were not enough. He applauded an agreement signed between his organization and the Seventh-day Adventist Church three years ago to combat non-communicative diseases and urged Adventists on Tuesday to share their knowledge in their communities.
“I am very impressed with the outreach, with the advocacy, with the mission, of your church,” he said. “I think we need to come to you to learn how we can do a better job at trying to change lives, making the healthy choice, the better choice.”
Wilson Encourages by Example
Wilson, the church president, said in a plenary speech that Adventists needed to not only share information about healthy living but also incorporate healthy choices in their own lives. As if to illustrate the point, he invited participants to stand and stretch their arms with him when he took the stage two hours into the conference.
“We are not a Pentecostal meeting, but we really need good health,” Wilson said to audience laughter.
Later in his remarks, Wilson offered a personal example of how he sought to find ways to exercise, saying that he and his wife, Nancy, had walked the 17 minutes from their hotel to the conference venue that morning.
“It was a great walk,” he said.
In a sign of the importance that Wilson has placed on the conference, he is staying in Geneva until its conclusion on Sabbath, July 12, when he will deliver a sermon.
Wilson urged attendees to step up efforts to implement “comprehensive health ministry,” a wholistic approach that blends information about health and Jesus to meet people’s physical and spiritual needs.
“Comprehensive health ministry is as important a part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as the right arm is to the body,” Wilson said.
A key goal of the conference is to lay the groundwork for the creation of community health centers in every Adventist church worldwide. Conference organizers are providing attendees, a mixture of church leaders and influential laypeople, with information meant to allow them to implement wellness programs back home.
Participants Impressed, Surprised
Audience members appeared to be relishing the opportunity to learn from leading health and church officials.
“This is a very good conference,” said Mikalai Patsukevich, a senior Adventist leader from Belarus.“It was good to hear Elder Wilson explain how we can share the gospel through a healthy lifestyle.”
Rodolfo Celestial, a private farmer from Malaybalay, Philippines, said he was impressed with speakers’ comments on the benefits of vegetarianism and looked forward to learning how to share them with children at his home church.
At least one participant was left stunned. “I was so surprised to see that Mexico and the United States are the fattest countries in the world,” said Noldy Sakul, president of the East Indonesia Union Conference.
In his speech, Wilson underscored that Adventists had an obligation to not only share information about health but also about Jesus.
“Don’t get wrapped up in thinking that you are going to go to heaven because you are a vegan,” he said.
Other conference highlights:
David Williams, an Adventist professor of public health and sociology at Harvard University, urged conference attendees not to worry about the seemingly overambitious goal of creating a community health center in every church, saying Adventists have a 120-year-old model that they can follow.
“What does a comprehensive health ministry look like?” he said in a plenary speech.
Williams pointed to a program set up by pioneering Adventist doctor John Harvey Kellogg in Chicago in 1893 that saw the city’s impoverished residents treated by doctors-in-training from an Adventist school in Berrien Springs, Michigan. The initiative also included a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen with low-cost meals, employment for those who could not afford the meals, and a halfway house for prostitutes.
Kellogg’s efforts won high praise from one of the leading public health officials of his day, Williams said.
Niels-Erik Andreasen, president of Andrews University, announced that the school was launching a healthy lifestyle initiate that includes a new health and wellness center and a full-time staffer to improve the health of students.
Andreasen said a search was under way to hire a “wellness champion.”
He said the health and wellness center would open in a few years at a prominent location at the front of the campus in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and offer fitness equipment and lecture halls.
The new program will be funded largely by the university’s endowment.
Conference organizer Peter Landless, head of the church’s Health Ministries, was clearly impressed with the presentation.
“This will be a model for all schools of all denominations,” he said.