The East Ridge Seventh-day Adventist Church is located in the bottom right corner of Tennessee outside a range of hills east of Chattanooga just a football field’s length north of the Georgia border. About one evening a month, this 200-member church hosts 120–140 locals to a health program called Dinner with the Doctor (DWTD). These evenings are a flurry of activity. Church members help to decorate and set up the fellowship hall with chairs and tables for the guests arriving soon. The kitchen is abuzz—entrees must be warmed, salads mixed and dressed, serving utensils assigned to their dishes. Before the official start at 6:00 o’clock, greeters station themselves at the front doors to welcome attendees and walk them to the dining area. “Minglers” have sharpened their conversation skills and stand eager to chat with the veteran attendees and make new friends with the firsttimers. Others register attendees as they arrive and take their blood pressure. Meanwhile, head elder Michael C. Hollie ’85 connects his computer to the projector and makes sure his presentation is ready. These evenings, he is the doctor portion of Dinner with the Doctor.
Let’s take a step back. “Our Savior,” Dr. Hollie says, “met the spiritual, social, physical, and mental needs of hurting people. And Jesus’ model is clear: find the need and meet it. The church is the body of Christ meeting people’s needs in Jesus’ name, with the ultimate goal of introducing them to the One who meets our deepest needs.” This is how Dr. Hollie summarizes the underlying impetus for Dinner with the Doctor.
The instructional program is an effort to address the need for improved dietary practices among those affected by issues including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and Alzheimer’s by guiding them toward a lifestyle of healthful eating. It prescribes a whole-food, plant-based diet to help treat, prevent, and reverse such diseases—particularly prevalent in the South—offering scientifically sound and practical instruction during the evening programs on how to purchase, plan, and prepare nutritionally rich foods.
Dr. Hollie, a specialist in asthma immunology and allergy, began to think seriously about nutrition and disease several years ago after reading “The China Study,” by father-son health duo T. Colin Campbell, PhD, and Thomas Campbell, MD. Further study on the topic of healthful nutrition led Dr. Hollie to the idea of a health seminar for his community. In 2012, he brought his idea up during a conversation with East Ridge’s health ministries leader, Phyllis Smith. “I’ve been thinking the same thing,” Phyllis said. The two developed a four-part series covering four core topics: heart disease, obesity and dieting, diabetes, and cancer. Dr. Hollie prepared and presented the lectures, while Phyllis organized the monthly events and took care of the details. The community responded by asking for more presentations. Dr. Hollie and Phyllis realized that for greatest impact such a health seminar needed to be an expanded and recurring one that could help establish long-lasting relationships with community members and become a regular outreach program of the church.
“This is God’s ministry; it’s God’s work,” Dr. Hollie says, six years later. “Our plan was not His plan. Our plan was to do four programs and be done. Now I see the bigger picture. If you do that your impact is very little. You put a Band-Aid on something, but you’re not there for those people in an ongoing way.”
Evolving from that original series, Dinner with the Doctor has become an annual, year-long program held the first Monday of nine months out of the year (there is a break during June, July, and December). In January, the yearly cycle starts with the showing of a documentary, either “Forks Over Knives” or, more recently, “Eating You Alive.” It then alternates monthly between two types of presentation formats. One is a full dinner accompanied by notes from the cooks and a one-hour lecture from Dr. Hollie, who discusses the research and benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet with regard to the core topic being addressed that evening.
The second format is called “demos and dishes,” in which participants divide into smaller groups and rotate through 4–5 cooking demonstrations, receiving supplemental information about the dish’s nutrition, where to buy the food, and how to do it all affordably. Dr. Hollie precedes the rotations with a brief “health nugget” relating to the foods to be sampled that evening. Attendance is a little higher for the full-dinner evenings, and a $5 charge introduced in the past year to help defray the cost has not affected attendance.
Every DWTD begins with a welcome and prayer. The meal or dish samples are prepared and served by church members and veteran attendees. Brief announcements about church events are made, and attendees have the chance to ask the cooks questions. New attendees receive a booklet of information with recipes, nutritional information for the meal, and notes from the lecture, to which they can add at subsequent meetings. There is also a drawing for giveaways like cookbooks or DVDs. Arguably the most impactful aspect of the evening is the testimony. Dr. Hollie conducts a brief interview with a regular DWTD attendee who shares the experience, challenges, and rewards of implementing the suggested changes to their lifestyle.
Transforming a lifestyle is difficult, but it is what DWTD is all about: helping people make practical improvements to their diet for maximum benefit to their health and well-being. How many people stick to these changes? Dr. Hollie says it’s difficult to know exactly “because people come, people go.” Some attend only one program or decide a whole-food, plant-based diet is more of a commitment than they can make. Others are wary about making changes but eventually do. One man in particular stands out to Dr. Hollie. A Type 1 diabetic, the man says he had to attend three sessions before wanting to make any changes. Dr. Hollie says the man has since implemented a number of changes to his lifestyle and lost more than 60 pounds. His insulin requirement has gone down from 100-plus units to 20 units.
Some have attended DWTD for multiple years. Dr. Hollie describes one inspiring couple who has attended quite regularly since the very beginning—in fact, their story is used in the DWTD promotional video. When they began attending, the husband, in his mid-50s, was obese, with heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. He’d had a stroke; he couldn’t work; his mind and speech were slow. He and his wife persisted in attending and making changes in their diet. Over time, the husband’s life turned around. He is now back to work, off his medications, and no longer has diabetes. The couple have brought their kids to the dinners and even attended evangelistic seminars at the church. They’ve developed friendships with the church members and DWTD attendees, shared their testimony, and helped with demos.
Besides physically, DWTD can benefit socially and spiritually. “We create a lot of friendships,” Dr. Hollie says. “That’s important when you’re going to share spiritual things. That’s what we’ve been able to do with Dinner with the Doctor, is create a trust and acceptance and break down some of those barriers that are often there.” Dinner with the Doctor is a health seminar first, but a ministry at its heart.
The DWTD team is “intentional about protecting the purpose of the program as one that promotes health, while always making participants aware of spiritual programs and events conducted by the church.” Dr. Hollie says, “People will hear the word ‘Adventist’ and sometimes that throws up a wall. We’ve been able to break that down by showing them we’re there to help them with their health. The spiritual component is worked in as well.” Dr. Hollie incorporates bits of scripture—for example, his presentations end with a slide of Genesis 1:29—and quotes from Ellen White’s Spirit of Prophecy literature. He also offers his own testimony, saying “I find some of these changes can be difficult. I ask for God’s power and strength in making them.” He prays for those who have come. He doesn’t “beat people over the head” with the spiritual component, but it’s clear that it is there, and he says people do not seem offended.
To Dr. Hollie, establishing true friendships based on trust is important. Attendees are welcome to—and often do—make inquiries beyond health and take advantage of other church offerings. Some have heard the call of the Healer behind the health principles and eventually have been baptized. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Hollie says the church members who volunteer their time and energy are blessed and inspired as well.
What Dr. Hollie and Phyllis Smith began at their church has spread to a number of area churches. The nearby Dunlap and Cleveland SDA churches have run a similar program. The Collegedale SDA Church on the campus of Southern Adventist University has run a DWTD program since 2013. Jane Yoon Clark ’05 was health ministries leader at the Dalton SDA Church in north Georgia back in 2014. Seeing the success of Dr. Hollie’s DWTD program at East Ridge, she began a similar, quarterly program at Dalton. “We regularly had 60 to 100 people attending at each event—most were not church members,” she says. (In 2016, Dr. Clark had a baby and became co-leader of health ministries. The DWTD program is no longer organized at Dalton, but the church continues to reach the community through programs such as Grundy Reversing Diabetes Seminars offered 1–3 times per year.)
Eric C. ’06 and Rachel A. Nelson ’06 also borrowed Dr. Hollie’s DWTD model and at the end of 2015 began organizing a successful iteration of the program at the South Bay SDA Church, a nearby church plant of the East Ridge Church. Eric says the program is going well and sees about 100 attendees from the community each month as well as “demonstrable changes in health, weight loss, and lowered blood pressure.” He says the personal reward for his involvement has been “enjoying seeing transformed lives and the different cultures uniting around healthy food and fellowship.” Over the next few years, the Nelsons see the South Bay program continuing to attract and instruct community members and then help direct them to more intensive lifestyle change programs focused on specific issues like diabetes, depression and anxiety, and smoking.
A bit of searching on the web also reveals what seems to be varieties of the program being replicated in churches in California and Washington. With health and wellness being a key facet of the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, it is not surprising that such a straightforward, community-focused ministry would find success in diverse locations.
Dr. Hollie envisions the DWTD program becoming part of his “church’s DNA,” a concept he borrows from SDA evangelist Mark Finley speaking about Adventists conducting health programming but not incorporating it into their church’s “DNA.” The aim of Dr. Hollie and the East Ridge team is to gradually standardize and make available DWTD materials for other churches to use. They expect to complete a website, www.dinnerwiththedoctor.com, in coming weeks and recently had funding approved by the church for production of lecture and cooking demonstration videos. The team envisions these resources enabling smaller churches that may not have an available physician or nutrition expert to still hold Dinner with the Doctor events with credible, quality material to present.
“Dinner with the Doctor could become a tool,” says Dr. Hollie, “that churches use in an ongoing fashion year after year to bring people in from the community because it acts as a bridge from the physical into the spiritual and mental and emotional. I see it as a tool for health ministry.”
By Chris Clouzet, managing editor
Source: Alumni Journal, Alumni Association, School of Medicine of Loma Linda University, May-August 2018, Volume 89, Number 2, CA, USA
Michael C. Hollie ’85 presents at a Dinner with the Doctor program at the East Ridge Seventh-day Adventist Church in Tennessee. The program promotes a whole-food, plant-based diet to treat, prevent, and reverse disease. (Photos contributed by Dr. Hollie.)
Phyllis Smith (standing, in red), health ministries leader at the East Ridge SDA Church, speaks to participants about the benefits of artichokes during a “dishes and demos” session of Dinner with the Doctor.
As part of the Dinner with the Doctor program, on alternate months attendees enjoy a complete, whole-food, plant-based meal prepared and served by church members and other volunteers.
The audience enjoys a Dinner with the Doctor presentation at the East Ridge SDA Church.