A progressive Southern preacher who won approbation for banning fried chicken at congregation events has now found a new mission: spreading the gospel of healthcare for all.

Michael Minor first hit the countercultural zeitgeist in 1996, when he began tending to the physical health of his flock, assuming a pastorship at Oak Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Hernando, Miss. There, he found that obesity ran rampant.

Whereas many Americans could stand to lose a few pounds, one in two African Americans is clinically obese, according to figures released this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in Mississippi, the prevalence of obesity is worse. With an overall obesity rate of 36.7, the second-highest in the nation after Louisiana, the state consistently ranks among the highest for obesity related illnesses such as diabetes and coronary artery disease.

"It was so bad, I was having a funeral every weekend," he told Reuters.

Thus, Minor banned fried chicken at potlucks and other social gatherings, and set up a walking track around the church perimeter. Nearly a generation later, he says he’s seen a noticeable success, with a slimmer congregation. "You can see the difference. People are much better sized, way better. And once they get it off, they want to keep it off," he said.

Since then, Minor’s visited the White House several times as a proponent of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” anti-obesity campaign, a personal connection that might explain how an obscure pastor, with only a hundred sheep or so, is now helping to lead Obamacare advocacy efforts in Mississippi.

As the recipient of a federal “navigator” grant, Minor is now campaigning to convince many of the state’s 275,000 uninsured residents to enroll in healthcare plans to be offered online, whenever the federal government manages to repair its hobbling healthcare.gov website. As technology problems continue to beset the federal government’s online healthcare insurance exchange, Minor’s work to promote the exchange may prove critical to the success of Obamacare.

Although the state is home to some of the poorest and least healthy Americans, Mississippi rejected federal funds to expand the state Medicaid program, one of the two major provisions of the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Making Obamacare even more unpopular, the state’s application to operate its own healthcare insurance exchange was rejected by Washington. As the federal healthcare site continues to malfunction, online exchanges operated independently by 14 states are now operational.

Roy Mitchell, executive director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, describes the Obamacare mission there as difficult. "That man is essentially heading up outreach enrollment of the ACA for Mississippi. It's staggering," he told Reuters.

Mississippi's Uninsured Residents Targeted By Obamacare Proponents
A "radical" black Southern preacher has found a new mission in convincing many of Mississippi's poor uninsured residents to visit healthcare.gov--when it finally begins working--to enroll in healthcare offered at competitive or subsidized rates. Countyhealthrankings.org

Minor’s health advocacy operation predates the Obamacare initiative by years, with the proverbial boots already on the ground. Immediately following the success of his health initiative at Oak Hill, Minor dispatched teams of “health ambassadors” along with medical practitioners to rural areas of the Mississippi delta, the very poorest part of the country.

During those years, Minor also began organizing ushers in Northwest Mississippi as regional health advocates, an effort which has since expanded via the National Baptist Convention, the largest black Christian denomination in the country.

Minor says his latest mission with Obamacare “fits the niche” as he and his collaborators continue working the parishes. "The way we see it is, we're already doing a decent job with the spiritual aspect of it. The [Affordable Care Act] affords us the opportunity to rescue the body and the mind."