Kenova pastor says faith has opened several doors for church
KENOVA -- Pastor Steve Willis from First Baptist Church of Kenova has gained popularity recently, both locally and internationally, because of his and his church's appearance on "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution."
That unscripted TV series, depicting British chef Oliver's attempts to promote healthier eating habits in the Huntington area, included Willis in several episodes showing support for what Oliver was trying to accomplish.
But Willis isn't a guy who seeks out the spotlight. Rather, he said he lets God open doors, and he just walks through. That has led him to a number of pastoral positions, nearly all working with youth. And another opportunity allows him to lead tours in Israel every other year.
But he seems to be happiest around a congregation of people he calls family.
"God confirms almost every day this is where He wants me," Willis said. "The church is my family. Jesus Christ would have to show up and tell me to go pastor somewhere else."
To understand Willis, you have to know where he came from, his parents and the little West Virginia town near Charleston where he grew up. You have to know that Willis was born to a teenage mother and a father who was an alcoholic, drug addict and had spent time in jail. His family was trapped in poverty in a little railroad town.
Then, at 4 years old, he was diagnosed with a rare disease in his leg. Little did anyone know this would be the path that led to faith and a life following the Lord.
"When I was 4, I had a disease in my leg. The bones were deteriorating," Willis said of the rare condition. "It was stage 4. You're not supposed to get better from this."
It was 1974, and he said doctors could only tell him to stay off of it and to use braces and crutches. His parents, he said, weren't given much hope they would ever have a normal son. While all the neighborhood kids were out playing, Willis was confined to his room. But one of the boys invited him to vacation Bible school, where he heard the story of how Jesus healed a man who couldn't walk. Ecstatic, Willis told his parents the story that night and said Jesus was going to heal him, too.
"I asked the preacher to come over and talk to my dad," Willis said. "I told him he was a beer drinker."
When the preacher came, Willis' father sarcastically offered him a beer, then told what the doctors had said and to stop filling his son's head with the idea that he could be healed.
But Willis said it wasn't long before he woke up one morning and walked, without thinking, across the room to get his brace.
"I wasn't supposed to be able to walk. I ran into my parent's room, running and jumping," he said. "I kept saying that Jesus had healed me."
His dad took him to see a doctor, who compared the X-rays. The old showed no hip socket, while the new one showed a perfectly normal leg. Willis said he distinctly remembers the doctor saying he didn't know why. But his dad said he did.
"We came home, and he dumped all the beer and alcohol down the drain," Willis said. "Then he went to see that pastor and accepted Christ. From then on, we went to church every Sunday and Wednesday."
Willis led a typical childhood after that, playing high school sports and doing a lot of fishing on Kanawha River. After graduating from East Bank High School, he enrolled at West Virginia University, intending to become an optometrist.
On a day he distinctly remembers, he said he was working with the homeless through one of the local churches. He told the pastor he had to go or he'd be late for organic chemistry class.
"The pastor said, 'Do you like chemistry? Because when I see you going to class, you've got a frown on your face. When I see you doing ministry, you look happy,'" Willis recalled.
He went to class, but he said all he could think about was that he'd rather be working with the homeless. So Willis changed majors from pre-med to psychology.
At 20, he married Deanna. After he graduated, they moved to Texas so he could attend Dallas Theological Seminary.
"She worked in an inner-city Hispanic school," Willis said of his wife, with whom he'll share a 20th wedding anniversary later this year. "She put me through school. I made her a deal that if she put me through school, she'd never have to work outside the home again. She's still taking me up on that deal."
When he finished, the two moved back to West Virginia, where God led him to work with youth at a handful of churches. He also started having children of his own.
Before long, a friend in Kenova asked him to come lead the youth at his church, First Baptist Church of Kenova.
"The church was struggling," Willis said of the atmosphere 12 years ago.
The pastor, his longtime friend, was doing a good job of loving people who had been hurt. Meanwhile, the youth program was flourishing, netting 120 kids each Sunday night.
His friend left to plant a church, and Willis was asked to start preaching on a regular basis. But at 33, he turned down the offer to be senior pastor. He felt he was too young and still had a lot of passion for the youth ministry.
But he agreed to preach if he could add a copastor. Eventually, he changed the whole structure of the church. He's currently the lead pastor, but he's got five lay elders who are his copastors, a ministry staff of three and a church finance administrator.
Dan Bailey, who has attended First Baptist Church of Kenova for nearly 11 years, said the church has come a long way since he's attended. He said Willis is a Bible-preaching pastor who talks scripture and challenges the congregation to go out and live it.
Strong leadership also has led to the church's financial freedom, only moving forward with projects when they have cash on hand to pay for it.
"Too many times, things have happened along the way that He has orchestrated not to recognize His hand in this," Willis said. "I'm just blessed with the Lord's favor."
OCCUPATION: pastor, First Baptist Church of Kenova.
FAMILY: Wife, Deanna; three children, Titus, 14, Johnna, 12, and Lucas, 10.
RECENT ACCOMPLISHMENT: Wilis just finished his doctorate in education. He'll officialy graduate in a couple weeks from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
BLUE AND ... GREEN? Willis attended West Virginia University, but he has become a Marshall football fan. But when the two meet, he's rooting for his alma mater.
WHY HE LOVES THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE UP THE FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH OF KENOVA: "Every pastor needs people around him that love him enough to tell him they believe he is making an unwise decision, but also love him enough not to let people attack him."
WHAT'S NEXT? Thanks to exposure on "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," the church is going full force with its passion to help kids become healthier. Corporations are asking how they can help, and thanks to Oliver's fundraising efforts, the church has a brand new kitchen and basketball court where the church plans to serve healthy community meals each month.