CONWAY – What do you get when you take a small church plant, add a reality TV personality, subtract 200 pounds and then toss in a little country music for flavor? You get an opportunity to share the gospel with 125 people who may not normally set foot in a church Sunday morning.
Crossing Over Southern Baptist Church, a congregation of about 40 halfway between Lebanon and Springfield on I-44, did just that: They took a chance and invited country music star and runner-up on last season’s NBC weight loss reality TV show, “The Biggest Loser,” Vinny Hickerson.
“Big Vinny” is the son of a preacher in small-town Tennessee – a town, he said, not unlike Conway – but he didn’t grow up in church. He bounced between his father and his mother and her abusive husband, then moved out on his own at 16. Hickerson accepted Jesus while he was a teenager, but he still led a hard life. He was always a heavyset kid, and managing the local Sonic Drive-in didn’t help his waistline. By the time he left for Nashville to try to make in country music, he tipped the scales somewhere north of 400 pounds.
“I was on a war path to self-destruction,” he said. “There were a lot of mountains in my life, but the Bible says that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. He [God] may just give you a shovel and pick axe and say, ‘Get to work.’ Just because you were born in a small town, didn’t have the best childhood or face struggles, don’t let the devil keep that doubt in your heart.”
For years, even though he was a Christian, Hickerson doubted his worth to God and others.
“But if I was worth God sending His son to die for me, then I had to be of some worth,” he said. “Even though I didn’t live like it, I was worth taking care of myself.”
Facing Type 2 diabetes, his doctor – and his girlfriend, Lori – convinced him he had to lose weight or he would die, and die soon. He was soon accepted as a contestant on “The Biggest Loser.” Though he was only the runner-up, the change TV brought to Hickerson’s life is dramatic. He went from 426 pounds to his current 210, his waist shrunk from a size 56 to a 34, and he proposed to his girlfriend on the air. However, one of the show’s producers – a Christian – spurred another change in his life and to overcome the mountain that was standing in the way of his growth as a Christian. He confronted Hickerson with the lingering anger and animosity toward those in his childhood.
“I’d never faced the fact that I’d never forgiven them,” Hickerson said.
The head doctor on the show, who was also a Christian, told him the same thing: he may lose weight, but without that forgiveness he would likely return to his old ways.
“I asked him why I should forgive the people who had done everything they could to make me suffer,’ and he came back with another question: ‘Why should Jesus forgive you?’ It was hard for me to face, but if Jesus forgives each and every time I sin against him, I had to forgive them. I had to turn away from my old habits if I wanted to live a healthy life, and I had to turn away from my anger if I wanted to be the man God wants me to be.”
For the event, Crossing Over members set up a tent on loan from the Missouri Baptist Convention, spread out rows of hay bales for seating, hosted a drawing for door prizes and made themselves available to counsel with anyone who made a decision during the event.
In between tours with this group, Trailer Choir and solo performances, Hickerson has been doing more and more motivational speaking, focusing on smaller churches and doing it all without a speaking fee. He came to Conway after one of Crossing Over’s members asked him via Facebook.