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Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014

One preacher's journey to burn fat and build faith

By Lois M. Collins, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Fri, Aug. 22 9:00 a.m. MDT

 Ron Williams, a nondenominational Christian pastor, leads an exercise group of Utah National Guard members at their headquarters in Draper on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014.

Ron Williams, a nondenominational Christian pastor, leads an exercise group of Utah National Guard members at their headquarters in Draper on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014.

(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Ron Williams is talking about fat: How it sometimes seems impossible to defeat, clinging stubbornly to bodies despite exercise and calorie control and even prayer.

The latter is an important point, because Williams is not just a fitness instructor and body builder with international titles. He’s also a man of God, pastor of a nondenominational Christian church who taught himself to read by studying the Bible after he wearied of his way of life and found God in his late 20s.

Recently, standing before the congregation of the Community of Grace Presbyterian Church in Sandy, Utah, as a guest speaker, his well-defined musculature hidden beneath layers of a three-piece suit, he explained the “soul wounds” that send people to food for comfort, as well as the preservatives and other chemicals in foods that make the battle to stay trim a hard one.

He has written a book about lasting weight management called “Faith and Fat Loss” and has been teaching its principles, based on such scriptural truths as self-control, restoration and healing. Ever since Adam ate the apple, he said people have had a complicated relationship with food.

“It’s not entirely your fault,” said Williams, speaking to those who are overweight. “But it is your responsibility.”

That is a statement that could apply to most aspects of his own life. Taking responsibility for change is how Williams has become the man he is today. He has chosen transformation and renewal, moving past early hurts and embracing health in his physical habits and in his relationships — with people and with God.

Rough childhood

Abandonment was the first of Williams' “soul wounds,” which he describes in interviews and in the foreword to his book. He was born in Indianapolis 52 years ago and grew up in a poor neighborhood. His father, who never married his mother, dropped him off at a baby sitter when he was 3 years old and didn't come back for him.

Williams was too young to understand all the details of his abandonment, but he remembers bits and pieces he overheard: The woman on the phone, asking his father to come get him because she already had her own eight kids to feed. When he was a little older, he heard the woman’s husband, then dying of cancer, tell her to raise the boy because no one else wanted him.

Williams stayed mostly with that family, knowing that his was another appetite they could ill-afford. As a result, he developed an eating disorder. Sometimes he was pawned off on others briefly; along the way he was sexually and physically abused. He grew up feeling unloved and, he was certain, unlovable.

By the time he became an adult, he was desperately lonely and sometimes pondered suicide. The one thing that worked for him, he says 35 years later, was sports. He’d seen how people fawned over athletes who won and he determined to be one.

“If I could win, people would love me,” he said. “Winning and losing became life and death.”

In high school, he had been an athlete, but no scholar. He dropped out, still illiterate. Although he didn't know about all of them at the time, he fathered four children out of wedlock, the first when he was 17. Later, in his early 20s, he married and had two more kids, but that marriage lasted just five years. He worked to support and maintain a relationship with all of his children, where the mothers would permit, and remains close to most of them. His youngest is now 25.

“I try to help them through the downfalls I had so they won’t make the same mistakes,” he says. "I realize that even though I financially supported my kids, one of the worst things this society is breeding is fatherless, one-parent homes. Their father's influence is so utterly important for male and female children, for their future, as well as their relationships with God."

He didn't know any of that back then. “There’s a real mentality to the ghetto that keeps you there. The welfare, the language, the music — I knew I had to leave. I actively refused to join a gang.”

Williams entered the Army at 18 on a waiver because he had no diploma. There, he competed in sports internationally. That opened the door to a government job at a military fitness academy in Indiana when he left the service. Still, his life was going nowhere.

Caterpillar to butterfly

Ron Williams didn’t like Ron Williams, and he hated being alone with himself. He wanted people to like him, which drove much of his athletic pursuit. “I didn’t enjoy competing,” he said of the intensity with which he pursued sports, in high school and beyond. “I did it to prove I wasn’t a loser.”

When he was down, he’d go into his trophy room and look at all the awards he’d won. The pleasure was always fleeting.

One night, single again, he was ditched by a woman he met in a bar who had agreed to go home with him. He learned later she had AIDs and had infected others. For some reason, she bypassed him.

He felt “an overpowering sense of death.” He was 28 years old.

Williams believed in God but was convinced God hated him. What else would explain the abandonment, the misery, the abuse? But at that low point, he heard God’s voice: “You are fighting an enemy and you cannot win. He knows your weaknesses and your strengths. Only with the Holy Spirit can you defeat him.”

He surrendered his life to God, but his transformation was not quick.

“God took me through a process. And that’s important. Because if you are given a process, you can teach it,” he said recently. He learned to read by sounding out words in the scriptures. One message came through clearly: An overcoming spirit requires courage, consistency and commitment. He had to overcome his fear, create a track record and pick a cause, then live it and teach it. He set his past aside and turned his eyes to the future. He could live a spiritually and physically healthy life, he decided. And he could help others do it, too.

When Williams preaches, he talks about the process of changing from a caterpillar to a butterfly. Once the butterfly emerges from the cocoon, it can never go back to crawling. That’s the essence of transformation.

You cannot go back.

Family man

Before he was 30, Williams had moved to Utah, a state he'd once visited for a workshop. He was impressed by how much it didn't remind him of home. Moving was a loud declaration to himself that he wanted to be different. It was a drastic new start.

His path has taken turns he would not have predicted when he was young. He received pastoral training through Morris Cerullo School of Ministry, but says it is prayer and "kneeology" that have strengthened his theology. Nine years ago, he married a woman who had four children, the youngest one just 6 at the time.

“He absolutely loves them, but he doesn’t want to overstep the boundaries,” said Tonja Williams of her husband. “That’s a challenge with coming into a new marriage and having kids. He doesn’t want to override the authority of the other father, but he has a good working relationship with my ex-husband and they seem to have similar teaching values.”

She said that because he’s a pastor (of Back to the Foundation in Midvale, Utah), he’s held to a high standard when it comes to parenting and pretty much everything else.

“He absolutely loves God and has a noncompromising personality in that it creates a strong discipline in him,” she said, adding that is apparent in whatever he does, from parenting to preaching to competing and teaching. “He consecrates his life in a way that most people don’t.”

Many who grew up abused and abandoned don’t connect well with people. Not her husband, Tonja Williams said, adding that people adore him, perhaps because “they feel safe when they talk with him.”

As a couple, they crack themselves up. She said her husband likes to surreptitiously photograph her, then narrate the videos. “We laugh until we can’t breathe. We think we are so funny.” They work long hours, between ministry and business, but they also play hard.

He also has a strong relationship today with both his mother and his father. Growing up, he said, "I would see my mom from time to time … I would also see my father intermittently. I did not develop a deep relationship or one of healing and forgiveness (with them) until I found God." His parents, too, have become committed Christians. Williams is at peace with his unhappy past.

“I came to realize that some of the things that took place were absolutely necessary for me to be who I am today,” he said. “I learned that family is one of the most important things in life. Houses, cars and toys are not important. But you can do nothing without other people. Relationships keep us together.”

Even so, he had no idea how to be a father: He’d never seen a good working model of the relationship. He had to learn. Many of the lessons applied to both leading a family and leading a church.

“You can’t expect something as a step-dad or as a pastor that you didn’t teach them. … Communication is huge. I was fearful, being a step-parent.”

He’s worked hard to create memories of family time and love with his kids. The memories you make, he warned, “help hold you together in the future or they tear you apart in the future.”

He learned that children can feel insecure without direction or someone to trust. Children — including God’s adult children — all want directions and boundaries, he said. Kids don’t need mom and dad to be their best friends; that’s not the role. The Bible says it clearly: “Your rod AND your staff comfort me.”

“It’s correction and direction. If you don’t provide correction, they won’t follow your direction,” he said.

Worship and weight

Williams earned a degree in exercise physiology and nutrition and taught college-level courses at the Professional Fitness Institute in Las Vegas and the Utah Career College. He wrote three books; “Faith and Fat Loss” is a best seller. He created three nutritional products and two body-building programs. He’s an inventor with three patents. He’s also a fitness instructor.

On a recent sunny day at the Utah National Guard headquarters in Draper, Williams put six soldiers through their paces, using his Iron Chest Master, a patented exercise tool, and sprints.

On the training field, he is the antithesis of the Hollywood-style drill sergeant who snaps commands, instead businesslike but still friendly. He knows everyone's name. He's not much like a Hollywood preacher, either. Behind the pulpit, he exudes warmth and sprinkles gentle jokes, but there's an underlying earnestness to his message. He can joke, for instance, about the excellent taste his wife exhibited when she chose her husband. But he finds nothing funny about the making and marketing of foods that are both unhealthy and addictive.

Williams, an internationally recognized body builder who won seven Natural Mr. Universe titles between 1988 and 2007, was hired last year by the Guard’s physical training council, which is charged with helping civilian and military employees of the Utah National Guard improve physical fitness and well-being. The program also prepares soldiers for a required fitness test. Participants in his eight-week courses have averaged significant gains in the number of push-ups and sit ups they can do in the two minutes allotted for each. He provides similar training at Camp Williams in Draper.

Capt. James Merlette was drawn to the Guard fitness training by hearty recommendations from co-workers. “I have traditionally had a difficult time leaving my desk each day to get out and exercise,” said Merlette.

Merlette said the small-group setting boosts motivation. “Ron can help us individually to ensure that we are completing the exercises with proper form. It is indeed a hard workout, and both times, I have been blinded by sweat 20 minutes into the workout, but at the end of the day, I am thankful for the opportunity Ron gives us to strengthen and condition us, to be physically fit and healthy.”

It is an extension of his calling: the responsibility he feels to buttress faith, family and fitness — for himself and in service to others.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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