After being introduced in June as a Keystone Conference ministerial candidate, Justin Willoughby shared part of his life story with the hundreds gathered at the Pleasantville Camp.
“At 16 years old, I was sitting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a hospital bed,” said Willoughby, the 27-year-old assistant pastor of Open Arms Community Church in Bradford, Pennsylvania. “That hospital bed had a scale. That scale weighed me in at 799 pounds.”
Later in June, Willoughby — who now weighs 235 pounds — had an audience of millions who watched him interviewed on live television from the New York City studio of NBC’s “Today” show. He shared how he lost weight through exercise, smaller portions, healthful choices and another key factor.
“I had a belief in God and Jesus, and that definitely was a significant part to my story, and that really impacted my decisions,” Willoughby said. “That gave me a hope and purpose in life.”
After Willoughby wrote a Huffington Post article (fmchr.ch/jwhuffp) about his weight loss, he was pursued for an interview by both “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the two top U.S. morning shows. Despite the higher ratings of “Good Morning America,” Willoughby chose “Today” because it offered him a live interview rather than a recorded one in which he feared producers might remove any references to his faith.
In an interview with LLM, Willoughby said he still was tempted during the “Today” interview not to mention his faith but then realized the interview might be his greatest opportunity to share Jesus with others.
Willoughby said he grew up in a family that believed in God, but he lacked “a firm foundation of a faith.” Then, around the same time he was diagnosed with anxiety and panic attacks at age 14, one of his mother’s friends began to teach him more about Jesus. He investigated different faiths but kept coming back to Jesus.
Still, “Jesus was just a belief” rather than “a faith I followed,” and he struggled with both food addiction and anxiety. The turning point came with his hospitalization. “I knew I had to have something happen drastically to be transformed and even live,” he said.
At age 14, Willoughby began attending church but felt the experience was “pew warming,” not “life transforming.” At age 17, a flier for Open Arms and encouragement from his mother’s friend led him to the Free Methodist congregation.
“The atmosphere was totally different,” he said. “The Spirit of God was definitely moving through me
because of Open Arms.”
Willoughby now is welcoming other young people into Open Arms.
“We need to make sure we’re being open and honest. We need to make sure we’re sharing our story,” he said. “We’re all a work in progress. We’re all a story for Jesus.”
Go to justinwilloughby.com to learn more about Willoughby.