Is God the secret to losing weight?
For Gwen Shamblin Lara, the answer was yes.
‘What I do in this program is to teach people how to stop bowing down to the refrigerator and how to bow back down to Him,’ she explained.
Shamblin Lara parlayed her piece of the billion-dollar diet industry into founding a new church called Remnant Fellowship, which has been accused of being a cult and encouraging harsh physical punishment, like hitting with a glue stick, to discipline children. Two church members were sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years for the death of their eight-year-old son, who they forced to stay in a wicker box by binding it with bungee cords.
‘How members of Remnant behave is bit like the Handmaid’s Tale and Stepford Wives,’ Glen Wingerd, whose daughter Delaney joined the church, said in a new HBO Max docuseries.
Terasseee Morris, a former member, said: ‘The leadership has say in everything that you do. You don’t go on a trip anywhere without their permission. You don’t have family come visit you without their permission. You don’t go to funerals or weddings of family members without their permission.’
Shamblin Lara and her second husband, actor Joe Lara, died with five other people in a plane crash on May 29, 2021 in Tennessee and may have been en route to a MAGA rally in Florida. Lara, best known for a 1989 TV movie Tarzan in Manhattan and the 1990s Tarzan TV series, is called an ‘escort’ by a former church member in the series and portrayed as interested in Shamblin Lara’s substantial wealth, which critics say was accrued from the Remnant Fellowship Church and its members.
‘When he met Gwen, I feel like he won the lottery and he was also cast in her production. She honed in on him, he saw an opportunity in her and it was a match made in Remnant Fellowship heaven,’ Natasha Pavlovich, Joe Lara’s ex-girlfriend, said in the series. Pavlovich said Lara falsely accused her of sexually assaulting their daughter to prevent them from moving to Chicago.
The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin takes an in-depth look at the controversial church leader and diet guru with towering blond hair – who once said in a deposition: ‘When people were in prison camps and ate less food, they lost weight. All of them’ – and the Remnant Fellowship, a church based in Brentwood, Tennessee, which continues today under her daughter’s leadership.
A church statement, part of which is shown at the end of the docuseries and is available on its website, states: ‘Remnant Fellowship categorically denies the absurd, defamatory statements and accusations made in this documentary – yet another Hollywood attack on religion.’
Gwen Shamblin, above, studied nutrition in college and started her Weight Down Workshops in the 1980s. She combined the concept known as ‘intuitive eating’ – which rejects dieting and the idea that food can be ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and eating when you feel hunger – with Bible study. In 1997, she published a book called The Weight Down Diet. Shamblin and her faith-based diet were a media sensation. In 1999, she incorporated the Remnant Fellowship Church, which is based in Brentwood, Tennessee. In announcing her new church the next year at a convention, Shamblin made the controversial move of rejecting the Holy Trinity
Above, Gwen Shamblin Lara and her second husband Joe Lara, an actor best known for playing Tarzan in a TV movie and series in the late 1980s and in the 1990s. Gwen was married to David Shamblin from 1978 until 2018 and they had two children together, Michael and Elizabeth. She then married Lara the same year. Her divorce from David Shamblin angered many women in the church who were refused the same thing even if there were grounds such as infidelity, according to a new HBO Max docuseries. Natasha Pavlovich, Joe Lara’s ex-girlfriend said in the series, The Way Down, that Lara ‘dated women that could fulfill his lifestyle needs’
The Remnant Fellowship Church, above, in Brentwood, Tennessee has been accused of being a cult. ‘The leadership has say in everything that you do. You don’t go on a trip anywhere without their permission. You don’t have family come visit you without their permission. You don’t go to funerals or weddings of family members without their permission,’ Terasseee Morris, a former member, said in a new docuseries called The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin
Above, Brandon and Elizabeth Hannah. Brandon Hannah was one of the seven people, including Gwen Shamblin Lara and Joe Lara, who died in a plane crash on May 29, 2021. According to the Remnant Fellowship Church website, the couple were married in 2003 and have four children together. In the docuseries, The Way Down, former members said that Elizabeth lost a son but it wasn’t talked about. Elizabeth now leads Remnant Fellowship. ‘I know what I’m called to do. I’d always told my mother if something happens to you, you know I’ll do it. You know I’ll do it for God. It’s not what I want to do but you know I’ll do it,’ Elizabeth Hannah said in a clip from The Way Down
Gwen Shamblin was raised in the ultra-conservative Protestant Church of Christ, which does not allow women to speak or pray in public, in Tennessee. She studied nutrition in college.
Rev. Rafael Martinez, a cult interventionist, said in the docuseries that Shamblin started to share her wisdom on eating and dieting in the 1980s. Martinez is the director of Spiritwatch Ministries, which does ‘Christian countercult outreach,’ according to its website.
Above, the cover of Gwen Shamblin’s 1997 book, The Weight Down Diet. It sold over 400,000 copies, according to a new docuseries called The Way Down. Gina Graves, who was a member from 1996 to 2012, said on the series there were no restrictions on what you could eat, and you waited for physical hunger and ate until you were satisfied. ‘The times that you weren’t hungry, you went to God, you prayed. You gave that desire for the food to him’
It is a concept known as ‘intuitive eating,’ which rejects dieting and the idea that food can be ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and eating when you feel hunger. Martinez said: ‘To her, it was divine revelation.’
She started her Weight Down Workshops in the 1980s. By 1997, she published a book called The Weight Down Diet. During the 1990s, there was a slew of books with titles such as What would Jesus eat?, The Divine Diet and Body by God, according to a TV news report shown in the docuseries.
Martinez said there were other Christian diets but she expanded it with Bible study. ‘They trusted Gwen Shamblin because they felt, look, she’s a church member. She uses the Bible.
‘It became quite a runaway success.’
The Weight Down Workshops were held in churches and word of mouth spread, according to a TV news report, to more than 250,000 people in over 14,000 churches in 70 countries.
Morris, the former member, said that people started to come after she incorporated scripture. ‘But they would lose some weight and then start to gain it back.’
To figure out why this was happening, Shamblin said she asked God, who told her that people were not being obedient and following Him and his son Jesus Christ, Morris recalled.
‘Jesus declared all food clean in Mark 7,’ Gina Graves, who was a member from 1996 to 2012, said. She explained that there were no restrictions on what you could eat, and you waited for physical hunger and ate until you were satisfied. ‘The times that you weren’t hungry, you went to God, you prayed. You gave that desire for the food to him.’
Another member from 2008 to 2017, Helen Byrd said by following this program ‘you’re going to be right with God because you’re going to be thinner.’
Morris said that she started losing weight immediately. ‘I mean like within two months, I had lost 27 pounds. So the program itself works and it’s simply proportion control.’
‘When he met Gwen, I feel like he won the lottery and he was also cast in her production. She honed in on him, he saw an opportunity in her and it was a match made in Remnant Fellowship heaven,’ Natasha Pavlovich, Joe Lara’s ex-girlfriend, said in The Way Down. Gwen Shamblin and Joe Lara married in 2018. Joe Lara had a pilot’s license but in a preliminary report released in June, the National Transportation Safety Board did not name him as the pilot in the plane crash on May 29 in which seven people died, according to The Tennessean
According to The Tennessean: ‘A recording of the communication between the control tower and the pilot, captured on LiveATC.com, revealed an alarm going off in the cockpit of the plane seconds before it crashed, suggesting a mechanical failure in the aircraft, which was built in 1982.’ LiveATC is a website where you can listen to air traffic control communications from around the world. The plane crashed into Percy Priest Lake, above, in Smyrna, Tennessee
‘Remnant Fellowship Church has had strong and dedicated leaders from the very beginning. On May 29, 2021, seven of our founding members and leaders – Gwen and Joe Lara, Brandon Hannah, David and Jennifer Martin (left) and Jonathan and Jessica Walters (right) – perished in a plane crash,’ according to the church’s website. ‘Although this loss was unexpected and deeply felt by all, we are unified in going to the God of all comfort during this time. Our foundation is deeply rooted in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and living each moment to show love for God through our actions. That purpose continues to this day’
Shamblin and Weight Down Diet were a ‘massive media hit,’ Martinez said. The book sold over 400,000 copies and Shamblin was seen everywhere from 20/20 to Larry King on CNN. She was also going on national tours where people would come onstage and talk about how much weight they lost – ‘God has taken 86 pounds off of me’ – and hold up their old larger clothes.
‘She began to believe that the Weight Down Workshop message was the answer for all the world’s evils. She had the truth. Christian perfectionism could only be achieved by following her message,’ Rev. Rafael Martinez said.
She realized there needed to be a new church and so Shamblin incorporated the Remnant Fellowship Church in 1999. When she announced her new church at a convention the next year, she made a controversial move and rejected the Holy Trinity. Several churches that once hosted her workshops stopped and many sent back their tapes and books.
‘It is extremely unusual to have a religious group in the Christian faith led by a women,’ Stuart Watson, an author and investigative journalist, said in the docuseries.
‘She was just so passionate for God. She was one of the first woman that I’d ever seen that just loved God and taught you to have a relationship with God,’ Teri Phillips, who was a member from 1995 to 2003, said.
Other women in the series also noted that Shamblin taught them to focus on God and how to grow their relationship with Him. ‘And it was probably one of the best times of my life, believe it or not,’ Byrd said.
The church in wealthy Brentwood, Tennessee opened in 2004. Longtime member Gina Graves said the church had ‘nothing to do with Jesus Christ, it was about being thin.
‘The overarching theme of everything that she taught ever in there was always being under God’s authority, which was her. Everything fell around that and then everything else was about the weight and what you look like.’
Morris, who lost 138 pounds in 18 months, said that she was told to stop eating to lose more weight. If people didn’t lose more than two pounds that week, they were instructed to fast. ‘The faster you do it, the holier you are,’ she said.
Graves said members were constantly told that Shamblin was the voice from God and she shouldn’t be questioned.
‘She’s just playing God on Earth. It’s wreaking families. It’s wreaking kids. It’s giving them eating disorders. It’s ruining marriages. It’s giving people PTSD, social anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm. All of these things because of this person that just has to look good in her community,’ she said in the docuseries.
Another former member from 2002 to 2009, Rachel Phillips, said that Shamblin went to another level. ‘It’s nothing about God. It’s not been about God in a long time. It’s been about Gwen. And she’s going to twist and manipulate the Bible into fitting her agenda.’
Shamblin was married from 1978 to 2018 to her first husband, David Shamblin, and they had two children together, Michael and Elizabeth.
In 2018, she married actor Joe Lara, who was then working as a handyman trying to get his country music career off the ground. Her divorce from David Shamblin angered many women in the church who were refused the same thing even if there were grounds such as infidelity.
‘My real prayer is that it implodes,’ Morris said. ‘I almost thought it was going to happen when she married Joe.’
Rev. Rafael Martinez, a cult interventionist, said in the docuseries: ‘The Remnant culture is completely devoted to controlling its exposure to the external world.’ He noted that the church had childcare and home schooling. Gina Graves, who was a member from 1996 to 2012, said that Gwen Shamblin talked to the media about how Remnant was different, which included obedient children
Above, Josef Smith in an undated image. The eight-year-old died after his parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith, put him a wicker box, Eleanor Odom, assistant district attorney for Cobb County in Georgia who tried the case, said in The Way Down. Josef kept popping up his head so his parents tied up the box with bungee cord so he couldn’t get out, she said. ‘At the end of the worship service, they didn’t hear anything inside the box so they untied the box with the bungee cords and that’s when they found Josef nonresponsive.’ The EMTS that first responded talked about it being such a bad case, she said, and Josef had injuries pretty much everywhere except for the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet
Above, Joseph and Sonya Smith, members of the Remnant Fellowship Church, were found guilty of murdering their son Josef in February 2007 and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. The church stood by the couple with a website called the Smiths are Innocent. In their response to HBO on their website, it states: ‘From 2003-2007, Remnant Fellowship, Gwen Lara, and several church leaders were thoroughly investigated by a variety of State and Local officials. Despite years of focused investigation, zero evidence was ever found linking the church to child abuse, and no charges were filed against any church leaders in any way’
The docuseries also looks at Natasha Pavlovich’s legal fight with Joe Lara for full custody of their daughter. Pavlovich, who is also an actor, said her daughter was not allowed to have friends outside of the church. ‘Life for my daughter would be in a capsule and subject to all of their brainwashing. And that’s what I’m afraid of.’
Pavlovich said she met Lara in acting class in Los Angeles in 1984. They dated on and off for years and in November 2010, they had a daughter together. They moved to Tennessee so he could pursue country music. In 2015, Pavlovich said that in order to prevent her from taking their daughter to Chicago, Lara ‘filed with the police in the children’s department that I sexually abused our four-year-old daughter.’
Pavlovich said she paid over $200,000 in legal fees. Lara’s attorney also represented other men in the church, according to Rachel Phillips, the former member. She said that Remnant Fellowship is happy to pay those fees to keep children in the church.
The docuseries also interviewed now young adults who grew up in Remnant Fellowship. Autumn Williamson, who was a member from 2008 to 2015, said: ‘A few of the youth that I grew up with, they committed suicide. I can very much relate to that. I was definitely going through a really deep depression when I was in Remnant.
‘I don’t think I lived a normal childhood – truly.’
Graves said that Gwen Shamblin talked to the media about how Remnant Fellowship Church was different, which included obedient children.
Two members, Joseph and Sonya Smith, were convicted of murdering their eight-year-old son Josef Smith in 2007.
He died after his parents put him a wicker box, Eleanor Odom, assistant district attorney for Cobb County in Georgia who tried the case, said in The Way Down. Josef kept popping up his head so his parents tied up the box with bungee cord so he couldn’t get out, she said. ‘At the end of the worship service, they didn’t hear anything inside the box so they untied the box with the bungee cords and that’s when they found Josef nonresponsive.’
The EMTS who first responded talked about it being such a bad case, she said, and Josef had injuries pretty much everywhere except for the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet.
Odom said that Josef’s death was likely a combination of blunt force trauma – the parents slammed the lid down while he was in the box – and suffocation.
In their response to HBO on their website, the church stated that he ‘passed away in 2003 of a staph infection and high fever.
‘From 2003-2007, Remnant Fellowship, Gwen Lara, and several church leaders were thoroughly investigated by a variety of State and Local officials. Despite years of focused investigation, zero evidence was ever found linking the church to child abuse, and no charges were filed against any church leaders in any way,’ according to the church’s statement.
Remnant paid the Smiths’ legal fees during their trial, according to the docuseries. The church also has a website called the Smiths are Innocent.
On a tape played during the series, Sonya Smith recounts how she disciplined Josef, then seven, by following a church’s leader advice.
‘I did exactly what Tedd told me to do to spank him on the back of his thighs, take everything out of his room and locked him in there from Friday until Monday and only left him in the room with his Bible and I just praise God,’ she says, according to The Way Down.
Gwen Shamblin then says ‘Praise God.’ When asked about this, Shamblin denied that she said that and that the recording was tampered with.
‘Shamblin told The Associated Press in 2004 that the church does believe in spankings and she had used a wooden spoon on her children. Shamblin said she hadn’t advocated glue sticks as punishment but didn’t think there was anything wrong with it,’ NBC News reported.
Williamson pointed out in the docuseries that Shamblin had a Porsche, a Hummer and mansion and then asked how she has all this money. ‘Where is this coming from? From us.
‘She is selling a really good game.’
In addition to the workshop and books, there were journals, tote bags and t-shirts to buy.
Watson, the author, noted that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard said that the best way to make money is to start a religion.
Within Remnant Fellowship, there are real estate and financial planning companies, a service for cars and Exodus industries, which does plumbing, electrical work and air conditioning, Morris said.
Rev. Rafael Martinez said Exodus Industries, which is staffed by members, is the business arm of the church.
Watson said: ‘A church hides behind its religious status. It is a black box and you can never see exactly how much is going in or exactly how much is coming out.’
He noted that the people who run the church are the institution and the institution is them.
‘The downside is when they stumble, there are a lot of good, well-meaning, gold-hearted people who seriously get hurt.’
Gwen Shamblin Lara’s children, Elizabeth and Michael, above. According to former member, Terasseee Morris, Michael is the oldest but did not want to take over as the church’s leader. In the docuseries, a former member who uses a pseudonym and is shrouded in the dark, alludes to having an affair with Michael and that he told her he would get so angry he shot at the church. Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah, who lost her husband Brandon in the May 29 plane crash, is now leading Remnant Fellowship
Terassee Morris, who was a member from 2014 to 2017, said in a new docuseries, The Way Down, seen above: ‘When Gwen first started I believe she truly wanted to help people. She was so charismatic and the joy on Gwen’s face when she would talk about the Lord.’ People around the world were drawn to Shamblin and her faith-based diet. She founded a new church called Remnant Fellowship in 1999. When asked in a deposition in May if she doesn’t think she’s a prophet, Shamblin responded: ‘I know that by the world’s definition of a prophet, no. But I do believe that the Bible teaches of gifts… years later thinking, well, maybe… God’s using me for something but I couldn’t categorize exactly where you’d put me’