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Putting Christ back into YMCA

By Jenny Jarvie, Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times. Chicago Tribune staff reporter Maria Mooshil contributed to this report                                         Published December 18, 2006


NASHVILLE -- Every day, 2,500 people pour into the Green Hills Family YMCA to lift weights, shoot hoops and swim. Scott Reall believes many are searching for salvation.

On a recent evening, as disco music blared out of an aerobics room down the hall, Reall led a small group in prayer. About a dozen men and women sang "Amazing Grace." They had come to the YMCA -- some in pearls, some in tank tops -- to share their struggles with depression, and their hope that Christ would pull them through.

"People come to the YMCA hurting," said Reall, who gave up his work as a fitness trainer to run a Christian ministry at the Green Hills Y. "Alcoholism, bulimia, divorce, grief, pornography addiction, loneliness, drug abuse . ... They're looking for so much more than exercise."

Reall is at the vanguard of a small but growing movement to bring Christ back into the Young Men's Christian Association. About 13 percent of the more than 2,600 YMCA branches across the country have set up special committees to promote Christianity. Hundreds of Y leaders convene each year to swap ideas on how to "lift up the C in the YMCA."

Some Ys in Georgia now display pictures of Jesus and post the 10 Commandments. In North Carolina, YMCAs post Bible verses on their Web sites; in Tennessee, some play Christian rock in the workout rooms. In Alabama, Florida and Washington, YMCAs have hired full-time chaplains to provide pastoral care for staff and members: weddings, marriage counseling, hospital visits, Bible studies.

"People are beginning to rediscover the meaning of salvation," said Leonard Sweet, professor of evangelism at Drew University in New Jersey. "They are awakening to the idea that the body is part of spiritual life, that you can't separate the mind, the body and the spirit."

But the blending of faith and fitness unsettles some members who have grown accustomed to thinking of the Y as a purely secular gym.

"It seems a little bit squirrelly to me," said Tom Brittingham, a 49-year-old physician sweating on a Nautilus machine here. "There's already too much Christian stuff in the news. I don't really want to think about it when I work out."

The YMCA was founded in 1844 as a prayer group for London factory workers, and branches have long included sports facilities. During the fitness craze of the 1980s, many Ys began to serve almost exclusively as health clubs, de-emphasizing the organization's Christian roots.

The YMCA of Central Maryland was the first to remove Jesus' name from its local mission statement to signal that people of all faiths were welcome. Branches across the country, including Los Angeles and Chicago, followed. In 1987, Jesus was taken out of the national YMCA mission statement to read: "To put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all."

Now, a backlash is brewing.

"It's not necessarily politically correct to tell folk that Jesus is the way and the light," said Dan Nix, executive director of a Y in Waycross, Ga. "But the YMCA should stand for Christ at all cost. His name is on our building, and we should not take that name in vain."

Gyms and gospel aerobics

YMCA leaders are not alone in promoting spiritual growth alongside stomach crunches. Mega-churches are building state-of-the-art health clubs next to their sanctuaries. Some secular gyms offer gospel aerobics. There's even an online magazine called Faith and Fitness, which encourages readers to make connections between their Christian faith and their daily workouts.

At the heart of Green Hills' Christian ministry is Restore, which offers private and group counseling and self-help courses that draw inspiration from sporting as well as spiritual feats. Reall founded the ministry in 2000. He had been through a 12-step recovery program to deal with depression, and he asked his YMCA bosses whether he could start a similar venture, rooted in Christianity, after encountering a member who had gained more than 50 pounds as she struggled to cope with her husband's death.

The Restore ministry now has five staff members and 10 therapists, and is open to anyone, not just Y members. About 4,000 have taken part.

The program will be offered next year at Ys in half a dozen states, some far from the Bible Belt: Nebraska, New Mexico, New York and Ohio.

The Green Hills YMCA has set aside space for a chapel, past the women's locker room, around the corner from an aerobics studio.

Jan Fox, 39, takes spin classes and aerobics at Green Hills. One recent day, Fox dropped off her sleeping baby at the Y's nursery and walked tentatively into a self-help class, a seven-week program called Journey to Freedom.

Fox, who grew up in a secular home, attends a Presbyterian church in Nashville, but doesn't always feel at peace there. The sermons sometimes seem too preachy and the Bible's ancient teachings not always relevant.

She hoped the Y would prove a more accepting forum for exploring faith.

"Part of my quest is to try to get closer to God," she said, "whoever God is."

The YMCA has 20 million members nationwide, representing a broad array of faiths; even directors who promote Christian ministries stress that they want to keep their doors open to all.

Still, over the last few years, small disputes have flared up. At a YMCA in Nashville, some members objected to the Christian rock music played in a yoga class. At a Y in Murfreesboro, Tenn., a woman canceled her membership to protest the Christian music and the scriptures in the hallways. In Raleigh, N.C., staff member Everett Christmas resigned from the Christian Emphasis Committee of his Y after failing to persuade members to rename it a Spiritual Emphasis Committee.

Stephen Cole, president and chief executive of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, said there is no effort to emphasize "C" here, where about one-sixth of the Y's board is Jewish. Any effort to do so could be off-putting to people of other faiths, he said.

"Religion is a very personal thing, not an institutional thing," he said. "We're not a church and therefore do not promote religion in anything we do . . . other than to have the utmost respect for people to chose their religious faith."

Fox has no plans to stop attending her Presbyterian church but wonders if the YMCA could be more powerful than any church.

After her Journey to Freedom class, she read the opening chapter of the program's workbook, which quotes Jesus' question to a paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethesda: "Do you want to be made well?"

The book then asked: "How would you respond if Christ asked you personally, `Do you want to be made well?'"

Fox wasn't quite sure what to write. She still felt uncomfortable with the idea of talking to God. But it no longer seemed out of the question.

"The YMCA is getting to be more than just physical to me," she said. "Salvation -- that's like a freaky thing. ... But I think that's kind of what's happening to me."



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