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