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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Religion rebounds at YMCA

More branches are showing a spiritual side, with ministry services and Christian rock. For some members, it's just not working out.

November 24, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

Nashville, Tenn. — 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. Heads bowed, hands clasped, 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 Assn. About 13% 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 Ten Commandments. In North Carolina, YMCAs post Bible verses on their websites; 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."

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. The opening chapter of the ministry's Journey to Freedom manual encourages readers to make changes in their lives by describing how James Naismith, a physical education teacher, came to invent the game of basketball, and then quoting Moses' words to the Israelites as they stood before the Red Sea.

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.

"I had a battery of tests that could assess where she was physically," Reall said. "But I realized that's not going to impact why she's eating."

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. It attracts people who would not necessarily feel comfortable talking about their problems at a church or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Reall said. The format is loose, and participants guide discussions.

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.

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