An interview with Bob Clarke
Faith & Fitness Magazine: What’s up with Cincinnati? The city has quite a reputation when it comes to racial tension. Just outside your gym there are quite a few people just hanging around on the streets.
Bob Clarke: The view that Cincinnati has a lot of racial tension has been distorted in media throughout the country. I don’t think Cincinnati is worse than any other city of this size. There was an incident that happened some time back where the police shot a young man. That escalated into violence and subsequent riots.
Actually, while many organizations closed during that time our facility, The Lord’s Gym, stayed open. We wanted guys to know there was a place where they could go, talk and get prayer. So, we were busy during that time.
FF: Why are there so many people just “hanging out” on the street in this neighborhood, apparently doing nothing?
BC: The Lord’s Gym is located in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Cincinnati called Over The Rhine. There is more violence and crime in this community than in any other in the city. It is very impoverished. However, it is also a gathering place – particularly where the gym is located. We are across from a city park, which is a gathering place for transient people just, passing through town. There are also all kinds of people from all over the city that come here with agendas. There is quite a bit of drug dealing that goes on around here along with prostitution. We actually get several people from the suburbs coming here for drugs or prostitutes. In that mix there are also homeless people. They gravitate toward this area because of the many social service agencies here. There is also housing for those with mental illness. So all of those people are here – just hanging out on the streets.
FF: So you picked the absolutely worst place in the city and set up shop?
BC: We would like to say it is the BEST placed in the city to set up shop for what we are doing. We try to reach people that are normally not going to walk into churches. We offer something of interest to a particular group of these people.
FF: How did the Lord’s Gym start?
BC: In the early 90’s I was managing some property with an inner city housing ministry. We wanted to fill a commercial property with some Christ centered work. We explored several ideas. Finally, a man who was retiring talked with me about his vision to start an outreach patterned after a weightlifting club in his church. He felt using weights would be a good hook to bring young guys in off the street and work on their bodies. We got permission to use the name “Lord’s Gym” from the original t-shirt designer. That was actually another property.
When we opened we invited any man to come in, lift weights, and participate in a Bible study at the end of the weightlifting time. It wasn’t long before we outgrew the facility. We increased our hours and hired staff. We also opened the facility to younger boys for a youth hour. It became apparent very quickly that guys were very interested in coming into the gym and working out. More encouraging than that, we found that many of the young men in their teens and twenties wanted to get familiar with the Bible. They asked many questions and wanted to participate in prayer.
FF: So there was a strong interest in not just the exercise but also the whole faith aspect.
BC: There was a great interest in it. Many of the guys discovered that they could share their struggles in life openly without experiencing condemnation. They discovered that they could continue to come to the Lord’s Gym as they were dealing with their struggles, be it drug addiction, women problems, or problems with their children.
FF: Who all is involved in helping these men address their problems?
BC: There are two full time staff working with the men’s program at the Lord’s Gym. There is also a full time staff person working in the youth program. Additionally we have part time administrative help. We have had many people get involved in this work because they are interested in outreach in the Over The Rhine. They want to impact this community and make things better. More recently, we have received a lot of interest from the fitness world. For example, we have one volunteer who owns a business and has personally become interested in fitness. He has organized a local Pump and Run event. Through that, he is connecting with the bodybuilding community throughout Cincinnati and getting them connected to the Lord’s Gym. For him, he has found this to be a way to increase his interest and involvement in fitness and this ministry. He has gotten passionate about what is happening here at the Lord’s Gym and he is passionate about the fitness world.
Jerry Dubose is the gym manager. He is in his 50’s and has a wonderful story. He was in and out of crime in his early years. He was in the penitentiary nine different times. He also was a boxer. He was quite well known as an amateur boxer here in Cincinnati. During his years as a criminal he also became addicted to Crack. Then a few years back he had a spiritual experience. He had a real experience with the Lord. Through a referral of a friend he started coming here. This place is where he came for support and comfort to stay away from the things in which he had been involved. He was a regular member. Eventually we hired him to do some cleaning. He was faithful in doing that work so we hired him to help assist our pastor, which led to him helping with Bible studies and most recently to managing the gym.
He has been a real encouragement to the men. When life has seemed to be a dead end for them they have seen the real turnaround that Jerry has had. Many people around here knew Jerry the way he was. So it has been a huge impact for others to see him now and hear his stories of transformation. He is very animated and passionate. When he does his teaching in the gym, guys are often on their feet or on their knees seeking God and involved in the interactive conversations.
FF: Describe the membership at the Lord’s Gym.
BC: Last year we had 2000 men register. We are on schedule to have that many again this year. In any given month we have around 400 men involved. That breaks down into having a core of guys that are committed. Then there are others who come and go. It is exciting to reconnect with some men that move on. They get their lives in order and return to share with us about the growth happening. About 35% of the men attending here live in this community. The average age is 28. The other 65% of the men are connected somehow to this community. Most of the guys coming here are working or looking for work.
FF: And of course they all go to church right?
BC: Hah, no. There are portions that are plugged into churches but there is a large number that are not. This is the alternative church for them. It is a place to come for spiritual encouragement. It is a place to come pray, worship, and study the Bible. We are OK with that. We want to see everyone connected to a fellowship.
FF: Do you see a greater sense of bonding and fellowship here than what occurs at some churches?
BC: The answer is yes. This setting and the hours we are open contributes to give and take, free flowing connection, and some real fellowship. There is personal counseling and prayer that happens very spontaneously. Often in a church situation, people attend on Sunday, hear a teaching, go away and then there may be a Bible study mid-week or an occasional conversation with the pastor. In our setting there is pastoral care six days per week so guys get prayer regularly for what is going on in their lives right now. That extends to the leadership being accessible after hours via cell phones. For many of these guys, when their life is on the edge, having access to someone who can pray with you “right now” is very important.
FF: So everything is peaceful here then?
BC: We work very hard at creating an atmosphere here in the Lord’s Gym. Christian music plays in the background. We seek to keep things positive. Our house rules are simple and something the guys agree to when they come in to workout. When we see something getting a little disrespectful we jump on that very quickly. We’ve done that so much over the years that the guys do that themselves now.
There are times when things have gotten out of order. Typically the regular members jump in very quickly to get things back in order. There is violence associated with some of the men that come to the gym. When they come here they can sometimes bring their troubles with them. We’ve never had a shooting or a full-blown fight. Maybe once or twice someone has thrown a weight but it quickly got stopped. So the atmosphere stays positive.
FF: That must be a result in part from the really strict dress code you have.
BC: Hah! While many of the guys love to wear our Lord’s Gym shirts we don’t require them to wear a shirt. On a hot day lots of guys don’t wear a shirt. We are loose when it comes to rules like that. Many things can affect the atmosphere of a place where you are hanging out. It helps give a homey laid-back feel. It is comfortable.
FF: Providing a comfortable and welcoming environment is important. What other needs are you meeting?
BC: The most important thing we do is exalt Christ and point people to the reality of Jesus Christ. In Him they can find the answers for their life. We create a safe place for them to come and be honest about the struggles in their life. Then we really do encourage good physical and emotional health. This is something positive they can do to improve their life, grow spiritually, have some fun, and work toward achieving goals. That translates into doing well at work, being stable, having right relationships with women, their wife or their girlfriend.
FF: Does that ultimately lead to a stronger “family” for these men?
BC: Let me answer that this way: Many of these men are not married. A large number of the men here are fathers who have children with two or three women. So, when they come here, discover Christ, and want to get things right in their life, it becomes quite a challenge how to figure out how to do that. We see about every month a man getting married, making a commitment, and getting his life in order. The ministry impact spreads to the wives, the girlfriends, and the children.
We have guys that bring their children here. We have a safe place for them. You can see them fathering. That certainly provides some role modeling for the younger guys. I think the impact is spreading pretty wide really.
FF: Could this model of gym ministry spread throughout the country?
BC: Yes, I think it can. You have to take into account the specific community. Adjustments would need to be made for unique community dynamics. However, I think the general concept is a winning one. Certainly it requires leadership that has an interest in fitness and a heart for ministry.

Bob Clarke is the Director of Men’s Programs at FOCAS in Cincinnati, Ohio. He can be reached at bclarke@fuse.net

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
The Christian faith is unique in that it provides people with tremendous freedom through Christ’s love. How does the Lord’s Gym build on this freedom to minimize rules and maximize results? Why do you think this setting works better for these men than a traditional gym or church environment?
How has the Lord’s Gym capitalized on positive peer-pressure to impact the lives of members?
What kind of a Christian does it take to start a ministry like this?

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