When Pastor Katrina* first moved to a large city in the upper Midwest, joining a gym was not at the top of her ministry agenda. But while she was looking for ways to connect to her new neighborhood, a friend recommended a local women-only fitness center and she decided to try it out.
When she arrived at the gym, Pastor Katrina was surprised to discover that a lot of the women there were immigrants, many of them Muslims from closed countries. Most of them wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a gym that was open to anyone.
A couple of years earlier, a local English as second language (ESL) teacher who liked giving exercise breaks between English lessons had realized the desire for a safe women-only exercise space. She started the community center with some friends, including local immigrant women, in order to meet that need. By the time Pastor Katrina arrived, the gym had laid the foundations for a thriving community.
Pastor Katrina soon began volunteering there as a way of ministering to the women in her area. Her journey since then, she says, has taken place “through God and through saying yes to the things that he put in front of me.” She volunteered for about a year-and-a-half before sensing that God was calling her to something more. As she learned not to box God in but to ask him, “What should I do next?”, she approached the director of the fitness center to ask if there were more ways she could help.
As it turned out, the director was preparing to transition away from the gym, so the team at the fitness center invited Pastor Katrina to succeed her in the role. Pastor Katrina took on the position at the beginning of 2020.
Only a few months later, the pandemic forced the gym to close temporarily. Despite that rough season, the fitness center’s community has continued to grow. They are committed to asking the local community, “What is it that you want?” and then seeking to fulfill the desires they hear about in response.
From the beginning, the gym has been a product of “community desire and team effort,” Pastor Katrina says. They run exercise classes, but also host monthly field trips or alternative events, like tea parties. They partner with other people and groups as well, creating the space and interest for everything from baking classes to ESL, citizenship and GED classes. Recently, one woman asked if they offered computer classes, too, and Pastor Katrina says that’s a possibility they’re considering.
They are a gym, but Pastor Katrina emphasizes that their focus is on holistic health. This includes physical health, but also other aspects of well-being, and the social element is what many of the women who come to the gym appreciate. Pastor Katrina recalls that, in a survey asking the women why they come to the fitness center, two people actually crossed out the option that read, “We come to exercise.”
Spiritual health is, of course, a key factor as well. Engaging with the women at the gym on every front includes spiritual conversations, through which Pastor Katrina can witness to the hope she has in Christ. Many of the women there are Muslim, but she knows they can still find common ground to talk about faith. “Very often we can agree that God is moving,” she says.
The community response to the fitness center has been overwhelmingly positive but keeping the gym running isn’t without difficulties. Pastor Katrina says one of the challenges she faces is the language barrier. Most of the immigrant women she encounters at the gym speak a variety of languages including Arabic (with varying levels of fluency in English), and — though she’s picked up a little from five years of living in the area — Pastor Katrina speaks neither. On top of that, some of the women do not read in English or their native languages, so the fitness center makes use of visual aids whenever possible.
Another challenge is funding. The women who come to the gym pay a small membership fee, but to cover all their costs, the fitness center relies on additional fundraising efforts. Pastor Katrina says it’s one more constant thing to remember.
Still, there are plenty of joys to working at the fitness center. Various churches and organizations have sent people and support to them, Pastor Katrina explains, adding that divisions between different nonprofits and churches seem to dissolve here, in the combined effort to share the love of Christ by meeting physical and social needs in the community. “We all are working together.”
For the future, she anticipates seeing more local immigrant women take on leadership roles, and she wants to work on reaching the high schoolers in the area as well. Pastor Katrina hopes the fitness center can continue to “bring a greater sense of community to the women and girls in our neighborhood.”
One of her favorite parts of being there, she says, is “when I see God working in the lives of the women who come to the gym.” She describes how their encouragement of her has been an answer to prayer in the past, and similar instances can open doors for vulnerability and spiritual conversations. Ultimately, these moments deepen relationships and give Pastor Katrina more chances to share the hope she has in Christ with the community that has grown through the fitness center.
Jerah Winn is a communication assistant in the Communication and Administration Division of The Wesleyan Church and studies writing and honors humanities at Indiana Wesleyan University, Marion, Indiana.
*Pastor Katrina is a Wesleyan pastor intentionally serving on mission to her community.