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Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the
Hudson Valley

The Church of Gym

  • 10/28/2014 2:18 PM
    Message # 3135372

    The other day I was toodling about lower Manhattan. I saw a beautiful old church building that now houses... a gym. And I got a little sad.

    I know why churches are closing. Intellectually I know that. Shifts are happening in belief, and perhaps even more so, shifts are happening in how people express and live out their beliefs-- membership doesn't seem so important, the regular paying of pledges to help support a congregation doesn't seem so important, the whole structure of having a building and a place and people there to serve doesn't seem so important. I get that people of my generation and those below me often don't consider themselves "joiners" and that the generation above me feels perhaps their kids are grown and religion isn't so vital now and that my parents' generation has maybe just gotten tired of carrying the whole darn thing. So I get that a church would close its doors because membership declined to nothing, the money disappeared, and what else could they possibly do?

    But it still made me sad. I understand that for many the old adage is true, "my body is a temple", and that in some ways this seems a reasonable position to hold. We have just the one body, we should take care of it, I don't think anyone would deny that. We should treat it gently, keep it in shape, feed it good things, pamper it sometimes. Fair enough. But a body isn't a temple, and when I think of people on their treadmills and ellipticals, whiling away the hours in front of tv screens or listening to iPods, I wonder what it means more broadly, for our culture, for our social selves, that we are turning churches into gyms. That in places where once hymns of worship and gratitude were sung, where once poetry and scripture and philosophy was read to stimulate our moral and ethical selves, where once people communed over coffee and baked goods, where once ministers and priests spoke words of challenge and encouragement, now there are lockers, and showers, and rows of machinery.

    I worry that even though the reasons for church decline seem completely comprehensible on their face, that something truly is being lost. That community just isn't quite the same when it is virtual-- if your community is entirely virtual, who is bringing chicken soup when you get sick? I worry that when we replace church with the gym or whatever it might be, we are replacing it with something that is potentially isolating for us. I worry that when we don't prioritize church we are not prioritizing the inner strength and growth of our whole person, we are not prioritizing what it means to be part of a community in good times and bad, dealing with challenges and triumphs together. I worry that we are not prioritizing compassion and kindness and interpersonal skills and justice work... and all those things we do here together.

    I think going to the gym is great, so please don't misunderstand me. I just think that going to church (or synagogue or mosque) gives us something we can't get from other practices that may well bring us great peace and calm and inner joy. And I think the piece we can't get from those other things is the intense and intimate building of communal relationships over time.

    But of course, I'm biased. So please do share your stories of the gym, yoga, whatever others practices bring you delight and how you think they do or do not offer the same things regular church attendance offers.

  • 10/31/2014 4:05 PM
    Reply # 3138290 on 3135372
    Nora Mulligan (Administrator)

    I personally find a gym very isolating, perhaps deliberately designed that way.  At the gym I (sporadically) attend, there are rows of televisions, tuned to different stations, facing the people doing cardio work on various machines.  Above everything there's the loud blare of the music the gym plays, just to make it all the harder for any one person to talk to or hear another.  Not that most people try to communicate with each other; most of us have our individual devices pumping our own music into our heads, so we can zone out and focus on ourselves.

    And don't get me wrong.  Sometimes you need to focus on yourself, tune out all other people. Sometimes that's really restful (though the elliptical machine is the last thing I'd call restful!).  But it's not enough.

    There have been weeks, I'm ashamed to admit, where I've had to force myself to go to the gym, and weeks (fewer) when I don't make it to the gym at all.  But I never have to force myself to go to church on Sunday morning, and if I'm in town at all, I wouldn't think of missing church.  The experience of worshiping with others, being in community with my peers, is more valuable to me than any other exercise I do.  

  • 11/03/2014 11:26 AM
    Reply # 3139601 on 3135372
    Jeanette Gould

    Dear All,

    I joined my second U.U. congregation in Tampa, Florida just after a painful divorce.  That was thirty five or so years ago.  I knew then, and am now more convinced than ever, why I have stayed and been active in U.U. churches and fellowships ever since.  It has been for just the reasons about which Rev. Sarah has written.  It has been for the community of mostly caring people whose focus, activity and beliefs reflect my values.  With whom I can reflect on issues public and private and on whom I could rely for reasonable concern and assistance when needed.  I have never heard of a college or high  school course called Human Needs 101 with socialization and community at the top of the syllabus.  After some time, I began to see that membership has offered me even more valuable benefits.  First is the opportunity to use what skills I have to address tasks that some one or some organization or some cause have needed.  A very important opportunity to have an impact!  A very important human need, I believe.  Next, I have experienced lovely readings,  poetry and music.   I have learned from interaction with all of the different folks found in U.U. congregations and from workshops many skills I desperately needed.  (I actually did have a 2 credit course in assertiveness vs. aggressiveness.)  Last, but never least, I have experienced weekly reminders of values I hold but which can often get very lost in the tumult of thoughts, ideas and tasks of  everyday life.  What could be more important!!??

    Jeanette Gould 

  • 11/03/2014 4:38 PM
    Reply # 3139851 on 3135372

    Posted for a Friend of UUCHV:

    Many years ago, my spouse and I attended church in White Plains at the Community Unitarian Church. We were regulars for about a two years, but when we moved to Northern Westchester we failed to find a spiritual community that spoke to us so we began going to the gym on Sunday mornings. I actually find there to be a lot of parallels between the two experiences. We mostly attend free classes offered by the gym (free, of course, if you're paying your membership fees), so perhaps the experience is different for people who are only there for the machines?

    When we first showed up for classes, people were friendly, but not terribly interested in who we were or why we were there-- they see new people wander into the studio everyday, try things out, and never come back. We actually considered doing the same- we left classes early many times with the intention of never coming back but something kept drawing us in to try it again. We found an instructor we liked and only went to her classes...she taught us the basics and we started to learn the routines of this new place. She suggested we try another class, taught by someone else, and we tentatively went and stood in the back observing and trying to follow along as best we could. Eventually we threw ourselves in full force and started attending the most challenging classes taught by the most intimidating (but awesome) instructor. Replace "classes" with "service/meetings" and, well...

    6 years of attending the same classes and I can say that the similarities are striking. There are regulars; people who will generally show up in the same classes on the same day in the same spot every week. No one takes their spot unless we know for sure they aren't coming, and if someone is unexpectedly missing we wonder where they are (they may even get a text message). The community in that little studio might not be clear to everyone (although regulars at the gym and on the equipment could easily point out the members of our little pack) but it is a pretty solid yet eclectic little support system. We all have similar goals and priorities that we are working towards while we are there and we know a lot about each other's histories, strengths and weaknesses. We challenge each other. We have weekly routines (don't know that I'd call them rituals, but close). We don't have to plan it, or lead it-- we can just show up and jump on board for the experience. We welcome outsiders but cautiously. Of the many new people who wander in, a few become "members" and stick around. We socialize outside the studio- maybe not all of us all the time, but we are there for important events. We go even on those days when we don't really want to go because something is still drawing us there-- and we always leave feeling better about ourselves and whatever was dragging us down (in the 5 minutes before class begins, when the regulars are there claiming their spots, there is a lot of sharing of joys and concerns). Many a class has started (or ended) with laughter or tears, but the music begins and we all press on.  There's a head-clearing, soul lifting aspect to it too-- a reason why ecstatic movement and dance are intrinsic parts of worship in so many traditions/cultures.

  • 11/03/2014 4:46 PM
    Reply # 3139858 on 3135372

    I do think that the above poster makes a really good point... my one hesitation in writing my post was gym classes. I have spent time in a few myself-- my most favorite? A couple of sessions of water aerobics I did with a friend while serving as the intern at a church in Virginia. I was probably the youngest one in the pool by quite a bit, but it didn't matter as there is a certain camaraderie that is built around shared physical activity-- like you're on the same team.

    So, I can totally appreciate the point about classes. Thanks for making it!!

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