It all started with a little bit of good-natured trash talk between the pastors of two of Baltimore's most prominent African-American churches.
The Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple "fell off the wagon" and confesses he wasn't exercising as much as he should. His trainer used that to pump up another client, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III of Bethel AME Church, telling him he was in better shape than the much younger Bryant.
Reid, feeling a little confident, and Bryant, his ego bruised just a bit, then threw out a fitness challenge to one another: Your church against mine. May the best congregation win.
And that's why 40-year-old Bryant, 60-year-old Reid and members of their congregations are spending three days a week in grueling, hourlong sessions led by Monte Sanders, who trains the two pastors as well as Ravens players Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. They do running drills across the gym, jump rope until their shoulders ache and work their abs until they burn.
At the end of 21 days, they'll see which congregation lost the most weight and is the fittest. There's talk of possibly extending the challenge to 90 days. There are cash prizes and, of course, bragging rights.
"I told my members we may have to take it easy on the golden girls of Bethel," said Bryant, whose church attracts a younger, hipper crowd.
The pastors say that along with the good-natured competition, they are addressing serious health problems in the African-American community, which suffers from higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and other ailments than the general population. In Baltimore, 1 in 4 deaths are from heart disease, and it's one of the reasons why the average African-American has a life span five years shorter than the average white person, according to city health statistics.
"Health should be a part of our mission," Reid said. "We want to get to people before they develop heart disease or kidney failure and have become overweight."
Reid and Bryant are hoping to motivate their members to reverse those trends while building a little camaraderie between the two churches.
"If the congregation is not healthy, they will not be able to serve," Bryant said. "It is critical that the church be on the front lines."
Tanya Green-Deshields, a retired teacher who lives in Baltimore, was inspired by the challenge. She was sitting in the pews of Bethel during services one Sunday when the challenge came up.
"As Reverend Reid kept talking about weight and health, I was like, 'Yes, I need to do that,'" she said.
The 64-year-old said she is about 60 pounds overweight and has had two defibrillators implanted in three years. Name a diet, and she has probably tried it — cabbage soup, low carb, and an extreme calorie-restrictive eating plan called the stewardess diet. She has become easily bored in the past with walking a track and other exercise regimes. She hopes that working out with fellow church members will help keep her motivated.
Antonio Walker would like to lose 15 pounds from his 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame. The 37-year-old Baltimore resident, who attends Empowerment Temple, tried to get healthy on his own but couldn't stick with a plan. He's hoping the fitness challenge will give him what he needs to succeed.
"I didn't have any dedication before, but this is making me want to compete," Walker said.
Reid can give his members a firsthand account about the consequences of an unhealthful lifestyle. He had quadruple bypass surgery seven years ago after doctors discovered all the arteries to his heart were clogged. He began exercising, and he traded heavy foods for baked chicken and steamed vegetables.
Reid says he is going to take healthful living a step further this year and adopt a vegan diet, following the same plan used by former President Bill Clinton. He doesn't expect his church members to take such drastic measures.
That's a good thing, said his daughter, 19-year-old Faith, who is participating in the challenge and eating more healthfully. But there are limits.
"I'm thinking about vegetarian, but vegan is stretching it," she said.
At a recent 5:30 a.m. session led by Sanders in the gymnasium at Garrison Forest School, Reid had shed his typical tailored suits for black sweats and an Under Armour skullcap. He trudged his way through sprints, jump-rope sequences and ab work, stopping from time to time to drink from a gallon jug of water. He wasn't the fastest or strongest, but he completed the workout at his own pace.
Bryant prefers the evening sessions at 6:30. During one recent workout, he started to feel the pain. He grimaced as he pulled his body up into a sit-up and yelled out several times to help himself get through it. But he wasn't about to let the workout beat him.
"It was tough, but I made it," he said.
Sometimes the participants get a treat — like the day Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis showed up to work out with the group. He yelled out words of encouragement, just as he does on the football field to pump up his teammates. "Work those arms," he said. "Work it."
Dr. Oxiris Barbot, health commissioner for Baltimore, praised the church challenge. She said it fits in with the city's goals to get 20 percent of the population more physically active.
"Utilizing our trusted institutions to model behavior is a great way for us to increase the likelihood that people will incorporate change in their daily lives," she said.
The harder part may be keeping it up after the challenge ends.
"Twenty-one days and then reverting back to being a couch potato isn't going to cut it," she said.
Sanders, who runs Sanders Optimum Fitness, gives church members a $50 discount to participate in the workout sessions. He donates 10 percent of the proceeds back to the churches. Those who participate also get a nutrition guide and access to online training.
He designs the sessions so people can work at their own pace. He divides the room into three groups: beginner, intermediate and advanced.
He pushes the participants with stern warnings.
"Don't be the last to finish," he says during running drills. "Don't ever think you've arrived. You have to push it, push it," he says during ab exercises.
But he also passes out words of encouragement and praise.
"Keep up the good work," he says. "As long as you're competitive and don't try to overdo it, you'll win."
So who is going to win this challenge?
"Of course I'm going to say Bethel," said Green-Deshields. "But I don't want to jinx us."
"No question: Empowerment Temple," Walker said.
Sanders is taking the high road. "They both have their strengths," he said.
At the end of the day, what matters to Sanders, Reid and Bryant is that people made it to a workout.
As Sanders likes to say at the end of a workout: "You did more in an hour this morning then most people will do all week."
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