Church Pumps Up Congregation With Gym and Tanning Equipment
RIDGEWOOD — Gym, tan, liturgy.
The more than 150-year-old United Presbyterian Church has found a new way to give its flock some flex — lifting the changing neighborhood and congregation's spirits by adding a storefront gym with a tanning booth in a bid to stay connected to the community.
Treadmills, mirrors, TVs and exercise machines line a wall on the ground level of The New Olympia Gym on Fresh Pond Road — where fans of fitness and faith are greeted with Muscle Milk and protein powders for sale, as well as a lending library of books on religion and spirituality.
"We're different," said United Presbyterian Church's pastor, the Rev. Henry G. Fury. "We're not the traditional Rotary Club church where you drop money in the basket on Sunday and leave."
The straight-talking 75-year-old pastor said he's not afraid to adapt to the changing needs of his parishioners, and recognizes "the world is changing the church."
There are machines and weights in the basement, and the second floor has a stretching room, more machines and a punching bag. It also has a stand-up tanning machine, which costs $10 per use. Monthly memberships cost $25 for non-parishioners and are free for congregants.
Profits from the gym help pay for important programs the church sponsors, including a food pantry, soup kitchen and 12-step program, Fury said.
Legend has it a young Arnold Schwarzenegger lifted weights in the gym's former incarnation, the Olympia Gym, while staying with an uncle in the neighborhood in the early 1970s, Fury said.
The gym, which has been a popular place for bodybuilders in Queens and beyond for decades, still draws longtime gym rats in its current incarnation as a church-run gym, he said.
But they don't discriminate or proselytize, patrons said.
"You have every religion here you can imagine, including no religion," said manager Patty Kurp, 40, who is Catholic. "Everybody has that in common — they want to work out."
The parish was founded in 1863 by German immigrants, Fury said.
Parishioners built a Renaissance-style church on 60th Avenue in 1910, when there were hundreds filing through the church doors, according to a local historian. As the congregation dwindled and the church struggled to find ways to make ends meet, they got creative, Fury said.
Mark Ortiz, who was a member of the congregation and operated gyms in the neighborhood, convinced Fury to build a workout facility inside their former church on 60th Avenue in 2009.
"He convinced us to try this as diversification for business," Fury said.
Ortiz, the "moving force behind us," died of an aneurysm in 2011, at the age of 44, Fury said.
The church was sold that year and the gym moved to Fresh Pond Road. Services for about 70 families are now held in a Lutheran Church at Catalpa and 61st avenues.
Fury, a father of three grown children, does outreach every Thursday at Rikers Island, where he meets with a group of five to 15 inmates to talk about everything from entering back into society to forgiveness. He's even hired some ex-cons to work in the gym, recognizing how hard it can be to find work once they're released.
It's not an unfamiliar place for the pastor, who worked as a lawyer and a judge in Putnam County before he was jailed for white-collar crimes related to his business.
"I've been on both sides of the law," he said. "My commitment was to not forget where I came from and what got me there."
When he was released from prison more than 20 years ago, he went to the New York Theological Seminary, where he received a masters degree in divinity — but when he began a doctorate in divinity, he decided to leave the program halfway through.
"Who needs a doctorate? It doesn't get you to heaven any quicker," he said.
Fury said he doesn't think a church that doubles as a gym is less than any other church. To the contrary, he said.
"I get agitated because Sunday morning is an ego trip," said Fury, adding that he's sick of the "dysfunctional Christians who think they do something just by going to church."
"You get all dressed up and stand there and speak. The real stuff is what the hell is going on Monday through Saturday. I'm proud of the fact that we're doing things completely different."
The New Olympia Gym is open seven days a week, from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Membership starts at $25 per month, with tanning packages available as well as personal training. For more information, visit their website.