By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — If churchgoers in Manhattan are looking to reach a higher power, then the Church for All Nations has a jump on the competition: there's a trampoline in the sanctuary.
The Lutheran church on West 57th Street doubles as the new home of Life Sport Gym, a gymnastics program that's been an Upper West Side fixture for three decades.
Coach Rudy Van Daele founded Life Sport with the help of a group of parents in the late 1970s, and it soon became a "neighborhood treasure" from its location inside the West Park Presbyterian Church, locals said.
But the program had to shut down in 2006 when it lost its space inside the church, breaking the hearts of neighborhood residents, said Community Board 7 member Marc Glazer.
"It was a rare thing for New York City and we were all sad when it had to close," Glazer said.
Now Life Sport is bouncing back.
Van Daele will teach trampoline, circus skills and tumbling on Tuesdays and Thursdays starting this week. During class, gym mats will cover the church's center aisle so kids can turn cartwheels, and the chancel — or the space around the altar — will serve as a warm-up area. When class isn't in session the trampoline and other equipment will be put away to make room for the church's services.
Van Daele encourages parents to join in his classes as well, inviting them to use the equipment whenever the kids aren't using it. Van Daele sees this method as a tool for building community as well as improving physical fitness.
Van Daele's coaching philosophy puts the emphasis on developing kids' sense of self, not grooming them to win at any cost, said Andrew Pacho, a Life Sport coach and gymnast who trained for the Olympics.
"It's less about perfection and more about self-worth," Pacho said. "It's about kids getting to know themselves rather than getting a medal."
Van Daele says his goal is to teach students self-confidence, healthy behaviors, and good relationship building.
"In some programs, it’s, 'Listen to the teacher and do what the teacher says'," Van Daele said. "That’s the opposite extreme of what’s going on (at Life Sport).
Van Daele, who grew up in Elmhurst, Queens and competed on the Queens College gymnastics team, first started teaching gymnastics on the Upper West Side in 1979 at Walden School.
Since then, he's headed gymnastics teams and programs at a slew of schools and houses of worship including Calhoun School, Trinity School, Congregation Rodeph Sholom, Central Baptist Church, Ethical Culture Fieldston School and Brearley School on the Upper East Side.
Van Daele says he likes working in churches because the lower rent allows him to offer his students scholarships or a sliding scale tuition. He also likes that houses of worship encourage a community-oriented philosophy.
He discovered Church for All Nations one day when he walked past and saw the church's doors wide open. Van Daele walked in and got to know Pastor David Haberer, who suggested that Life Sport move into his church.
"One of the visions of the church is to be the center of the community and be a place where people not only come to worship, but they come to do all the things that make up the quality of life in a community," Haberer said.
Besides, Van Daele says there's a bit of a spiritual component to the trampoline.
"Whenever you reveal the truth of yourself, that's a spiritual thing," Van Daele said. "Whenever you do something on the trampoline, you're free from distraction and you reveal something. You're expressing a discernible truth."