Separation of church and weights

YMCA. What swan dives to mind as soon as you hear those four letters? If you're under 60, it's probably the Village People song about finding "it" there. I've always found it a weird footnote of pop culture that this gay caricature tune is something most men, women and children have belted out and even pantomimed at wholesome family sporting events.

The second thing that might come to mind is exercise. The Y is, after all, a gym. There are focused, self-disciplined, high-minded people who might think of this aspect before they'd think of the cop, the Indian and the construction worker.

Then there are people like me, and maybe you, who think of the Y as an abstract idea to consider once in a while. They, or in this case I, look at their hips, in this case mine, and notice that all the jalapeño poppers and beer have snuggled up and are resting there -- and why not? They are fine, friendly and rather articulate hips, and anyone in their right mind would want to spend time there.

Nonetheless, like a bear shedding its coat after the winter, there comes a moment (or 100 moments) in every vain person's life when they figure it's time to shed whatever scrumptious thing is stuck to them, and they usually think about going to the gym. I thought of the Y, mostly because all my friends go there, and you bet that if they all aerobicized right off the edge of a cliff, I'd follow them, because what's the use of being alone at the top of the cliff?

Mission impossible

Mission impossible

So I went down to the Y in my neighborhood and toured the facilities, goggled at the shiny, clean equipment, the number of swimming pools, the spinny bikes and the classes offered. I was all set to sign up until I noticed the mission statement on the bottom of one of the schedules: "To promote Christian values."

I felt like one of those cartoon characters that gets stuck inside a ringing bell. Not being a Christian and generally not liking the conservative and proselytizing nature of the things that "promoting Christian values" would imply, I had to stop short. To me, being socially conscious mostly means making sure you talk to everyone at the party. But I'm always a little leery of forking over substantial money that might end up going to, well... God knows what. Some televangelist's toupee collection. Anti-choice fruitcake-ism. Zealous puppets. You want to be careful about funding these kinds of things.

Since the Y is the trendiest club since Studio 54, I asked some friends who belong if the "Christian values" thing gave them pause. Yes, they said, but not enough. They deflected their concern with statements like, "It's such a great facility," "Everybody goes there" and "It's the best gay cruising spot in town."

I wanted to feel that glib, but as a gold-medal anal retentive, I couldn't swan past it that fluidly. How would I feel if I paid for a membership and then discovered the Y was a corporate sponsor of a Kathie Lee Gifford tour? I couldn't live with myself.

Open to interpretation

So, while for the most part I'm a serious proponent of ignorance-as-bliss, I had to take these needling questions to someone. It turned out to be Arnie Collins, associated director of media relations at the Y's Chicago headquarters.

"You have to remember that the YMCA is a grass-roots organization. Every YMCA is different," he said, and each one may interpret their mission differently according to the needs of the community it serves. It all boils down, Arnie said, to promoting the values inherent in all major religions of "caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.

"We're not a religious organization, certainly," he said. "We have no religious agenda." So the "Christian values" is a bit like the "men's" in Young Men's Christian Association. After all, the membership is 50 to 51 percent female. I suppose it might be like if an assisted-living facility had just not bothered to take down the "Spinster's Home" sign after 100 years.

The mission statement goes back to the Y's establishment nearly 150 years ago and was taken from a biblical verse, John 17:21, "that they all may be one," which Arnie said means, in secular terms, "to be inclusive," not exclusive. "The YMCA of USA happens to own, operate and manage the international YMCA in Jerusalem, the board of which is one-third Christian, one-third Jewish and one-third Muslim," and the membership reflects that ratio, he said.

So it seems you can, like the song says, still find "it" at the Y without necessarily finding yourself in a "Tight Buns for Jesus" aerobics class, like the skittish among us might be wary of doing. I haven't signed up yet, but it's good to know that you can go there and work out your body while doing your soul work the way it ought to be done -- privately.

This isn't to say that some people haven't had religious experiences at the Y. I suppose it depends on who you're watching do squats. And what they're wearing. It is fun to go to the YMCA.

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