At God’s Gym, members find kindness, support and an unlikely spiritual leader

Hours before dawn, Gary Shields’ first set of clients make their way into God’s Gym. At 4 am, they stagger in out of the dark night wearing hooded sweatshirts pulled over their heads. Gospel music plays as Shields shifts heavy weights around, preparing for the workout. He is wide-awake—he’s been up for hours.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday Shields wakes up at 1 am, does two hours of cardio, weight training and solitary prayer, and then opens the gym at 3:30 am. Throughout the day, he eats a meticulously planned diet that includes 4 to 6 ounces of protein-rich foods like chicken, beef, tuna or eggs, every two hours.

On any given day, close to 90 clients come to God’s Gym for personal training from Shields, before he closes up shop at 11 pm. Some clients, like the 4 am crew, lift heavy weights and work on their massive physiques. Others have more modest routines, toning or rehabbing injuries.

Gary Shields owns God's Gym, located at Broadway and 25th St. in Oakland.

Gary Shields owns God's Gym, located at Broadway and 25th St. in Oakland.

God’s Gym is hard to miss no matter the time of day. The two-story storefront on the corner of Broadway and 25th Street is painted jet black from top to bottom. Images of two posed, flexing bodybuilders fill the front windows. One is a silhouette of Shields in his prime. Centered between the bright, bold white words of the gym’s name is a painting of a buff, black Jesus breaking free of chains.

Inside, the gym is no less striking. A thin waterfall trickles up on the second floor. Neon signs designate certain areas of the gym—“Leg zone,” “Abs zone,” “Iron zone.” Bodybuilding trophies are stacked high near the front door, and newspaper clippings from Shields’ past—bodybuilding competitions and local media coverage—line the wall. The equipment isn’t new or flashy. Upstairs, in what Shields calls “the cave,” there is a red felt pool table flanked by two oversized, black leather recliners. Colorful paintings reflecting different periods of Shields’ life fill the small, mood-lit room—a dim, crowded boxing scene, a raucous church choir, and a portrait of a toned African-American couple, representing Shields and his wife.

Shields is in terrific shape. He is 49, but looks at least ten years younger. A former champion bodybuilder, Shields makes repeated mention of having been a lot bigger during his competing days. Looking at him now, it’s not immediately clear those days are behind him. His tight black God’s Gym T-shirt stretches around a thick chest and thicker arms. “I’m almost back to that level,” Shields said while showing pictures of himself in competition almost 20 years ago.

Standing well over six feet tall, he moves slowly but with purpose across the gym floor, his muscle-bound arms swinging slowly. His speech starts softly, but often erupts with emotion into a booming laugh.

Shields grew up boxing and playing football throughout the East Bay, and started lifting weights when he was 18. One day he walked into the Downtown Berkeley YMCA and met a supportive and caring group of bodybuilders who took him under their wings.

“At 19, that’s it, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Shields said. “I wanted to create the same type of caring environment, helping people no matter who they were.”

At the YMCA—unlike in other parts of his adolescent life—Shields found a supportive community that embraced and loved him. His mission then became replicating that environment at a gym of his own where everyone could feel comfortable and better about themselves.

“By the time I was 23, I was in business for myself,” he said.

But the goal of creating a positive, caring space didn’t come so easily.

He opened his first gym in West Oakland in 1985, calling it “The Iron Pit”—a name that usually refers to prison yard weight rooms. Many of Shields’ first clients and workout partners had recently gotten out of jail. “We were used to training in hardcore small little places,” Shields said. “That’s what bodybuilding was then. We didn’t have to have treadmills, we ran outside. We didn’t have bikes, ya know, you rode your bike around the block.” Although there was a strong sense of camaraderie among The Iron Pit clientele, the focus in the gym was on aggression and bodybuilding competition—befitting of the name, according to Shields.

In 1990, Shields moved The Iron Pit to the Auto Row building on Broadway that now houses God’s Gym. One day a few years later, on a whim, Shields grabbed a bucket of black paint and climbed a ladder in front of the gym. “I just went outside and painted over ‘The Iron Pit,’” he said. “I couldn’t stand looking at it anymore.” Shields said he had “outgrown the philosophy of The Iron Pit” and had “transformed into a kind and nice person.”

The transformation went deeper than the name on the front of a building. Shields had recently had a baby boy, Gary Jr., and his own father had recently found religion at the age of 47—in the process, transforming from a rough, serious man to a smiling, happy and loving father and husband. “When I saw my father change from the type of guy he used to be, I said, ‘Yeah, I want that kind of soft heart,’” Shields said. “Whatever made you like that, I want it.”

Shields had also been angry and unhappy. He used his size to intimidate and instill fear in others. “People that lived around me didn’t respect me because I was a kind person,” Shields said. “They respected me because they feared me.” He began to get involved in “illegal activities” and regularly “got stoned drunk” in attempts to mask his unhappiness.

“Prior to embracing the faith, my only means of escape was through weights or something physical,” he added.

But after his father paved the path to religion, Shields found another outlet—one that changed his entire demeanor and outlook on life—Christianity.

“But now, I had such a peace and a calm,” he said. “I realized at that point that it wasn’t Gary’s gym. It was God’s Gym.” He had finally found the path to fulfilling his goal—creating a supportive environment where he can help people improve themselves. A place where they feel they belong.

From time to time, curious passersby will peak in and ask about the name. “They say, ‘Why’d you call it God’s Gym?’ And I say, ‘Because it’s the source of my success,’” Shields said. “’What would you call it? Bob’s gym? Joe’s gym? Sally’s gym?’ That pretty much stops the conversation,” he said, letting out a long, loud laugh.

Shields still has the words “Iron Pit Gym” tattooed on his massive right bicep. But he now has a new tattoo on the inside of his right forearm—one he refers to as a “cheat sheet.” In elaborate script, the words “God’s Law for Success and Prosperity” headline a list that Shields checks often when he finds himself slipping into his old way of thinking. The list includes things like, “Christ = Love,” “Hope = Joy,” and “Faith = Integrity.” Shields is now assistant pastor at Living Word Ministries in Oakland, where his father Willie is senior pastor.

Michael Howard works out at God's Gym a little after 4 am, as Gary Shields looks on.

Michael Howard works out at God's Gym a little after 4 am, as Gary Shields looks on.

According to Shields, his new good-hearted nature manifests itself in the kind, caring community of God’s Gym—something he’s been striving for since his days at the YMCA. Despite the name of the gym, the religious preference of his clients isn’t important to Shields. “They don’t have to be any kind of religion,” he said. “They can be atheist, it doesn’t make any difference to me. As long as they are kind and courteous to other people in here, we’re good.”

On the front windows of God’s Gym, two neon signs read, “We Care,” each with bulleted lists that highlight Shields’ personalized style of training. One list reads: “We Care … About Your Health, About Your Self Esteem, About Your Improvement … And Finally, About You.”

In addition to promising to get clients in “extraordinary condition,” God’s Gym’s mission statement highlights the “loving and supportive environment.”

“People can come in here and exhale, and just feel cared for,” Shields said. “That’s what we put on the sign. We didn’t advertise the best price in the Bay Area. We didn’t advertise ‘We’ll get you in better shape than anyone else.’ We advertise that we care. That’s what we do.”

This positive message seems to be working, especially in tough economic times. Shields rattles off a long list of small gyms in Oakland that have closed down or merged with large corporate chains over the years. “We’re one of the few that are left that you can walk in and feel like you are part of the family,” Shields said.

“I’ve been through three recessions, and I’ve been fine,” he continued. “Business hasn’t gone down, business is doing fine. Actually, business is doing better this year than it was two years ago. It’s better than last year, so it’s been great.”

Michael Howard, has been coming to God’s Gym for more than ten years, and training during the 4 am shift for more than five years. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Howard went looking for a way to regain his health. “I was flipping through the yellow pages,” Howard said, “and I saw this thing—God’s Gym. I was like, ‘Wow!’” Howard made a call to Shields and explained his situation, one that had turned off other gyms fearing possible litigation if Howard got hurt or his condition worsened. Shields told Howard, “Come on in, we can do it. We’ll find a way.”

Thanks to Shields’ forceful, yet loving and supportive training, Howard said he “went from a wheelchair, to a walker, to a cane, and now the way I am today.” That would be as a healthy, strong, fully functioning member of the 4 am crew, with an imposing physique and a wide smile.

At other gyms, Howard said people would stare at him because of his disability. “When I came here, it seemed like nobody cared,” he said. “They just welcomed me in and told me to get to work.”

For Howard, the individual, caring attention made all the difference in the world. He now calls Shields a friend, brother and spiritual leader.

He calls God’s Gym “home.”

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