Faith & Fitness
Turning a love of athletics into a caring outreach to community.
Joy Williams ’87, who grew up on Long Island, has been athletic since she was a child. While other kids were watching Saturday morning cartoons, she and her sister would be out riding horseback, fencing, or waterskiing. Her parents encouraged their daughters to experience a wide range of physical activities. As she puts it, “Whatever there was to do, they found it and dragged us there.” At Vassar, Williams built on that foundation by joining the cross country and rugby teams.
But while attending a church health fair post-graduation, she noticed that few of her fellow parishioners shared her knowledge of fitness and, surprisingly, there was little information about the subject matter at the event. That gap inspired her to create the exercise and diet program Gospel Fit (gospelfit.com).
Williams started the program six years ago as an altruistic hobby, a way to combine her keen interest in wellness with her participation as a member of the Memorial Presbyterian Church in Roosevelt, New York. Now, she’s looking to expand Gospel Fit into a working business model that other churches and faith-based groups can use.
“Seventy-five percent of African Americans consider religion to be important and so, particularly in the African American community, Gospel Fit can help bring those two parts together,” she says. “The goal here is to see [fitness] as a part of your whole life.”
Williams created a website and blog for the program. Similar to Weight Watchers or SparkPeople, Gospel Fit’s members can go online for fitness advice and support. But Williams also has organized gospel aerobics classes and seasonal group walks for Lent and Easter that combine spiritual contemplation with more tangible, physical goals. She has created fun incentives for wellness—among them, a healthy cooking challenge for the roughly 70 members of her group, so the food served after Sunday service wouldn’t be as fatty as the food typically found at church potlucks.
Church members tracked what they ate and how much they were exercising in journals. Williams emailed them encouraging scriptures each day. The structure of Gospel Fit worked. She could see that holding people who wanted to make lasting changes in their health accountable made a big difference.
Williams is beginning to develop web-based applications to help other churches replicate her model, and she is spreading the word about Gospel Fit by guest blogging on other fitness websites. She has also been working with Robert Pierre, a former journalist at theGrio, a news site for African American readers, to find the best ways to monetize the company’s model.
In addition to selling ad space on her site, Williams sells Gospel Fit t-shirts, its “21 Days of Thanksgiving Diet,” and other fitness tools at such gatherings as the Circle of Sisters Expo for women of color business owners, held in New York City this October. She will also charge for fitness classes and other Gospel Fit events.
As Williams aims to expand the company, she’s confident that it will attract a lot more people interested in having healthier bodies and a more satisfying relationship with their spirituality.