The training floor of God’s Gym is definitely old school – one room crammed with barbells, benches, and ancient weight machines.
Brett Sweeney struggles through a set of squats under the eagle eye of personal trainer Gary Shields.
“Sometimes, it don’t seem like this place match the name with all the pain we go through in here,” says Sweeney, a God’s gym regular.
God’s is not your typical gym. Shields, the owner, is both a personal fitness trainer and an ordained minister. That accounts for some pretty unconventional gym rules like: no dating or flirting in the gym.
Try to get that fine man’s number while you’re waiting for your next set of crunches and Shields will show you the exit. There’s also no revealing clothing, no cussing, and no arguing.
“The bottom line is we’re here to get in shape and have a family atmosphere,” Shields says.
Shields is not someone you would want to mess with. With his massive biceps, he still looks every bit the champion bodybuilder that he used to be back in the 1980s. And he still keeps up a brutal regimen. Shields starts his day at God’s just after midnight with cardio and stretches. Then he does something that’s not part of a typical trainer’s playbook. He prays.
“I start asking God for his wisdom,” he says. “I start listening to what their needs are.”
Back in 2008, Shields could see one of his clients, Renata Gray, was hurting. Her parents had both died within months of each other. She was 100 pounds overweight.
“And I’m on the treadmill, “ Gray says. “Brother G, as we call him, comes over in his very gentle way and in that deep tone voice, ‘OK Sis when you want to start working on your health?’”
Gray took Shields up on his offer to make an appointment and just talk.
“And I literally just boohooed, I just released everything,” Gray saus. “Because it was August and it was the same month my mother died so I really felt like it was my mother’s spirit working through Gary.”
She’s now a trim 5 feet 5, 140 pounds. She’s part of Shields’ early-bird 3:30 a.m workout crew. And she’s one of many clients who go to hear his monthly sermons at Living World Ministries Community Church.
Embracing the faith
Shields wasn’t always so sanctified. As a teenager in Oakland in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he says he was headed for trouble.
“I was an angry young man,” he says. “I had been involved in immoral and illegal small time hustles since I was like 13 years old.”
But then one day he discovered weightlifting in a dirty, dusty basement at the Berkeley YMCA. A former Mr. Universe told him he had a bright future as bodybuilder. So Shields decided to try his luck in an amateur contest in Alameda. The only problem was he had no idea what he was doing.
“I didn’t know they had posing trunks,” he says. “They looked like drawers to me, so I got me some black drawers.”
He also didn’t know that he belonged in the teenage division, not competing with grown men.
“I’m like 19 then, and I get up there with all these men just as bold in my black drawers with baby oil on,” Shields says. “And I took 7th place out of 32 men.”
Two weeks later, he competed with his own age group. And that time, he got himself some real posing trunks.
“I wiped out all those teen-agers,” he says. “That was it. I was bit by the bug then.”
Shields went on to rack up bodybuilding titles. His dream had always been to start his own gym. So in 1985, he opened the Iron Pit in West Oakland. The name was a reference to the weightlifting area in a prison yard. It made sense at the time – a lot of his clients were ex-inmates. Shields built a team of champion bodybuilders. And he went through a life changing personal transformation.
“I embraced the faith in 1987,” Shields says.
But while Shields might have begun to find inner peace, the Iron Pit was surrounded by chaos. Crack hit West Oakland hard in the late 1980s.
“They was having these shootouts all the time. All the crack addicts started breaking into cars,” Shields says. “I almost went out of business.”
He heard that another gym in a safer area downtown was giving up its space at 25th and Broadway. He scraped together the money for the $1,100 a month lease by selling off his old Corvette and other belongings.
“By the time I painted everything and put new carpet, I had eight dollars left,” Shields says. “I had just gotten married, so my wife didn’t know I had eight dollars left. I walked through that door and worked 42 days straight.”
As Shields became more deeply involved in his religious faith, he began to feel like the name Iron Pit no longer fit. So he hired a man to paint the front of the building black to cover the sign.
“I was praying and praying and praying. I kept asking God, what am I going to put up here?” he says. “And I just kept hearing ‘God’s’.”
So that’s what he named it. But the change didn’t go over well with some of his clients.
“Some folks left, they was tripping,” Shields says. “But a lot more people came.”
Mark Ibanez was one of the ones who came. He started working out at God’s Gym nine years ago. Ibanez says the religious overtones of the gym don’t bother him at all.
“I consider myself a spiritual person, not hooked into any particular religion,” he says. “But I can tell you nobody pushes anything on you.”
Except maybe for more excruciating reps with the barbells.
Invest in people and in God
Shields has been helping people change their lives for the better for past 30 years. All the while, Oakland has continued to change too.
Shields remembers all the shops near God’s that used to be his neighbors that are no more. The tire rim store. The safe shop. Biff’s 24-hour restaurant where the pimps used to hang out.
“It was a furniture store here,” he says, pointing across the street from God’s. “Now they’re making it into some kind of coffee shop.”
An exodus of businesses from San Francisco has driven Oakland’s commercial leases through the roof. Uber recently announced that it was moving its headquarters into the old Sears building just down the road from God’s.
Many people in Oakland worry that the ride-sharing company’s arrival will further overheat the market—leading to more displacement.
But even if he has to move one day, Shields doesn’t ever worry about going out of business altogether.
“I’m a big saver,” Shields says. “ I’m always saving, saving.”
Shields says his motto is to invest in people and invest in God.
“That’s a great one-two punch,” he says.
This piece first aired on February 3, 2016.