OAKLAND – There aren’t too many independently owned gyms anymore, and fewer still with rules such as no dating, no flirting, and no cursing. Then again, there’s only one God’s Gym. It’s located at 25th Street and Broadway in Oakland.
God’s Gym owner, Gary O. Shields Sr. was just 19 in 1981 when he began bodybuilding at the old YMCA in Berkeley. He loved the aggressiveness of the sport and the camaraderie he found at the gym.
By the time he was 23, he had saved enough to open his own 900 square foot gym in West Oakland. He called it The Iron Pit, a street term for a prison yard weight lifting area. Many who trained at The Iron Pit came to the gym after being released from prison. Shields turned them into champions. He personally won five amateur titles, and over the years, he coached his teammates to 32 more.
“The Iron Pit” is still tattooed across Shields’ 19 inch, shaved left bicep. But, Shields’ gym isn’t in West Oakland anymore. It isn’t called The Iron Pit. And, he no longer leads a bodybuilding team.
Painted gloss black with two neon signs reading “We Care,” Shields’ new facility, named God’s Gym, is emblazoned with murals depicting a muscle bound Black Jesus presiding over silhouettes of a male and a female bodybuilder on parade. He moved the business to its current location in 1990.
“When I moved over here, I had $8 in my pocket,” Shields said.
“When I opened The Iron Pit, I hadn’t embraced faith. I was a prisoner in my own mind. When I embraced faith, it changed my life,” said Shields.
Shields said he grew surrounded by racial tension. He was filled with anger for many years. But, he says his relationship with Christ allowed him to be kind again.
Today you can see evidence of Shields’ prosperity in the late model BMW with the GODZ GYM plates parked in front of the business.
“It’s successful because of God,” said Shields who has added a “God’s Law” tattoo to his left arm and a Bible verse to his right.
Charlotte Franklin, 64, said she loves working out with Shields. She first came to God’s Gym with her college-aged granddaughter. She says she’s put on a little weight in her retirement and Shields is helping her to “get this tire off of me.”
While Shields cajoled three gym members through a set of lunges, KTVU weekend news anchor, Sara Sidner ran at full tilt on a treadmill in the center of the gym. She said she talks about everything from politics to religion with Shields. And, she’s met a ton of people at the gym too.
“There’s not a person in here who’s not interesting,” Sidner said.
That’s by design. It’s his goal to tear down economic and racial barriers inside God’s Gym. Today, people from all backgrounds sweat together.
“I introduce everyone to everyone – rich people, not so rich people, they’re all here.” Shields said.
“Money didn’t make me happy. My biggest accomplishment is changing people’s lives,” Shields said. “People come here. They’re hopeless. They say, ‘I can never get in shape.’ I help them.”