By Sarah Ford | Photo by Kristin Pazulski
The gym of the Union Baptist Church, just off of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, hasn’t seen a lot of activity in the past few years. But tonight, the walls echo with repeated shouts of “knuckleheads” and the squeaking of gym shoes over worn wood.
Sweating and huffing alongside the roughly 25 people working out is A Stronger Cord founder Mark McIntosh. McIntosh started the program in June of last year as an outlet for men rehabilitating through the Denver Rescue Mission, and it has since grown to something much bigger.
“Our addictions have us isolated, and we’re trying to bring everybody together,” says McIntosh. “And it starts with the workout.”
A Stronger Cord joins those from the Rescue Mission and anyone wanting a workout for an hour of high-pace calisthenics led by volunteer trainers. The goal, McIntosh says, is to provide a way for those at the Mission to begin rebuilding personal bonds and social productivity, in addition to new muscles.
McIntosh got the idea after leading a chapel service one Thursday morning last year, where he often discusses the importance of health and exercise in maintaining mental health and productivity. Afterwards, one of the men had a question.
“One day, one of the guys challenged me and said ‘Mark, when are we going to start working out?’”
The idea was born, and McIntosh started bringing men to the nearby Phoenix Multisport Gym for workouts. Now, the vision has outgrown those humble beginnings. In addition to the weekly workout at Phoenix Multisport, there are three weekly sections at the Union Baptist Church. It may have started as a “homeless boot camp,” but there are now 20 to 50 people attending each session, according to McIntosh, coming from all over Denver, ranging from businesspeople to school groups.
“This is a community-wide problem that knows no gender boundaries, no racial boundaries, no socio-economic boundaries. We’ve got too many isolated, unfit, stressed out people everywhere,” says McIntosh.
Sitting in the stands watching is Lester Fisher, who works as a fundraising chair and active volunteer at Union Baptist. He understands the benefit of the workouts for those in the Rescue Mission program—he is a graduate.
“They are always talking about walking a mile in my shoes. I know where they’re at, I’ve been where they are,” says Fisher. “That isolation...those things fester [and] makes us do what we do. It keeps us pressed down so all we can do is think about relief and escaping our feelings.”
Fisher’s ties to the Denver Rescue Mission program brought him to connect with McIntosh as he was looking for more space for the expanding workouts. Although Union Baptist has only been hosting workouts for two months, both Fisher and McIntosh talk excitedly about the opportunity.
After the workouts, McIntosh herds participants to the church cafeteria for a large group discussion, now part of the routine. The group talks after exercising are meant to help form bonds, and bring the group to discuss how they can reach out to the surrounding northeast Denver community.
“The gym that we’re working out of is kind of ground zero for us. We pull people in, and we sweat, we bond, and we grow,” McIntosh explains. “So often, everybody wants to sit down and talk about something. But you come in all stressed out. So let’s start with the workout.”
Fisher hopes A Stronger Cord will help bring together what he sees as a divided community.
“When the guys come here...these people have jobs and homes in Cherry Hill and Lone Tree. They come here because they want to work out, and they know that they isolate,” Fisher says. But the activities, cleanups and workouts, he hopes, will reach out to the Five Points neighborhood, building bonds and friendships across separate sides of the fence.
It is a goal that has enjoyed vocal support, McIntosh says, from various members of the Denver City Council. Councilman Chris Herndon has come to participate in a workout, and McIntosh says many members of City Council have said they are on board with his mission. But it’s not enough.
He hopes for support in bringing more recovery agencies on board with the program, recruiting their clients to A Stronger Cord and giving them a place to go after the early-morning departure times required by the shelters.
It’s a step that would require involvement from businesses, local gyms and the downtown-area shelters all sending people over to join in workouts, continuing to bring together separate worlds.
“We need to rebuild their social networks, that’s the vital piece of getting the community involved,” McIntosh says. “At the very least, we’ll all get in better shape.” ■