MIAMI (Mennonite Mission Network) — A bench press, some dumbbells and a multi-purpose exercise machine are the trappings of home for a group of teenagers in Miami.
Three times a week, high-school youth gather at Branches, a faith-based mission organization in Miami that sponsors this gym, for a time of weight-lifting that builds both muscle and faith.
Tony Baurichter, the volunteer who developed the weight-lifting outreach to give youth an opportunity to stay off the streets and out of trouble, gets as much energy from the teens as from the rigorous workouts. Baurichter, a member of the Dwell program run by DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection), infuses the ministry with his own passion for fitness and for youth.
For many youth, Baurichter has become a mentor and trusted advisor. Youth ask questions about God, drugs, girlfriends, education and any number of issues that are close to a teenager’s heart, and Baurichter offers them a listening ear, an encouraging voice and an invitation to become active in Bible studies and other aspects of the Branches ministry.
An avid weight-lifter himself, Baurichter knew that fitness was important to teenagers and in conversation with other staff members, agreed to help develop a workout ministry.
“I always wanted to start lifting weights, because I play football and wanted to get stronger, but I never had access to a gym before. And this is not like a regular gym. At other gyms, you have to work by yourself, but here it is easier because they help you learn how to lift,” says Amos*, 16, a regular at the gym.
Baurichter knew that Amos was not alone in his desire to get fit.
“High schoolers like to lift weights and be fit. We wanted to use this as a gateway to get kids involved in other aspects of the ministry,” he said.
In order to create the gym, Baurichter scoured yard sales and solicited donations from area vendors. He brought the equipment to Branches and worked to convert an old thrift store into a workout room.
The result of Baurichter’s sweat and work is a thriving ministry. On any given day when the gym is open, anywhere from eight to 20 teenage boys and girls gather together to push their muscles to the limit and build community through conversation and camaraderie.
“Although you can get a good workout in our small gym, the true purpose of this place is much greater than just improving physical health. Weight lifting is a tool that I use to build relationships with the teenagers,” Baurichter notes.
Conversations with the youth are what keep Baurichter moving ahead. He can recall several important conversations where youth were able to open up and share deeply from their personal lives.
Victor, a high school student often on the fringes of activities at Branches, attended a few workouts early on and became hooked on weight-lifting. After his introduction to the program, Victor became a staple in the gym and at a Branches bible study.
Baurichter sees another important part of his role as pushing youth to persevere.
“Most of them don’t have much parent involvement and don’t have anyone that pushes them to go farther. I challenge them to go beyond their limits-even when it’s difficult,” said Baurichter.
Teens that have attended the sessions regularly can lift up to 50 percent more than when they began and many have also chosen to become active participants in the community at Branches.
“At weight-lifting, they make you feel welcome. It’s fun,” said Travois Reddick, 16, a regular lifter. “They invite you in like you’re a member of the family.”
Although his term with Dwell ends this summer, Baurichter is not planning to leave this family behind. Beginning this fall, he will assume the full-time role of youth and young adult coordinator at Branches.
Baurichter said, “I believe that the adage is true that young people spell love, ‘¬T-I-M-E’” – time that he is willing to share in return for the friendship, conversations and space that he has been offered by the youth at Branches.
Dwell is one facet of the DOOR program, a partner to Mennonite Mission Network’s Christian Service ministries. Dwell participants are invited to be a part of God’s transformative work in the city by spending a year living in an intentional Christian community while serving at an area non-profit organization. Dwell placements are currently available in Atlanta, Denver, Hollywood, Miami and San Antonio.
* Some of the teens quoted asked that their last names not be used in this story.