The Ministry of the YMCA

I met Danielle Mayfield in a church basement in Minneapolis. As I shook her hand and introduced myself, I recognized in her the look transplants to Minnesota sometimes get in the middle of their first winter: a little wild-eyed, pale, desperate for warmth in both mind and body. But as we chatted while balancing paper plates with popcorn and generic brand Oreos, our eyes darting to keep track of our daughters (mine, age one; hers, age two), I felt sparks of connection. We both worked with refugee communities and lived nearby, we both were trying to survive winter while parenting strong-willed daughters, we both needed friendship in a season of isolating cold and loneliness.

It wasn’t long before I learned that Danielle was none other than D.L.M., the mysterious writer who I had been following on McSweeney’s, where she wrote hilarious and troubling columns about her relationships with Somali Bantu refugees in Portland, OR. I saw myself in her stories as the bumbling do-gooder trying to navigate complex cultural boundaries; I was drawn by her self-aware critique of her own missionary impulses. Before long, we were doing childcare swaps and playdates around the city, chatting about refugees and poverty on the messy fringes of young motherhood.

Do you like how I coordinated my shirt with the book cover? Click over to read more about this amazing book:

Do you like how I coordinated my shirt with the book cover? Click over to read more about this amazing book:

One afternoon, when I came to her apartment to pick up my daughter after a childcare swap, we stood at the kitchen counter talking about her latest blog series on downward mobility. I told her how much I loved the series, but how I struggled with my own choice to move out of my old inner-city neighborhood. “You should write about it and send it to me!” she told me, her voice emphatic.

The piece I guest-posted on her blog was the first time I’d written anything personal on the internet, and the experience was life-changing. Writing, it turns out, even about my angsty and overwrought mind-loops, was a way of finding community and sanity. Though I spent my days as disheveled stay-at-home mom who rarely held an extended adult conversation, I could write about things that mattered to me.

Yesterday, I am proud to say, Danielle’s first book was launched into the world. It’s called Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith and you should buy it or request it from your library, stat. In it, she writes about unrecognized ministries - the kinds that are quiet and bland, the ones that click into place when you realize that doing “great things for God” isn’t what the Gospel is really about afterall. To celebrate her new book and say thanks for being my gateway drug to the writing life, I wrote this little essay on my favorite unrecognized ministry: the YMCA.


It’s Thursday morning and I am here at Our Lady of Grace, the YMCA. She beckons me inside with her friendly red block facade; an elderly man with tufts of white hair opens the door for me as I balance my slippery toddler and gym bag on my hip. Instead of receiving a bulletin, I swipe my card at the front desk and carry my son down the stairs to the childcare room in the basement. The capable staff hold out their arms to take my baby for the next two hours and I am so grateful. My son walks over to the giant plastic slide, his current obsession, and barely registers my wave goodbye. I walk away lighter.

There are a cast of characters here, and as I spend more and more mornings running on the treadmill, I start to recognize them. The cleaning lady with an easy smile and friendly hello. The man with developmental disabilities who walks very slowly on the treadmill. The Somali woman in full hijab who uses the elliptical machine. The pair of chatty stylish grandmas with silver coiffed hair and knee-length down parkas, getting ready for their water aerobics classes.

Today I run my thirty minutes on the treadmill. Sometimes I pray and watch the airplanes through the large picture window; other times, I am moody and distracted so I watch House Hunters on HGTV. After, I shower and change in the women’s locker room. It always feels luxurious to bathe and dress without my children underfoot, to adequately wash and rinse my hair under hot water. The women in the locker room are all shapes, colors, and sizes; some - like myself - walk with a towel wrapped tightly, while others walk naked and unashamed to the group showers. I watch their confidence, their total comfort with what God gave them - jiggly bellies, droopy boobs and all - and I find a new kind of body goal.

People sit in the lobby after exercising, like I am now, happy for a minute to read or write or chat while their children are in childcare. Others watch their kids through the pool window, the tell-tale smell of chlorine in the air. Sometimes I write, sometimes I work, sometimes I schedule doctors appointments or edit a friend’s essay. I look around me at the elderly men and women who crowd around the coffee dispenser and talk about their surgeries and grandchildren’s tennis match and I think: it’s like church, really.

It’s a place where people come to get highs - some you could say spiritual, but it’s probably just endorphins and free caffeine and childcare. Like a fellowship hall, people sit at round laminated tables and share peanut butter pretzels and hot coffee in styrofoam cups. It’s a social place, a place where community happens. Mothers with young children, the unemployed, the recently retired, the disabled - all looking for conversation, or a moment’s rest, or to chase down a runner’s high.

A friend once told me that we all need a third place. We all have work, we all have home, but there has to be a third place to find community: a weak cup of coffee, a commiserating chat about the weather, a person to inquire about last week’s vacation. I still attend my local church and find hope there, but I find myself being ministered to by the YMCA in the most unusual ways: the body positivity, the intersection of immigrant teenagers and old white men and jubilant children, the childcare worker who tells me what new thing my son did that day, the luxury of a solitary shower. Here, people are jumbled together in ways that other self-selecting communities are unable to achieve; cardiologists run next to single moms on food stamps, landscapers lift weights next to English professors. There are all kinds at the Y, and I am just grateful to be part of it.