Weight of the World

Running in five minutes late to last Thursday’s monthly workshop meeting of all six chapters of the Deborah Movement, I was one of the first to arrive. The Deborahs (pronounced De-BOR-ahs) are a group that aspires to restructure the black community through the actions and spiritual development of women. Last week’s workshop theme was health, featuring bodybuilding champion Tischa Thomas as a guest speaker.

Of the half-dozen  people in the bright office space at 35th and King, the only man was Philip Jackson, a thin, fatherly-looking figure in a yellow “EDUCATE OR DIE” sweatshirt. The unassuming Jackson is founder and executive director of the Black Star Project, an influential Chicago organization working to close the racial academic achievement gap with initiatives like the Deborah Movement, which it helped to organize.

After directing the group’s attention to the refreshments in the back, a middle-aged woman named Claudette Redic, with thick, square eyeglasses and shiny burgundy fingernails, asked if the eldest Deborah present would bless the gathering so that the meeting could begin. The room joined hands in a circle, while Reverend Catherine Jackson said a benediction over the meeting and gave thanks for the group’s opportunity to do service for their communities.

Davis returned to the front of the room after the prayer to update the group on various projects that Deborahs or Deborahs-in-training could support, including a sisterhood program started by female students at Price Elementary School; ongoing “peace-making circles,” in which 52 corners in Chicago are blessed by the Deborahs and their affiliated prayer groups; and the formation of PTA chapters at nearby schools. In partnering with local schools, churches, and health facilities, the Movement provides what Deborah member Barbara Sanders calls “a light in the darkness. We execute visions.”

Reverend Jackson introduced Thomas as the evening’s speaker. “There’s power in knowledge. I know I don’t have to be like that,” she said, looking over at Thomas’s impressive muscles, “but today I can learn [about] some new lifestyles.”

Thomas, a three-time national bodybuilding champion, has the fiercest body I have ever seen in real life. She has been competing in bodybuilding competitions for just one year, and is currently ranked eleventh in North America for the category of women heavyweights over 35-years-old, and twelfth for all women in the heavyweight category. But three years ago, Thomas belonged in a very different category of body-type, describing her former self as “imprisoned” in fat, weighing in at 276 pounds.

After waking up one morning unable to breathe, scared that she was having a heart attack–“It was like the angel of death had kissed me,” she remembers–Thomas knew that something had to change, for herself and for her children. “I realized I gotta put myself first. I know sometimes we women want to put everyone else first,” she said. Several “mhmm”s and nods came from the crowd. “But if I’m not here, who’s going to run the show?”

Thomas invested in a treadmill and began to walk. She made a goal to lose one pound at a time, one day at a time, and not to get discouraged by slow progress. She recounts with pride the day that she was finally able to jog a full mile without stopping: “It was like I had already won a marathon.” After losing thirty pounds she took her exercise routine outside and hired a personal trainer, who suggested that Thomas consider bodybuilding.

She ends her presentation by leading several Deborahs through a basic warm-up routine. A tired-looking woman in a UPS jacket joins Thomas at the front for a round of jumping jacks, high-knees, and pushups, joking, “You know CPR, right?”

At her recently opened training facility in Washington Park, Optimum Body Fitness & Nutrition, Thomas asks her clients the same question that the Deborah Movement asks of each new neighborhood chapter: “What is it that you always wanted to do, but never thought you could?”

The Deborah Movement is working, like Tischa Thomas in her own life, to bring about permanent change, which sometimes arrives slowly and painfully. One Deborah, Barbara Sanders, reminds frustrated young chapters, “Social transformation doesn’t happen in one year. Do not get frustrated, do not throw up your hands.”

The Deborah Movement meets monthly at the Black Star Project office at 3509 S. King.  To get involved, join their Yahoo group by clicking here