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Jim Karas describes the intersection of faith and fitness

Jim Karas Rev. Manny Dorantes Phil Chung

Jim Karas, Rev. Manny Dorantes and Phil Chung

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Updated: January 27, 2013 9:29PM

We’ve all known people who came into our lives for a reason — people who seemingly appeared out of nowhere, but ended up having a huge impact on our lives. I recently sat down to talk to two of my friends who did just that for one another; Phil Chung, the president of Jim Karas Personal Training, and the Rev. Manny Dorantes, the associate pastor of Saint Clement Church in Lincoln Park.

Last year, Phil, who was raised Korean Presbyterian, expressed to two of his clients that he wanted to develop his relationship with God by converting to Catholicism. He explained that as a personal trainer, his primary focus was the physical health of those around him, and as a result, he’d lost touch with his own spiritual needs. The clients, Elizabeth Cole and Molly Perry, immediately thought of Father Manny — he’d helped them foster their own spirituality — and set up a meeting between the two men.

Phil was initially nervous about converting, and his parents weren’t thrilled with his decision, either. “Let’s just say that when I told my mother I was marrying a Jewish girl a few years older than me, she took that news better,” he says.

But when the two men met, Father Manny quelled Phil’s fears immediately. “He reminded me that that faith was like any muscle — in order to strengthen it, I’d need to work on it. So he customized faith-related ‘workouts’ to fit my schedule and needs,” Phil says. Father Manny puts it another way: “He was passionately seeking a spiritual home. I helped him find it.”

Though he wouldn’t admit it out loud, Father Manny was in need of some help as well. As a newly ordained priest, he was overburdened. “I felt I had to be available to my people 24/7. As a result, I disregarded my personal health,” he admits.

More specifically, Father Manny found himself packing on the pounds as a result of delicious dinners with his parishioners. “When I’m invited into people’s homes for a meal, it’s a great honor. But the family often feels that they have to go all out — and that generally means it’s not the healthiest food,” he says, smiling.

He expressed his health concerns to Phil during one of their counseling sessions. Phil immediately sensed an opportunity. “I offered Father Manny fitness training, since he gave me my faith,” he says.

At first, Father Manny resisted. “I give the gift of faith for free and don’t expect anything in return,” he protested. “It’s my calling.”

But Phil was persistent. Along with providing his personal training services, he insisted that he guide Father Manny through our metabolic detox diet. He custom-designed the program for the priest, extending it to 40 days because of the number’s scriptural symbolism.

“What Phil wanted me to do was take my vows to God and apply them to my physical life. That spoke to me,” says Father Manny.

The efforts of both men paid off. Father Manny lost 40 pounds, and as he puts it, “I now have the energy to put even more of myself into my work.”

And as for Phil? He converted to Catholicism in August, and hasn’t missed Mass since. He volunteers with Saint Clement’s Youth Group — and still sees Father Manny regularly at the gym.

Jim Karas donated his fee for writing this column to St. Clement Church,

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