'Ripped Reverend' Finds Joy In Bodybuilding

Amy Richter was slathered up in oil and wearing a sparkling red bikini when she competed in her first bodybuilding contest a few years ago. That was quite a change for an Episcopal priest. Host Michel Martin speaks with the "Ripped Reverend" about keeping the body and spirit strong.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll get a fresh cut on some of the week's stories from the guys in the Barber Shop. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we turn to Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And with Memorial Day upon us, for a lot of people that means the beginning of beach season, so we decided to ask, what does faith have to do with being buff? We thought our next guest would be just the person to tell us because as an Episcopal priest the Reverend Amy Richter would be the first to tell you she's most interested in what is going on inside a person rather than on the outside, but somewhere along the way she decided to break out her inner Miss Universe.

She began competing in physique competitions in 2004, starting with the Wisconsin State Fair, and she did pretty well. More recently, she decided to out herself and write about her experience in the New York Times, and she's here to tell us more.

Welcome to the program. Thanks so much for joining us, Reverend Richter.

REVEREND AMY RICHTER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And I do have to say you do look great.

RICHTER: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Why did you start working out?

RICHTER: Well, I had been a runner for many years and really enjoyed that, but it was really a personal experience that led me to want to work out with weights more. My mother had a very short, fierce battle with cancer about 13 years ago now, and I think she was part of a generation that was never quite at home in her body. She was a very healthy person and a lovely person and a strong person, but she was almost always on a diet and she expressed a lot of dissatisfaction. Nothing extreme, but something that I've heard a lot of other women from her generation express.

And I remember when my mother died, as we were waiting for the people from the funeral home to come, my father said I need to go say goodbye to your mother's body. And I must have looked at him questioningly or something. He said, you know, I know that's not all of who your mother was, but that's the body I woke up to every day for 35 years. That's the body that gave birth to you and your brothers. That's the body your mother had when I fell in love with her.

And I was so struck by that and thought, I really need to make sure that I make friends with my physical self and really explore what my body can do. So I had been doing some weight lifting and I thought, you know, here's something I'm going to push myself on a little and explore a little more.

MARTIN: And I'm sorry about your mom, by the way.

RICHTER: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: I'm sorry about that. But - I'm sorry for your loss. But I can see that there are a number of women who - not just women, but people who, once they kind of get into it and realize that they can be stronger, it gets good and it starts to feel good and people think, yeah, this is great.

But that's kind of a journey to then deciding you're going to compete in a physique competition.

RICHTER: Yes.

MARTIN: And the reason I think it's particularly interesting, is it's not - it has been a struggle for many people to see women in the pulpit. And for most of the world's religions, modesty is a part of that, for both men and women.

RICHTER: Yes.

MARTIN: So then I have to ask - the journey to deciding - you know what? I'm (unintelligible) not going to lift, but I'm going to strut my stuff. I want to know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RICHTER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...how did that mental journey take place?

RICHTER: Well, I love having new experiences, and I do think that that's one of the great gifts God gives us, a chance to meet people you'd never meet if you didn't put yourself out there in some ways.

And something that's also true about being a minister in any form, but I think women have really sort of brought that to the fore - is that a lot of ministry and serving in the church is about cooperation and teamwork and empowering others. And I'm kind of a competitive person. So I thought here's one way that I can put my competitive energy into something positive.

Where it's not appropriate in my job to, you know, be trying to one up somebody or, you know - I know more about this than you do or something like that. And the strangest thing about it for me was this idea that rather than being, you know, almost completely covered up like I am on regular Sunday mornings, that I would be standing in a competition suit, which is designed to be modest enough, but still show a maximum amount of skin so that the judges can tell whether you're muscular enough.

MARTIN: And you did pretty well.

RICHTER: I did.

MARTIN: First time out.

RICHTER: Yeah. Not too bad.

MARTIN: You came in number two.

RICHTER: I wish I had come in number one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I can see that. How come you didn't tell anybody, though? You didn't tell your congregation at the time. Why do you think you didn't?

RICHTER: I wasn't sure how they would take it, and I think it can be such a leap for some people from a woman in the pulpit, modest, to out there and showing off, in a way. And I kind of wanted to see how I'd do too, and...

MARTIN: To be really honest.

RICHTER: Yeah.

MARTIN: So how did it go when it finally, you know, was - when all was revealed?

RICHTER: You know, it was really fun. I did get to - it was a glimpse into a different world than I generally hang out with on Sunday mornings. It's a different kind of competition too. I had done a number of marathons and running events where the event takes so long and is effort the whole way through.

And in this kind of competition, it's a little different in that all of the training comes - and preparation is before. The event itself - I know there's some technique involved and effort involved on that day, but it's more like just showing off the fruits of your labor instead of having to run for four hours or however long it takes to complete a long run. But it was - I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. My guest is the Reverend Dr. Amy Richter and we are talking about her foray into bodybuilding, if you could believe that. What are people saying now? I don't know if people at the time knew, because this was - your first competition...

RICHTER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...was back in 2004 and you had your trophy.

RICHTER: I had my big trophy.

MARTIN: And so did people - how are people reacting to it now that it has emerged that this is something you're interested in?

RICHTER: I told a few people at the time and reaction was mixed. A number of people from church said that's great. There were a few people who said, you know, I'm not sure we're ready to know that about you. Now I'm happy to report that people who have responded to me directly, both people I know and emails I've received, have been very complementary, and a number of people said that's really great and inspiring and wonderful. And people have asked some really good questions too about what does it mean to fully embrace our embodied, self and particularly for women to do that?

There have also been some, I think, negative comments that were posted to the New York Times site and some blogs.

MARTIN: What's the gist of it? That it's immodest?

RICHTER: Some of that.

MARTIN: Vain? Or just - I don't want to see all that. That's like seeing my mom in a bathing suit. I don't want to see that.

RICHTER: Not so much that. More sort of comments that I've heard all along about, you know, it's not right for women to be ordained or it's not right for women to be up in front of people in an immodest way.

MARTIN: And what do you say to that?

RICHTER: Well, first of all, it's hard to imagine a more wholesome environment than the Wisconsin State Fair, so you've got to keep that in mind too. The context was family entertainment and really a wholesome environment.

I also think maybe it's really time to embrace who we are and that also means celebrating that we have bodies and let's do what we can to be as healthy as possible and I don't think that means that we have to cover up. All things in the right context, I guess, is also what I would say.

MARTIN: What have you sort of arrived at in terms of thinking again about the connection between your physical health and your spiritual health and how all that works together? Because, you know, there are cultures who feel that this country's willingness to have women uncover is a sign of our lack of respect for women as opposed to the agency of women - as opposed to the power of women.

RICHTER: Right.

MARTIN: So I'm just wondering how you - when you think of all those together, what...

RICHTER: Yeah. And that's a really good question, and I think it's the difference between choosing to compete in an athletic competition. You know, that's a very different context than having no choice about what you do with your body.

But I also think, at least within the Christian tradition, being an embodied self is really at the core of the Christian faith, and what I've come to is, I think, a deeper appreciation for myself and my faith about what it means. And it's still a mystery to me. I still - I'll never completely wrap my brain around it, but at the core of our faith is this belief that the divine took on human flesh and that in this person of Jesus the divine experienced human reality, not just in a spiritual way, but in a physical embodied way.

So, you know, this divine being experienced hunger and delight in his human self, in God's human reality in Jesus. So, you know, it's interesting. We just celebrated the Feast of the Ascension, which is kind of a curious, I think, Christian tradition, in which we say so this man was born, lived a human life fully, died a real human death, was raised with some kind of a resurrection body and then in his body was taken up into heaven.

And the point - or part of the point of that in the Christian tradition is that so some kind of physical resurrected body was accepted into heaven. The point for us as people then is that this physical self that I hopefully enjoy someday, in some form, will also be acceptable in heaven. That's really amazing.

So our embodied reality is not something to be rejected or avoided or thought of as a lesser part of our existence, but actually something to be enjoyed and used and put into the service of God and others.

MARTIN: OK. So how much can you lift? Come on.

RICHTER: I can...

MARTIN: Come on. Give it up.

RICHTER: Right now I'm bench pressing 130 pounds.

MARTIN: Not bad.

RICHTER: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The Reverend Dr. Amy Richter is senior pastor at St. Anne's Parish in Annapolis, Maryland. She recently published the essay "The Ripped Bikini-Clad Reverend" in the New York Times Magazine about her first bodybuilding competition, and she was kind enough to join us in our NPR studios in Washington, D.C.

Reverend Richter, thank you so much for joining us.

RICHTER: Thank you so much for having me.

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