A cold rain pelted the Hyattsville storefront. But inside, a group of women were sweating hard--unconcerned about the bad weather or slick streets.
"Shake it, ladies! Are we looking good?" shouted Margaret Dureke. "Yes!" the women replied.
"As we know we should, Whoa! Whoa!" Dureke screamed.
The pulsating rhythms of African church music stirred the women to move faster during the exercise class. People come to such classes several times a week to work out and enjoy music of different cultures--all in the name of Jesus and losing weight.
Although aerobics classes have been popular for people wanting to drop pounds and relieve stress, the women who are part of Dureke's program, which she has dubbed "Jahs Odiche Fitness & You," said they have found a venue that is a spiritual break from the world of corporate spas, where people often worry as much about fashion as they do about fitness.
"We are a family. I am not just another number here," said Maritza Savoy, 29, an employee at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. "It is very spiritual here. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be here."
As Savoy and others worked out with hand weights, they listened to the sound of an African spiritual song. Translated from the Nigerian language of Ibo, the lyrics included, "Jesus, I'm fine as long as you are in my life."
"God is the foundation of our business. Without him, we wouldn't be here," said John Dureke, Margaret's husband, who with his wife started Jahs Odiche Fitness in 1994. The Durekes live in Riverdale and have two children, ages 10 and 7.
In Ibo, Jahs means "Jehovah God," and Odiche, "doing something a different way."
"Some people go to church, but they don't know the Lord," said John Dureke, whose fitness center is one of several spiritual exercise programs in Prince George's County. "The body is the temple of God, but many don't have control of their lives."
A number of churches in Prince George's sponsor weight loss or fitness programs for their members. On gospel station AM 1340 WYCB, there are several health programs. Margaret Dureke's fitness show airs from 7:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays. On it, she preaches the gospel of self-control.
The people who attend the classes at this mom-and-pop health and fitness outlet in Hyattsville are involved in activities to get connected with their bodies, from Afro Kick Box/Reggae Aerobics to "Odiche Relaxation" to manage stress.
For Victoria Perrymon, 20, of Northeast Washington, the classes "relieve tension." Rhonda Jennings, 34, of Landover Hills, said she goes for "encouragement." Lisa Johnson, 34, of Hyattsville, said Jahs Odiche is a place to come where nobody focuses on size. "I have been to other gyms that didn't treat me well at all," said Johnson, a financial analyst at the Department of Housing and Urban Development who has lost more than 60 pounds since attending Jahs Odiche Fitness.
A few years ago, Johnson's life was much different. Her first encounter with Margaret Dureke came inside a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop in Hyattsville, where Johnson was dealing with depression through scoops of coconut almond ice cream, Johnson said.
Fitness instructors at other gyms "were telling me that I was going to die if I didn't work out, they treated me so bad," said Johnson, who quickly bonded with Dureke. Dureke was different, Johnson said. "She believed in Jesus Christ. She believed in the power of prayer, and so do I."
Dureke, 36, said she never planned to become a fitness guru. A native of Nigeria, she came to the United States in 1982 to become a lawyer. But after graduating with honors from Howard University in 1986 and receiving a law degree from American University in 1989, she still wasn't happy.
"I didn't look forward to getting up in the morning," said Dureke, who, despite landing a job at a Maryland law firm, was unhappy because she had ballooned up to 220 pounds. "I was miserable. I couldn't tie my shoes. I was angry at people. I just didn't feel attractive."
John Dureke, 43, said his wife was very unhappy because the life she had planned was not fulfilling. John and Margaret each have undergraduate degrees in political science. John said he met Margaret while he was a graduate student at the New York Institute of Technology and she was getting a student award at the United Nations.
Both had planned for careers in politics. "Most people who come to this country from Africa are not in the health and fitness business," said John Dureke, who also is from Nigeria. "It is expected that when you come to the United States, you pursue the American dream."
After years of struggling to lose weight, the Durekes started working out in their home in Riverdale in the late 1980s. "We would put on gospel or Ibo spiritual or high-life music and exercise together."
"We started doing our native dance. I said, since this is what we are good at, maybe people would like to do this to lose weight," said John Dureke, who got the idea after he put on an African dance cultural presentation at a Presbyterian church camp in Slippery Rock, Pa.
In 1994, the Durekes leased space in a College Park office building and started a fitness center with six clients.
"For me to really take control of my life, I really needed to lose weight," said Margaret Dureke, who didn't start to lose weight until she left the fitness club she belonged to at the time. "The only time someone asked my name was when I signed the contract. After that, no one really cared."
For more than a year, Dureke and her husband distributed fliers in the community to build their business. Times were tough, and money was tight.
"You go to school and plan your life. Then events change, and you start all over again," John Dureke said. "In Africa, my childhood dream was to come to the United States and pursue the American dream. Even though I didn't go into politics, owning your own company is a bigger part of the American dream."
The Durekes moved to several locations before they settled at 4206 Gallatin St. in Hyattsville two years ago. Now, they say, their business has really taken off.
"Even though we were not making a lot of money, I felt that I had found my purpose in life," said Margaret Dureke, who has gone from a size 22 to a size 9 since starting her new career. Dureke said she came to that conclusion by developing a relationship with God beyond going to church.
"I was going to church, but I didn't know the Lord," she said. "Before, I would go to church, take communion and leave because I was brought up to go to church. It took personal life experiences to really understand how God works and to have inner peace.
"Before you can help people physically, you must deal with their emotional, psychological and spiritual problems, which is usually the reason why they overeat," Margaret Dureke said. "People come to the spa with a lot of baggage, but before they work out, I say, 'Wait a minute, let's talk.' "
Margaret Dureke said she finds out about all aspects of her clients' lives when they join her group. "I want to know what kind of music they like, what type of activities they are involved in. What is their purpose for exercising?
"At the end of the meeting, they either break down and cry, thank God for finding someone to help them with their problems or have deeper problems than the need to exercise."
Today, the Durekes have more than 200 clients enrolled in 18 different classes. Margaret also has her radio program, and a television program on Jones Cable Channel 15 that airs at 10 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. The couple even have their own line of exercise clothing and accessories.
"When God blesses you with an opportunity to come out of a situation that a lot of people find themselves trapped in, you have a moral duty to help and to spread the Word," Margaret Dureke said.
CAPTION: Margaret Dureke leads her Odiche aerobics class at her studio in Hyattsville. Dureke, with her husband, has more than 200 clients enrolled in 18 classes. She also has a radio program.
CAPTION: From left, Rhonda Jennings, Yvonne Brown and Vanessa Greene take a break during the Odiche dance aerobics class.