Safe Haven: A Place of Trust

The YMCA that I go to is a hospitable, welcoming place that, like the community it serves, celebrates diversity in all of its manifestations: race/ethnicity, gender, age, national origin, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation. Contrary to what “YMCA” once meant, the Y is not aimed exclusively at young men or Christians. The Y serves a broad age span, from infancy through the end of life. It bends to accommodate differences and make people feel welcome, even though in the past, the Y was far less tolerant.

A good indicator of the change in tolerance at the Y is the attitude toward tattoos. At one time, the Y not only discouraged tattoos, but refused to hire tattooed staff, and strongly discouraged or refused membership to anyone who was heavily tattooed. Nowadays, however, the Y has heavily tattooed lifeguards who flaunt them.

The sauna is especially blind to the differences that elsewhere might divide us. I’ve long enjoyed the exchanges that develop as people sweat hard and talk freely. One old Ethiopian man used to talk about once having been high up in government, a large land holder, and a respected member of society, only to be deported after a regime change, when he lost everything. I’ve often thought about his experience when my wife and I both experienced major job dislocations. Compared to him, we were hardly dislocated and lost very little.

As a white male liberal, I enjoy the atmosphere at the Y, but occasionally something happens to make me feel like maybe I am less open to diversity than a lot of other people. Ten years ago, I saw two black men resting in an older car in the Y parking lot. One was snoozing in the driver’s seat, while the other was sitting in the back with his legs propped up on the back of the passenger’s seat. One doesn’t normally see people sleeping in a car in the Y parking lot, and I had a visceral reaction to these strangers. I told myself that their being black was irrelevant.

At first, I shrugged it off and went on my way. When I re-emerged from the Y, however, they were still there and hadn’t changed their positions. I began to deviate from my course and head toward their car. I wanted to say, “Are you guys okay?” which really meant that, but also meant, “What the hell are you guys doing here?” But something told me to stay away. Giving myself credit for being concerned about their well-being, I told myself that these days, the Good Shepherd is often told to mind his own business.

I felt like a real bigot and was ashamed of myself a week later, when the two black men I’d seen dozing in the car had been thoroughly integrated into the life of the Y. They’d been admitted under the Y’s national “away” program that allows members from visiting Y’s to get a number of free or discounted visits. Nobody clearly understood the relationship between the two men, but they gave the impression they were father and son. It was encouraging, even inspiring, to see such a strong, positive relationship between a black man and his son given that large numbers of black men are perceived as abandoning their children.

They appeared regularly in the small men’s locker room, using the weight machines, or lifting the free weights. They quickly made connections. JoAnn, who was about to finalize her divorce and was screening new prospects, began flirting with the father, had the clear impression he was reciprocating, and exhibited new relationship energy even in the absence of a relationship. Others regularly spotted for or were spotted by either the father or the son on the free weights.

The relationships among members intensified a few weeks later, when the D.C. snipers began their killing spree just a few miles from the Y. The local media recommended that people outside run in a zigzag stutter step, especially en route to and from their cars, to render them harder targets for the gunmen. My wife urged me to stop visiting the Y. She said going to the Y made me a sitting duck because the Y was surrounded by a woodsy area and directly abutted the Beltway. I insisted that if I was safe anywhere, I was safe at the Y.

Police developed a profile of the killers. Because the snipers were skilled marksmen, investigators believed they had military experience and were probably white and middle aged. Cops instigated traffic stops throughout the city. A close friend of mine, Jack, a Vietnam vet, was pulled over. As a white middle-aged vet, he fit the profile, but they let him go. The city teetered on the brink of martial law.

Meantime, the two visitors became part of the mutual support network that developed among members. Many members who had children at the childcare building became frightened that dropping off and picking up their children made them vulnerable. One day, after dropping off her son, a woman named Mary ran to the main building, threw open the back door, and ran full force into the welcoming arms of the older male visitor. She said it felt warm, she felt “relief,” and he gave her a feeling of great “consolation.” Meanwhile, for more than three weeks, the D.C. snipers perpetrated most of their killings within a few miles of the Y.

Imagine the shock, disbelief, fear, disgust, and outright fury we felt when on October 24, 2002, we learned that our two visitors, the supposed father and son, were the D.C. snipers.

They were captured when someone spied them sitting in their older model car—a 1990 blue Caprice, the same one I’d seen over a month earlier—on Route 70, on the way to West Virginia, snoozing at a truck stop over an hour from the Y. One sat at the wheel and the other sat in the back with his legs propped up on the back of the passenger’s seat, just as I’d seen them back in September in the Y parking lot, a week before they began their local killing binge.

When I heard who we’d been playing with, I felt the cold chill of death deep in my gut. It’s a feeling I associated with being caught in the act or with being found to be a fraud, or learning a loved one has been killed, badly injured, or overcome with a terminal illness. I felt a strong urge to scream. I don’t think I was alone.

The Y went through a period of introspection after the snipers were captured. JoAnn, who thought the older guy was interested in her, felt jilted. When reporters came to the Y, Steve told them, “I can tell you what they both look like naked.” Larry repeated that Malvo was such a nice, friendly kid. The Y itself also instituted at least one new policy, requiring photos of each member to be checked upon entry, even though after a few years, they dropped it.

Since then, it’s crossed my mind that, had I done something—anything at all—when I first saw them in the Y parking lot, and became suspicious, just maybe the course of history might have played out a little differently. My wife says I probably would have hired them out of compassion and sent them out into schools to administer surveys. She’s probably right. But what I told my wife during the three weeks of terror turned out to be accurate: I was safe at the Y because the snipers had made it their own safe haven. That’s where they went between killings to celebrate their finesse, rest, and replenish their energies.

The Y continues to offer a tolerant environment that celebrates diversity. One day I watched two Muslim women in green burkas wading through the Y’s indoor pool up to their necks, even though there are clear signs in locker rooms that bathers must wear appropriate swimwear and shower prior to entering the pool. Perhaps the two women were oblivious to the Y’s policies, decided to challenge them, or got a waiver. The Y apparently looked the other way to accommodate them. Assuming they were Muslim, they couldn’t possibly disrobe, much less shower, in public, and their definition of appropriate swimwear scarcely resembles what the policy had in mind. Welcoming diverse populations may be more important than rigid adherence to the rules. So the Y remains the same kind of place—open, tolerant, accepting—a place where people can trust and feel trusted, a safe haven.

Jim Ross

Jim Ross is a public health researcher with a particular interest in physical activity. He's an attender at Sandy Spring Meeting in Baltimore, Md., and also a long-time member of the YMCA that provides the setting for this story. He is grateful to members of the meeting who encouraged him to write this article, especially to Gary Stein who edited an early draft. A version of this story was previously published by

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