Partners in Health
Many people will walk into a Salvation Army church or community center seeking spiritual redemption. But initially, Tamiko Wilkerson came to the Philadelphia Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center to improve her physical health.
“I was extremely overweight, pre–diabetic, and suffering from sleep apnea,” said Wilkerson. “My doctor said I could consider bariatric (weight loss) surgery, but before I even took that step, I had to change my eating habits and start an exercise program.
“My husband Thomas did not want me to get the surgery. He said I had to exercise anyway, so we should try it. If it wasn’t enough, then I should consider the operation.”
Regular exercise was foreign to her, Tamiko admits. Determined, she took advantage of discounted membership fees at the Philadelphia Kroc Center and began a workout schedule. The exercise routine changed her and Thomas—both physically and spiritually.
Thomas found it easy to support his wife’s new mission. “When Tamiko started coming here, she had a workout partner. But her partner wasn’t as consistent as Tamiko had to be. This couldn’t simply be a ‘sometimes thing’ for our family. So I put on a brave face and insisted on it in my home, because I couldn’t show Tamiko how afraid I was of losing her,” Thomas said.
“I told her, ‘I will be your partner. We will get into a routine, set goals, and we’re going to bring you back to health.’”
With their son James also on board, the Wilkersons became regulars at the Kroc Center. Tamiko took water aerobics and Zumba, and the only men in the classes, Thomas and James, worked up a sweat next to her.
The family soon learned the Salvation Army had even more to offer them. “In the midst of working on my health, we were also transitioning between churches, and it was making me feel lost,” said Tamiko. “I’ve always been a member of a church.” While attending their previous church, she had been in the process of being ordained. Thomas was also studying to be a minister.
The Wilkersons planned on visiting various churches in the Philadelphia area and had discussed the possibility of launching a Baptist church. But when Tamiko and Thomas attended Bible study classes in the Kroc Center, they began to see it as far more than just a gym.
“I knew about the Army’s kettles, stores, and now its gyms,” said Tamiko. “But I didn’t know it was a church and a sanctuary for people who needed it. That understanding set the tone. The church was more than just the chapel. It was the whole building and every room had a ministry.”
“We told our pastor (Major Dennis Young) we were looking for a new church and making plans for the future. We promised him, ‘As long as we are here, the Army is going to get 100 percent dedication from us.’ Major Young welcomed us.”
The Wilkersons quickly found their own niche at the Kroc. To accommodate both ministry and exercise, they attended six days a week after work, which they still do today. Thomas became a coach for an intramural basketball squad. He calls it his first experience treating the Kroc as a sanctuary.
“I advised my players to control their tempers and watch how they talk to others. I explained to them that they were playing inside a holy building. When they realized it, they started treating each other, and the building, with more respect.”
“I love seeing children be part of The Salvation Army. It shows there is growth here,” says Thomas. “When you see a church with no kids, that’s when you know it isn’t growing. An alive church has young people.”
Tamiko noticed people crossing over from weekday workouts to Sunday services and vice versa. The Wilkersons’ friends in exercise class also came on Sundays and members of the congregation asked how she had lost so much weight.
Tamiko understands their struggle. “For a long time it was difficult for me to talk about my weight problems, even with my husband. But at the Army, I came out of my shell,” she said.
‘But God…’ moments
Today, the Wilkersons are soldiers at the Kroc Center. They’re heavily involved as teachers, preachers, and leaders in men’s and women’s ministries. Their son James mentored the Adventure Corps. Five years since she walked into the Kroc Center, Tamiko has lost 100 lbs. She no longer has sleep apnea or is pre–diabetic.
“What surprised me the most,” says Thomas, “was how I’ve been mentored. Normally, when I come to a church that feels so big, I don’t expect to receive the one–on–one guidance we’ve received. But Major Dennis has guided us and has been so open about his own life and walk with God. Majors Dennis and Sharon Young are eager to teach and want to see us succeed in our ministries.”
“I will carry those lessons with me all my life, regardless of where I go.”
“Coming to the Salvation Army was one of those ‘But God…’ moments,” says Tamiko. “Our family could have spent years looking for a new church, but God found a home for us. I could have spent the rest of my days struggling with my weight problem, but God had other plans for me. He brought us to the Army, and me back to good health.”
by Robert Mitchell