Champion bodybuilder shares skills, faith in Cuba
By Jeff Brumley
What does it take to get a bunch of tough guys to open up emotionally and maybe even consider embracing the spiritual side of life?
Ruben Ortiz says the answer is simple: another tough guy.
And that’s just what the Cooperative Baptist pastor from Florida had with him during a September mission trip to Cuba to evangelize the island nation’s largely underground bodybuilding community.
“He is the star,” Ortiz said about personal trainer and retired bodybuilder Anibal Lopez, 73. “He is a former Mr. America.”
The sole purpose of the Sept. 23-30 trip to the province of Ciego de Avila was to connect Lopez with young Cubans and particularly men and women who are bodybuilders — though not necessarily Christians, said Ortiz, the pastor of La Primera Iglesia Bautista de Deltona, a CBF church in Deltona, Fla.
Having Lopez share workout techniques, healthy eating habits and Christian testimony worked, Ortiz said.
“They were so hungry to listen to that,” he said. “They were crying — those muscle men were crying and saying ‘please tell me more.’”
Seeking God’s direction
But there was a time, not all that long ago, when Lopez himself was the one crying and asking for guidance during an encounter with Christ.
That return to faith was preceded by decades of spectacular athletic success that began at age 14. That’s when he discovered his mind and body’s proclivity — weight lifting.
And that’s when the trophies and plaques began to accumulate. In the late 1960s, after service in the U.S. Army, the Puerto Rico-born Lopez won serious bodybuilding titles including Mr. Gotham, Mr. New York State and the Amateur Athletic Union’s Outstanding Body Builder of the Year.
The stakes were larger a decade later, Lopez said. In 1978 he was named Mr. America and Mr. World with added recognition for Best Legs, Abdominals and for Best Poser.
His success continued after retiring from competitive bodybuilding in 1983, he said, as he embarked on a career in speaking, consulting and personal training.
But while all of this energy went into building himself up physically and financially, Lopez said, he did nothing to develop his soul.
“I was born [in the Bronx] to a Christian mother,” he said. “My mother was Baptist…and taught me from childhood to believe and trust in God.”
But it wasn’t until he was 50 and living in Florida that he began to sense God’s presence and, he said, that his career and fame as a bodybuilder was about something other than trophies and money.
Eventually, Lopez said he gave in, and tearfully asked God to direct his life.
“I said I want you to use me, that I want to do more as a Christian,” Lopez said. “I said I want you to use my bodybuilding experience as a tool to win others to Christ.”
‘Huge underground movement’
Ortiz said the timing of Lopez’ calling couldn’t have come at a better time for their congregation, CBF Florida and for bodybuilders and other athletes in the U.S. and Cuba.
With relations normalizing between the two nations, faith-based trips to the island are expected to become easier to organize, he said. But there are challenges.
“Cuba doesn’t like bodybuilding because it represents capitalism to them,” Ortiz said. “But it is still a huge underground movement based on all the gyms we visited.”
Cubans who are into bodybuilding have thrown themselves into it with a feverish dedication, he said.
“They build their own (weight) machines. It’s amazing what they do,” he said.
So that community was very receptive to the five-member team from La Primera Iglesia Bautista de Deltona — but mainly to Lopez, who was the only one who had permission to speak to groups during the visit.
“He talked about total health and we gave them a lot of medicines and clothing,” Ortiz said.
Lopez also shared Christ with them.
“There were a lot of conversions and he planted seeds,” Ortiz said. “We’ll see what happens in that community – they were observing like sponges.”
‘Humbling and exciting’
But Lopez said he had a lot to learn about faith and spirituality before he could share the message with others.
Even after returning to the church, Lopez said it took years before he fully understood what it meant to put God first in his life.
“God said to me, ‘I do not share my power and your trophies are still your god,’” he said.
So Lopez pitched decades worth of bodybuilding trophies, plaques and medals into the church dumpster.
“That was 15 years ago,” Lopez said.
Since then he’s been building a ministry promoting the importance of physical and nutritional health as ways to glorify God.
“I teach about God and your body and that we must take care of our bodies, that exercise is great — so that we can live healthier lives for the Lord,” Lopez said.
It was a message the Cubans craved, he added.
“I was able to share my testimony over there with bodybuilders who don’t even attend church,” he said. “Some of them asked me for prayers.”
The experience surpassed anything from his bodybuilding career, Lopez said.
“Going to Cuba was the most humbling and exciting experience of my life,” he said. “The titles I won cannot compare.”