They emerge from the pitch-black early morning into the glow of the streetlights on the blacktop, one by one.
It’s 5:30 a.m. on a chilly Wednesday in October, and 19 men are gathered in a circle on the upper parking lot of Blackburn Park in Webster Groves. They exchange fist bumps and good mornings.
Then, the beatdown begins.
“We call these workouts ‘beatdowns’ because we beat down the gloom — the gloom of the mornings, but also of our minds,” Steve Schaefer said.
Steve, 57, is among hundreds of men throughout the St. Louis area engaged in F3, a free, peer-led network of workouts. The only equipment is a 39.5-lb cinder block; the only requirement is that you are a man who wants to better himself.
Jon Ott, a.k.a. Unitard — each man is given a nickname by the other men at the end of his first workout — leads the men through a series of bootcamp-style exercises: arm circles, “blockees” (burpee exercises using the cinder block), running, an abs and core set called “Captain America.”
As sets get more difficult, the men encourage one another: “Looking good, Patches.” “Attaway, Brownie.” They push themselves, but according to their own limits; Steve, a.k.a. GMO, has a bad shoulder, so he modifies the overhead presses.
A nearby church bell tolls the 6 a.m. hour, and it starts to pour. The men are now under a covered pavilion, using picnic benches to do step-ups, but it wouldn’t matter if they were out in the rain — workouts are always outdoors, regardless of heat, cold, rain or snow. “There’s no bad weather, just bad gear!” one man calls out.
When the last sit-up has been sat, they gather shoulder-to-shoulder for the “circle of trust” that concludes each workout. Jon, a parishioner at Annunciation Parish in Webster Groves, shares a short passage from the previous weekend’s Mass reading from 2 Timothy: “If we have died with Him, we shall also live with Him; if we persevere, we shall also reign with Him.”
The sun still isn’t up as they disperse to drive home.
‘What we’re talking about is virtue’
F3 — fitness, fellowship and faith — is a national network founded in 2011 and has been activein St. Louis since 2017
. While F3 itself is non-religious — the “faith” just means you have to believe in something bigger than yourself — many Catholic men in the archdiocese have found the community to be an excellent avenue to both building personal virtue and evangelization opportunities.
Before Father Andrew Auer, associate pastor at St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Ellisville, attended his first F3 workout in April, he was a bit of a skeptic.
“You’re half-awake, and you show up to a random parking lot, and you’re just hoping that people will actually be there and you’re not getting punked,” he said.
He’d always enjoyed leading an active life and working out regularly, though, so he decided he could give the group workout a try. It’s free, after all.
“Fitness is the magnet that attracts guys,” he said. “It’s like, OK, you want to be accountable to somebody and actually work out? There’s a group of guys who meet faithfully, five days a week, in different locations all within a three-mile radius of your house.”
The first F leads to the second: fellowship. “When it’s a harder workout, we’re all really leaning on each other to make sure we get it done together. And that teamwork and camaraderie come from the common suffering,” he said.
“Then the dynamite that explodes the whole thing is the faith component,” he said. “There aren’t many places in American society where men feel like they can be vulnerable with each other. We don’t feel maybe as self-sufficient as we project. A lot of guards come down when guys share at the end of the workout in the circle of trust. One guy shares from his heart about things going on in his life and maybe some motivational words. And that’s where, whether or not the name of Jesus is mentioned, those are some of the most real conversations I have in a 24-hour period.”
By building discipline and opening up to others in authentic friendship, “What we’re talking about is virtue,” Father Auer said. “If grace builds on nature, that beautiful theological principle, then we need to be more human in order for God to intervene in our life. And I think (F3) is helpful in establishing a healthy humanity for men.”
Sharing the journey
Steve Schaefer, a parishioner at Mary, Queen of Peace in Webster Groves, was considering leaving the Catholic Church when he agreed to go on an ACTS retreat in 2009.
“I heard men tell their testimony and their stories. And I couldn’t believe they were sharing these things that I had struggled with — I thought I was the only one,” he said. “So from there, I really poured into small group sharing, because I knew that if I could be transformed, if I could believe in Christ, if I could strive to be a better man, then I wanted to help other men feel that peace and that sense of belonging, too.”
He started attending F3 workouts shortly after the network reached St. Louis but became more involved in 2020 when the pandemic shut down parish activities. He found the same opportunity for developing relationships and journeying with other men there.
“I felt like my heart needed to be big enough to get to know men in the broader St. Louis area,” he said. “It was an attitude of loving the man first, wanting to know who he was, know what his hopes and dreams and failures were so I could love him, so he could feel that love and sense of belonging to want to change his life.”
As Steve was preparing to lead an ACTS retreat earlier this year, he decided to make an open invitation to the retreat during the circle of trust at an F3 workout.
“You get to know these guys — they trust you, you care about them. And you say, ‘Can I share something with you that had a huge impact on my life?’ and invite them to go on this ACTS retreat,” he said. “And this last retreat, we had six guys from F3 who were not Catholic, who were spiritual but not religious, but because I invited them because I had a relationship with them, they agreed to try something that has an important impact on my life.”
For Jon Ott, F3 has given him the confidence to be vocal about his own faith with his peers. He didn’t initially approach the workouts as a means to evangelization, but the circle of trust is “a gateway into sharing who I am and my faith in a way that’s not oppressive. I’m a total introvert, so for a long time I’ve been tempted to take the route of just being a nice guy, and people will see that, and that’s how I can witness,” he said. “But having the ability to share for five minutes with people who are going to listen because they respect me, they’re going to take what I say and reflect on it and see how it plays into their own lives — for me, that’s a great step into the life of another man to share my faith with them.”
James Chalmers, a.k.a. Squints, another parishioner at Mary, Queen of Peace, is a regular at workouts at Blackburn Park. Most men and women “wear a mask on a daily basis,” he said, and F3 is a way to break down those walls and meet others where they are before inviting them deeper.
“It starts with a workout. And then it’s hey, let’s go to a workout, and then let’s go to 6:45 Mass,” he said. “You’re not asking ‘Will you become Catholic with me?’ It’s just sharing part of your journey. This is the Holy Spirit talking to you. And I found that’s the more subtle or natural way of evangelization within the Catholic faith.”
Steve, John and James agree that F3 workouts have ripple effects that last beyond the early morning hours. They’re more patient. More willing to admit they’re wrong and ask forgiveness. More ready to listen to others. Better husbands, better fathers, better friends.
“The impact is huge, when you think of the legacy of a man’s family and his future. I broke the cycle of abuse in my life; I want to help break that cycle of addiction and abuse in other families,” Steve said. “The bigger story of changing the world with stronger, more virtuous male leaders starts with a one-on-one relationship and conversation to know the man first, then figure out what it is that you can offer him — a world of encouragement, or challenge to help him realize he’s not alone.”
Father Auer sees room for the Church to learn from the F3 model. “I think the Church needs to learn how to get smaller, in the sense of small groups, and one-on-ones, and actually getting to know each other,” he said. “I think the Church often feels too big and too sterile. I don’t want Mass to feel like an isolated obligation under the guise of religion. I want people to experience a deep and profound and intimate love for Jesus and for the people in their lives.”
Doing hard things — like lifting a cinder block over your head 400 times at 5:30 a.m. — helps strengthen Catholics to be able to take on the challenges demanded to live as true disciples of Jesus, he said.
“F3 has especially shown me how to invite people into something that’s attractive and hard,” he said. “Honestly, we just live in a really cozy, comfortable society. And there’s nothing about F3 that’s comfortable or cozy. It’s a real challenge, and it takes a lot of dedication and commitment.”
Once he was hooked on F3, Father Auer started inviting in more and more people — fellow priests, seminarians, parishioners, men he met around the neighborhood. Pretty soon, he helped establish a new workout location to be able to host the number of new participants he brought; now, he’s seen the “chain of discipleship” continue as men he invited have brought additional men into the fold.
Through the connections he’s made in F3, he’s been able to invite men back to Mass. He offered to baptize the child of a Catholic man who hadn’t scheduled the sacrament for his child. And, he serves as a witness that priests — and the rest of the Church — are normal people, pursuing holiness.
“I hear comments regularly that guys have been blessed to see a priest who leaves the rectory. Just to have the presence of the Church in the midst of the world I think is a blessing,” Father Auer said. “Catholics need to be represented in every facet of American society, so why not F3?”
The Five Core Principles of F3
1. Free. Always free. Never a fee.
2. Open to all men. Every man is always welcome.
3. Held outdoors. Rain or shine. Hot or cold. We are out there.
4. Peer-led. Men volunteer to lead other men in a rotating fashion. Yes, that will mean you.
5. Ends in a circle of trust. Always ends in a circle of trust of the leader’s choosing.
Find your AO (area of operation)
For info and workout details in the city of St. Louis, visit f3cityofstlouis.com.
For info and workout details in the greater St. Louis area, visit f3stlouis.com.
For info about the F3 movement, visit f3nation.com.