“I got calls from so many people,” Shepherd recalled. “I’ve been on ‘Oprah,’ Anderson Cooper’s show — I can’t remember all the shows.”
She has spun that fame into a fitness mini-empire, including personal training and speaking engagements. Shepherd has even written a book, “Determined, Dedicated, Disciplined To Be Fit,” about her fitness journey.
The Baltimore native comes to Lansing Friday to help a local church celebrate its own triumph of longevity. Trinity A.M.E. Church, which is celebrating 150 years in Lansing this year, hosts Shepherd as keynote speaker for Walk of Ages, its anniversary event.
Shepherd hasn’t always been dedicated to fitness. When she was around 12, Shepherd was hit by a car. Doctors told her she would never be able to run or exercise.
“I used that as an excuse,” she said. “I never did anything.”
Decades later, at the age of 56, Shepherd was trying on swimsuits with her sister, Velvet. She didn’t like what she saw.
“We hadn’t worn swimsuits in years,” she said. “She looked at me and started laughing. I said, ‘You’re not looking so hot yourself.’”
The two made a vow to get fit and joined a gym. But the real change happened when, at Velvet’s prompting, Shepherd began lifting weights.
“I didn’t know much about lifting weights. I thought if you started lifting weights you would look like a man,” she said, laughing. “But I noticed a change in my body. I started looking nice.”
Velvet thought the duo could make it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest bodybuilding sisters. But dreams of fitness and fame were derailed when Velvet died unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm.
“I hated everyone. I hated everything. I hated God,” Shepherd said. “I had panic attacks. I was depressed.”
Shepherd gave up on exercise entirely, but an otherworldly encounter put her back on track.
“Velvet came to me in a dream,” Shepherd said. “She said, ‘You’re not doing what you said you would do.’”
Shepherd attacked her fitness routine with renewed vigor, even enlisting the help of Yohnnie Shambourger, a decorated bodybuilder and former Mr. Universe. She started competing at bodybuilding shows, which was when she was contacted by Guinness World Records.
“Velvet’s dream has become my reality,” Shepherd said.
The bodybuilder will be joined Friday by Kimberly Whitfield, a local fitness instructor and member of Trinity A.M.E. Church, and the Rev. Lila Rose Martin, who leads the congregation. Martin, who has been at Trinity A.M.E. Church for five years, is the church’s 43rd pastor and its first female pastor.
“The church has had so many people who were determined that the church should survive,” Martin said. “Just to be part of a body that is everlasting, so to speak, is incredible.”
Founded by a group of 21 members in 1866 as the Independent Methodist Episcopal Church, Trinity A.M.E. Church is Lansing’s oldest African American congregation. The church was also known as Bethel A.M.E. Church and George R. Collins A.M.E. Church before settling on Trinity in 1964. Originally located on Pine Street in downtown Lansing, the church was forced out in 1966 by the expansion of state government and moved to its home at 3500 W. Holmes Road.
Saturday, a group of 21 current members will walk from the church’s original site to the pavilion at Frances Park. There, at 10 a.m., they will be joined by other congregation members and walk to the church, where there will be a brief rededication service.
The weekend’s activities will commemorate a church that has been a bulwark in the local African American community for 150 years.
“For black people, church was our lifeline,” Martin said. “The church was the only place where we felt free, free to be who we are.”
Walk of Ages
With Ernestine Shepherd, Kimberly Whitfield and the Rev. Lila Rose Martin
5:30 p.m.-8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23
Trinity A.M.E. Church 3500 W. Holmes Road, Lansing
(517) 488-5471, kwinspires.com