July-August 2021 | Health

Group effort

For 90 days, a bunch of men from Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Kensington gave up alcohol and sweets, took cold showers and committed to praying for an hour each day. It wasn’t easy, but the impact on their health and spirituality made the journey worth it.

share this
Some of the Exodus 90 participants at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, from left: Bob McCarthy, Chris Grant, Ed Tarbutton, Gabe Petruccelli, Jorge Garayta, Al Kish, Jason Osborn, Rob Liotta, Al Del Grosso, Chris Glaser and Grant Bonavia. Photo by Erick Gibson

It all seemed like too much of a sacrifice for Jorge Garayta. No snacking between meals. No television—sports included. Giving up booze. Taking cold showers. And toughest of all for the sweet-toothed 43-year-old, cutting desserts from his diet. “I will take down a pint of Americone Dream from Ben & Jerry’s, the one with Stephen Colbert’s face on it,” he says. “I don’t just dip into it; I would eat the entire thing.”

So the father of six politely declined a friend’s invitation to join Exodus 90, an intense three-month spiritual exercise that 32 of his fellow male parishioners at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Kensington began on Jan. 4. Instead, he decided he’d try to change a few things on his own. He committed to eating healthier and praying every day.

It didn’t work. He couldn’t—or wouldn’t—find time for the daily prayers. He still rushed to put his kids to bed so he could raid the freezer, plop down on the couch and watch TV. In mid-January, he confessed his failings to his priest, who urged him to formally join the program.

Two weeks before Exodus 90 ended on Easter Sunday in April, Garayta looked back on his decision to get involved as one of the best he’s ever made. “Like a lot of guys in this thing, I’m terrified for Day 91,” he said. “I keep saying there’s no way I’m going back. I don’t want to go back to a bowl of ice cream, I don’t want to go back to 30 pounds heavier. My wife is telling me, ‘Hey, you look good.’ She has been pulling the spiritual weight in our family more so than I have for sure until these last 72 days or so. This has gotten me up to her level. It’s been transformational for me.”

Exodus 90 is a national program designed to return Catholic men “to the fundamentals of the faith.” Participants download an app that includes a checklist for the asceticisms—simply defined as acts of self-denial—and daily scripture readings. It was brought to Holy Redeemer for the first time this year by Robert Liotta. Three years ago, one of Liotta’s friends asked him to participate at a different church. “When you look at the list of asceticisms, it seems insurmountable,” the Kensington resident says. “I said, ‘No way.’ ”

But last year he relented and joined his friend at the other parish. “When things are all going awry, I’m prone to anger or yelling, and I’m like, why am I losing my temper?” says Liotta, who has six children between the ages of  3 and 12. “There’s always one or two episodes where the kids just drive me crazy. I wanted to figure out, what is the deep root cause of that?”

By doing Exodus 90—committing to self-sacrifice, fraternity and an hour of daily prayer—Liotta and many of his fellow participants say they’ve become healthier spiritually, mentally and physically. It wasn’t easy, but it was one of the most fulfilling journeys of their lives.

Jorge Garayta—pictured with his wife, Caren—calls joining Exodus 90 one of the best decisions he’s ever made. Photo by Erick Gibson

Complacency, Chris Grant says, had crept into his life. The 58-year-old Silver Spring resident owns an information technology staffing business, and despite keeping busy with that and his three children, he felt like he was drifting. He’d sit on the couch planning to watch one episode of Seinfeld, and then, before he knew it, he’d watched three and dozed off.

“We don’t realize complacency has set in until we’re fighting a huge uphill battle,” he says. “It’s like a Terps basketball game. [Coach] Mark Turgeon’s team gets behind by 18; it’s exhausting to fight your way back. By the time you get back, it’s hard to get the lead and hold on to it because you’re exhausted. You’ve got to work harder. That happened to me.”

Grant, whose license plates read “TERPSNUT,” wasn’t thrilled when he found out that avoiding television was one of the 14 asceticisms required in Exodus 90. Among the others: a commitment to regular, intense exercise; getting at least seven hours of sleep a night; abstaining from soda or sweet drinks; listening only to music that lifts the soul; only using the computer for work, school or essential tasks (like paying bills); and using mobile devices only for essential communications.

It’s a daunting list. “Like doing Lent on steroids,” Liotta says. Several of the men admit to slipping up: having a drink at a small get-together, munching on potato chips, sneaking in at least a tepid shower. “The cold showers are very hard, especially in the dead of winter,” says Gabriel Petruccelli of Darnestown. “It certainly wakes you up. You learn to take a shower in two minutes, like my father did in the military.”

As the group leader, Liotta, 46, occasionally relaxed the rules. The guys were allowed to watch the Super Bowl and Maryland basketball in the NCAA Tournament, as long as they were with their families. “When the Terps were in the Big Ten Tournament, [in the past] that was something that I would have said, ‘Caren, get the kids to bed, I need everybody out,’ and I’d be like a monster,” says Garayta, a Kensington resident. “Not that watching sports is evil—it’s certainly not. It’s just the way that I was turning it into the main and only focal point at that particular time is just not the right way to do it.”

About 15 to 20 of the men doing Exodus 90 would meet at Holy Redeemer before sunrise. Photo by Erick Gibson

For Petruccelli, a 42-year-old orthopedic surgeon who’s been married for seven years, the discipline required to complete the program brought a clarity to his life that was missing. “I’ve enjoyed moments that I otherwise wouldn’t have looked at as being a moment,” he says. “I was driving my son to school and I was looking in the back seat. His eyes were moving with the trees, and the sun was beating down on him. I was just looking at him at the age of 5½ and thinking how amazing it was just to be in that moment with him. Three months ago I would have just looked in my rearview mirror and kept driving.”

After a few weeks of avoiding dessert, some were pleasantly surprised to discover that they no longer craved it. Bob McCarthy found himself wandering through the frozen foods aisle in Safeway one day, but instead of reaching into the freezer to grab a carton of ice cream, he took a picture of one through the glass. “I didn’t even care,” says McCarthy, 43, who lives in Kensington. “Ever since then, I’ve had ice cream just twice, and I’ve only had a couple bites. I wasn’t ravenous like before.”

Weight loss was a specific goal for some, but the primary motivation for most was strengthening their relationships with their families and God. In Garayta’s case, that’s what happened, says Caren, his wife of 19 years. When Garayta started the program, his family wasn’t sure how it would affect their home life. She and the kids know that he can get “hangry” (hungry and angry). They braced themselves for life with a grumpy dad and husband. But that man never materialized, she says, and now she has to fight him for time on the Peloton. “There was an inner peace that I had never seen with Jorge,” Caren says. “He has a lot on his plate: six kids, full-time job, athletic director of the school. That can cause a lot of stress and anxiety, but I could truly see him letting go and trusting in God.”

In the midst of the program, Caren found out that she was pregnant. “I didn’t know how he was going to respond,” she says. “When I told him, it was an overwhelming joy that he had that this was going to happen for our family. If he had not done Exodus 90, I think it would have been a little more stressful and anxiety inducing.” Sadly, Caren suffered a miscarriage, and she says the spiritual direction that Jorge provided during that difficult time made a world of difference to her.

Jorge and Caren Garayta at home in Kensington with five of their kids. Photo by Erick Gibson

For 90 days, every Wednesday morning 15 to 20 men wearing masks would walk bleary-eyed into Holy Redeemer before sunrise to say the rosary. Chairs were spaced 6 feet apart because of COVID-19; the other men joined via Zoom. “I never would have envisioned being so excited to get up at a quarter to 5 to go hang out in a church basement with a whole bunch of guys,” McCarthy says. “I started to look forward to Wednesday morning at 5 a.m. like I used to look forward to Friday nights.”

They opened up about the challenges they faced within and outside of the parameters of the program. One admitted to struggling with his wife and contemplating divorce. There were up to 45 participants; only three dropped out. Most credit the fraternity and the support they received from friends for helping them get through the tougher times. “As you go through this process together with other guys who are your peers, you start to understand that most of us are probably struggling with the same things,” says Francis Rienzo, 54, of Kensington.

Each man had at least one “anchor” he was urged to text daily to discuss his struggles and get encouragement. “I needed accountability from the outside,” Grant says. “When you tell someone you’re going to train for a marathon, they better see you out running on the street.”

As Day 91 approached, many found themselves feeling nervous. On April 2, Good Friday, Grant sent a message to the participants. “I was lukewarm in my faith all these years, so God gave me a cold shower to wake me up to the warmth of His embrace,” Grant wrote. “In some reflection the other day, I wrote that last year when considering Exodus 90, I was afraid of what I would have to give up to do the program, this year, I was afraid of what I would lose if I didn’t do Exodus 90.”

When Petruccelli started Exodus 90, he’d naturally reach for his phone during downtime at work. “Instagram and Facebook were always there,” he says. “I found myself tapping on these icons without even thinking about it. Now, here we are 90 days later. What used to come so natural, now I’m afraid to tap it because I’m afraid of what it will do to me.”

Liotta, a captain in the medical corps of the U.S. Navy, kept his phone on vibrate. That was a small sacrifice, but when he first told his wife, Julie, about the program, she was apprehensive about the bigger commitments. “I was kind of like, aw, it’s just one more thing to do,” she says. “But it felt like it added a sense of purpose and focus and joy. It takes away all of those things you kind of escape to, so at home he was emotionally more present to everybody. It really solidified his role as the leader of our family. Not by telling people what to do; it was just setting a powerful example of sacrifice and love. You can’t help but want to follow that.”

They’ve continued their daily reflections. Julie often tells him about something she’s struggling with so he can pray about it. Sometimes she shares a story from her day. “She had to go get birthday presents for our twins. Our son Michael went with her,” Liotta says. “She told me Michael was so happy in the car with her. …She said she had never seen him so lit up. They were going around getting the presents and buying the birthday candles, and Michael came up to her with two butterfly nets. He’s like, ‘Mom, I didn’t tell you that I brought my money and I want to buy these for the twins for their birthdays.’ If we didn’t go through the whole day, she may not have told me that story. It was a simple thing, but it was really beautiful.”

The men wanted their Wednesday morning meetings to continue, so on April 19, most of the group began a 21-day program called Oasis. The asceticisms are far less stringent—they can have alcohol as long as they give thanks beforehand, warm showers are permitted after reciting a prayer—but the core principles remain.

They stress that they’ll probably return to some of their old habits at some point, but hopefully not with the single-mindedness they did before. “We’re not puritans, but we also demonstrated that it starts to take away from some of the more important parts of your life, and you need to work on controlling that,” Petruccelli says. “I think what I’ve gotten the most out of this is everything in moderation—except happiness—in life.” 

Garayta woke up on Easter morning and started rifling through his kids’ Easter baskets, shoveling jelly beans into his mouth “like a junkie.” Later, his parents came over with a Carvel ice cream cake to celebrate the end of the program. They wanted to leave what hadn’t been eaten, but Garayta told them to bring it home. He started craving the cake the next night, so he let himself into his parents’ house (they’re neighbors) and went searching for it. “They’re both asleep. I’m looking through the freezer and I couldn’t find it,” he says. “Then I looked over and [saw that] my dad had destroyed what was left of it. I was so mad. That was God being like, OK, pump the brakes, dude. So Monday I got back on it.”

Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.