'Sports Chaplains' Bring The Gospel To Olympic Village

Feb 16, 2014
Originally published on February 16, 2014 9:43 pm

There are probably fewer American fans in Sochi than at previous Winter Games, partly because of concerns about security, and partly because of the time and expense it takes to get to the Russian resort town on the Black Sea.

But Americans are represented there, with gusto, by a group of evangelical Christians who call themselves the International Sports Chaplains. Members of the group have been going to the Olympic Games since 1988.

On a recent sunny day at the Olympic Park, with bands playing and fans strolling around the venues, the chaplains move through the crowd in teams of three or four.

Myrna Gregory hails from Brandon, Miss., near Jackson, and this is her seventh Olympics as a chaplain. She spends the better part of every day engaging with fans and volunteers.

Her fellow chaplain, James Gardner, explains it this way: "We love God, we love sports, so what better place to come than one of the greatest sporting events, every two years, to come and tell people about our belief in God?"

Gardner is a minister from West Monroe, La., and this is his fifth Olympics.

Most of the people here are decked out in Russian team colors, so the American chaplains stand out in their black cowboy hats, bristling with pins.

When people see the pins, they want to trade, Gardner says. He says trading pins is a good opportunity, because he'll say, "Hey, I've got a pin I'll give to you, it's got a story. Can I share with you that story?" Through the pins, they share the Gospel.

Gregory tells the story to a young volunteer near the entrance to the park. "See this dark area on the pin?" she asks. "That represents those choices that we make that are probably not the best choice. I want to tell you that red represents that God loves us and that he sent his son Jesus to die for us. And when we accept his love and his forgiveness in our life, he makes us clean and white, just like snow."

The volunteer, a lanky Russian teenager, nods. She's interested, but wary.

"And one day," Gregory continues, "when this physical body dies, which it will die one day, we'll spend eternity with him, and the Bible says heaven is paved with streets of gold. And so, that is the story behind this pin. Have you ever heard that story before?"

"Uh, no," the young woman says.

"Isn't that a beautiful story?" Gregory asks.

"Yes, it's a very beautiful story, but I'm so far from this aspect of our life, it's hard for me to feel deep in it," the woman says.

"In spiritual things?" the chaplain asks.

"Yes," she nods.

"OK," says Gregory, "that's OK."

And so it goes — Southern accents meeting Slavic ones in the Olympic village.

Gregory says this event has been harder than the other six Olympic Games she has attended, in part because there are fewer people who speak English.

She thinks concerns about security kept a lot of people away. Her own daughter didn't want her to go.

"We had family and friends that said, 'We don't want you to go.' And I really felt like God was telling me I needed to go," she says.

Before these Olympics are over, 20 International Sports Chaplains will have answered that call to engage with people at the Winter Games.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are probably fewer Americans fans in Sochi than at previous Winter Games, partly because of security concerns, and partly because it's expensive and time-consuming to get there. But Americans are represented with gusto by a group of evangelical Christians who call themselves International Sports Chaplains. NPR's Corey Flintoff ran into some of them in Sochi, and he sends this postcard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: It's a sunny day at the Olympic Park with bands playing and fans strolling around the various skating venues, stages and team pavilions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLINTOFF: The chaplains move through the crowd in teams of three or four, engaging with people wherever they can.

MYRNA GREGORY: My name is Myrna Gregory. I'm from Brandon, Mississippi, which is near Jackson. And I am serving at the Olympics. This is my seventh Olympics, to serve as an international sports chaplain.

JAMES GARDNER: We love God, we love sports, so what better place to come than one of the greatest sporting events, every two years, to come and tell people about our belief in God?

FLINTOFF: That's fellow chaplain James Gardner, a minister from West Monroe, Louisiana. This is his fifth Olympics. Most of the people here are decked out in Russian team colors, so the American chaplains stand out.

GARDNER: Well, I've got a black cowboy hat with pins all over it, and then I've got a backpack that's got pins literally all over the back of it. People see that and they want to trade pins. And then trading pins is a good opportunity because I trade a pin but they I'll usually share with them, hey, I've got a pin I'll give to you, it's got a story. Can I share with you that story? And then therefore we can go about sharing the gospel.

FLINTOFF: Myrna Gregory tells the story to a young volunteer near the entrance to the park.

GREGORY: Well, see this dark area on the pin? That represents those choices that we make that are, eh, probably not the best choice. I want to tell you that red represents that God loved us that he sent his son Jesus to die for us. And when we accept his love and his forgiveness in our life, he makes us clean and white, just like snow. And then one day, when this physical body dies, which it will die one day, we'll spend eternity with Him, and the Bible says that heaven is paved with streets of gold. And so, that is the story behind this pin. Have you ever heard that story before?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No.

GREGORY: Isn't that a beautiful story?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, it's a beautiful story, but I'm so far from this aspect of our life, it's hard for me to feel deep in it.

GREGORY: Oh, in spiritual things?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, in spiritual things.

GREGORY: OK. But that's OK.

FLINTOFF: And so it goes - southern accents meeting Slavic ones in the Olympic village. Myrna Gregory says this event has been harder than the other six Olympic Games she has attended, in part because there are fewer people who speak English. She thinks concerns about security kept a lot of people away.

GREGORY: And in my family, my daughter said I don't want you to go. You know, we had family and friends that said we don't want you to go, and I really felt like God was telling me I needed to go.

FLINTOFF: Before these Olympics are over, 23 International sports chaplains will have answered that call to engage with people at the Winter Games. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Sochi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.