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Action Ministries volunteers get a sense of Pentecost at Olympics

SALT LAKE CITY (BP)–Gold medallists and international partygoers vie for sidewalk space in Salt Lake City in a city more known for golden icons than for sports accomplishments or revelers.

The “Jesus People” are not concerned about the crowds, however. Dressed in a “uniform” of distinctive red, white and black jackets emblazoned with Winter Olympics 2002, and black cowboy hats with colorful flag bandannas — and a dozen or more Olympic trading pins each — they are readily identified as they walk the streets, ride the buses and articulate their faith.

Surrounded at times by a flood of curious pin collectors more than 10 deep, the volunteers with Action Ministries International (AMI) earned the designation as the Jesus People after first using the pins at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway, recounted founder and leader David Guinn.

Guinn wrestled for the United States in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. His nondenominational group, based in West Point, Ga., took their first team to the Calgary and Seoul Olympics in 1988 and have been on the road to major sports events and venues throughout the world ever since. The ministry includes teams of sports evangelists and sports chaplains who give of their time and resources to be part of the unique outreach to both internationals and locals.

“AMI is an effective example of relational evangelism of the highest integrity,” Guinn said in an interview.

Guinn, who shies away from any official partnerships, noted that AMI encompasses individuals from various evangelical backgrounds — all handpicked for their potential. “I don’t partner with groups, but I partner with individuals,” he said. “I find it easier to yoke with people because organizations vary throughout the years.”

Because the majority of the world is represented at events such as the Olympics — and many of the athletes and spectators have not heard about Christ’s love — Guinn said such ministry is akin to the concept of Pentecost in the New Testament.

About 50 AMI team members gather each morning at 8:30 a.m. in Salt Lake City for a short worship service and to receive assignments for the day. Teams travel to the Olympic Square in downtown Salt Lake City, to Park City where the skiing events are held and to local malls and streets where people sometimes wait for hours to pass through security gates into events.

Some of the AMI team members have been in Salt Lake City since Feb. 6, most of them spending two days to two weeks meeting people and then returning to their base camp at Salt Lake Community College to unwind and share their testimonies at an 8:30 p.m. worship and prayer service.

Leading the music are two high school students — the first ever to serve with AMI, Kevin Walton and Donnie Newcomer, both of Lafayette, Ala. David Newcomer, Donnie’s dad, in his third Olympics, is a fulltime faith-based missionary with AMI.

Salt Lake City is home to the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), whose adherents are known as Mormons. And although an estimated 60 to 80 percent of Utah’s residents claim the Mormon religion, various media reports have said LDS leaders have instructed Mormon missionaries to keep a low profile during the Olympics and refrain from proselytizing. Taking off the ties and shirts and removing nametags, though, doesn’t mean Mormons are thrilled to have other ministry groups working in their backyard.

AMI ministry coordinator Jerry Haas warned teams in an evening testimony time to not ignore the local people — and to not become belligerent with Mormons who may appear intent on distracting the street evangelists and tying up their opportunities to share with interested onlookers.

“Don’t speak against [Mormons],” said Haas. “Speak to them.”

Sharing in the team’s Sunday evening worship time, AMI team member Jeff Wells, a youth minister at Parkway Baptist Church in St. Louis, said he didn’t see a need to reach out to Mormons until he ran into the same trio of students within a couple days’ time. All three teenagers were LDS.

“I had a real bad attitude about the LDS,” Wells admitted. “I wasn’t going to waste my time with them.”

But in the midst of joking around while waiting in line to buy souvenirs at a store mall, Wells said he got around to sharing the gospel and felt Tiffany “zero in” on what he was saying, just as the line moved up and the kids disappeared into the store.

“What are you gonna buy me?” Wells said he yelled at them, after having Tiffany’s assurance she would read the commitment prayer in a booklet they handed out after going through the gospel message by explaining the colors in the Jesus pin representing various facets of the gospel.

Surprised when one of the students handed over an Olympic zipper pull souvenir on the way out, Wells said he won’t soon forget the way God underscored the apparent effect of his witness.

To give everyone a chance to share, each team member is limited to one story, one testimony when they meet to share each evening. Donning cushy slippers or no footwear at all, and trading the heavy jackets for loose sweats and even shorts, team members exchange exuberant high fives after a day on the streets contending for the faith.

At evening sharing times Feb. 16-17, testimonies and tears flowed together as team members shared recollections of the days’ activities.

Donnie Martinez, a member of Tallowood Baptist Church in Houston, gave a moving account of a witnessing experience with a homeless Hispanic man seeking comfort in a downtown Salt Lake City “More Than Gold” ministry booth of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board and the Salvation Army.

Trying to speak in Spanish, Martinez said his dialogue was hindered by having only had two years of high school Spanish in a largely all-white school. But somehow, he muddled through and the man prayed to receive Christ. Martinez said he followed up the man’s prayer with a prayer of his own, and didn’t hesitate once — praying in fluent Spanish.

Choking back tears, Martinez said he didn’t realize until later what had happened and called his mom in Texas to tell her the news. That’s when Martinez’s mom told him what had been on her heart for years.

“‘Son,'” Martinez shared his mother’s words. “‘I’ve prayed for you to share Christ in Spanish all my life.'”

Later, bidding the rest of the team members farewell, Martinez cried about his experiences in being identified as part of the group when, for example, a couple of kids from Texas had pointed to him and said, “Mom, look, it’s the Jesus People.”

“When we get back and the hats are off, and the coats are off, and the pins are off, will people still see us on the streets — Jesus People?” Martinez pondered.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MOMENTS FOR E-MAIL, PRAYER & PRAISE and DAVID GUINN.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan