OPELIKA, Ala. (BP) – Pastor Jeff Meyers told his church Oct. 16 that their event that evening felt a little bit like the beginning of a joke – what happens when a Jewish basketball coach and a Baptist pastor walk into a room?
Bruce Pearl, head coach of the Auburn Tigers men’s basketball team, voiced a possible answer – “You fill it up?”
He was right – the 3:16 Center of First Baptist Church Opelika was full with a crowd also using the worship center as an overflow space for “A Celebration of Israel with Bruce Pearl.”
Pearl had been invited to share about his team’s trip to Israel in early August – a trip that went viral after several of the players were baptized in the Jordan River. He also shared some of Israel’s history and geopolitical significance as well as some thoughts on growing up Jewish.
Originally planned for trip prep
Meyers said the idea for the talk started because Meyers is planning to lead a group of 104 people to the Holy Land in March 2023. Some members of FBC Opelika who work in the Auburn athletic department happened to mention that Pearl might like to speak to the group as they prepared for the trip, as he has family ties to Israel and is passionate about people experiencing the Holy Land.
“But March is the worst possible time for him to do it with basketball season, so he wanted to do it now,” Meyers said. “We got on a Zoom call to talk about it, and at the end of it, we had decided it might be good to have him come and invite anyone from the church who might like to come and hear his talk.”
During the event, Pearl showed a 20-minute video about his team’s trip to Israel. Though the trip’s purpose was to play three games against Israeli teams, the players also got to experience a tour of historic and religious sites.
The Bible ‘comes to life’
“My players got to walk where Jesus walked, they got to see where He was born, they got to see where He performed His miracles up near the sea of Galilee and they got to see where He was betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane,” Pearl said. “They will never be able to open up their Bible again the same way, because it just comes to life.”
He told the players they could decide for themselves what to do with the events they experienced in Israel.
They also visited a Holocaust museum, where Pearl – who has relatives who died in the Holocaust – got to share with them what it looks like to stand up for your neighbor and take care of them.
Pearl said he “couldn’t think of a better place for them to get the basketball aspect but also get the history and the religious and the spiritual” than in Israel.
Auburn player testimonies
Several players gave testimonies of their experiences in the video, including Chance Westry, who said his baptism in the Jordan River was his “favorite part of the trip.”
“I lost my mother and that was pretty hard for me before I came to college,” he said, noting that she had always told him to stay close to God because He had his best interest at heart.
“So getting baptized was just an amazing feeling,” Westry said. “I felt like I got closer, not even by that but by sticking to the Scriptures and loving my God.”
Another player, Tre Donaldson, said he felt like he had “grown spiritually” on the trip.
“I got baptized to make it known that I want to give my life to God,” Donaldson said.
NCAA basketball teams are allowed to take an international tour once every four years, and Pearl said taking the team to Israel had been a dream of his for a while.
Pearl talks about Jewish faith
Meyers, who interviewed Pearl during the evening, said he and the coach may have different faiths, but they share a passion for the Holy Land. He told The Alabama Baptist that since the event, many of his church members have expressed a new interest in learning more about Israel or visiting.
At the end of the evening, as Pearl talked about his Jewish faith, he shared that his wife, Brandy, is a Christian and prays for him to come to faith in Jesus because she loves him and “she knows what eternal life is for her and she wants it exactly that way for me.” She also finds richness in her faith in Jesus in learning more about the Holy Land and the Jewish festivals that Jesus celebrated when He walked the earth, he said.
Pearl said his identity lies in his Jewish faith. He said he believes in the miracles of Jesus, but he holds to Judaism “because my people have been murdered for their faith” and because “that’s my father’s religion, that’s my grandfather’s religion, that’s how I was raised.”
Go here to watch Meyers’ conversation with Pearl.