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Baptist to be Olympics chaplain

EDITOR’S NOTE: Baptist Press today launches its coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics, which begins with the traditional opening ceremony on Friday, Feb. 12, in Vancouver.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada (BP)–When the 16-day Winter Olympic Games open here on Friday (Feb. 12), Southern Baptist resort missionary Derek Spain will be one of the official Vancouver Olympic Committee chaplains at the Athletes Village in Whistler, where many of the competitions will take place.

Spain, a Georgia native who now ministers in Lake Placid, N.Y., also is the spiritual mentor and pastor to U.S. bobsled driver John Napier, himself a believer who Spain led to a closer walk with Christ over the last year as Napier trained to compete in the Vancouver Olympics.

Since his teen years, Spain has worked himself up from parking lot attendant, ticket taker and track sweeper at the winter Olympic Training Center at Lake Placid, the site of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games and a mecca for aspiring winter Olympians.

Spain now deals in hand-warmers, Bibles and even cowbells — whatever it takes — in order to share the Gospel with and minister to the dozens of world-class Olympic athletes who either live in Lake Placid or pass through, plus the thousands of fans who come to see them compete.

Not only has Spain served as a resort missionary with Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board since 2001, he also is pastor of Lake Placid Baptist Church; director of North Country Ministries, an outreach to the athletes in Lake Placid; and special ministries consultant for the Baptist Convention of New York.

“Some of the athletes live here year-round, either at the Olympic Training Center or in town,” Spain said. “Some of the athletes we may only see for a few weeks a year.”

Spain described Olympic athletes in such sports as figure skating, hockey, skiing or bobsledding as high achievers who set high personal goals, are dedicated to their sport and disciplined in their workout, eating and sleeping regimens in order to compete at a world-class level.

“They do have struggles, though,” Spain said. “As they get older and into their 20s and 30s, they are traveling all over the world, living in an unsupervised environment. So there are the challenges and temptations of the world.

“Even Christian athletes struggle with the issue of pride as they compete for their nation. There’s a temptation to be prideful about what they’re accomplishing personally.”

North Country Ministries encompasses members of Lake Placid Baptist Church and Southern Baptist mission teams who travel to Lake Placid from other churches throughout North America. Through the ministry, doors have opened to share Christ through serving and volunteering at winter sports events in the Lake Placid area.

“We take these opportunities to use creative evangelism tools to talk to others about God,” Spain said. It may be a “goodie bag” filled with candy, gum, Chapstick and maybe a Gospel tract. It may be handing out free cowbells for spectators to clang when their team does well. (A longtime tradition in Europe, cowbells help make up for the fact that it’s tough for fans wearing gloves and mittens to make much noise at winter Olympic venues.)

“Sometimes we give out hand-warmers at events,” Spain said. “Jesus told us to ‘give a cup of cold water in My name,’ but at winter sports events — where it may be 35 degrees below zero — people had rather have hand-warmers.” Other giveaways include New Testaments and DVDs of the “JESUS” movie.

As part of North Country Ministries, Spain conducts nightly Bible studies back in Lake Placid attended by Olympic athletes when they’re in town. That’s how Spain got to know Napier, driver of the U.S. bobsled team who will compete in the 21st Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver in the next two weeks.

Spain first met Napier several years ago when Napier’s father, William, was dying of cancer and Spain ministered to the family in the hospital. Young Napier was a teenager, but even at 8 years old he had inherited a love of bobsledding from his father and mother. He competed in his first international competition at 16 and raced in his first World Cup at 17.

“I later ran into John at the Olympic Training Center and invited him to our Bible Study,” Spain recounted. “Several weeks passed and he began to come regularly. About a year and a half ago, he started coming every week.” Eventually, Spain led Napier, already a Christian, into a closer walk with Christ.

“Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen in John’s life a real hunger and desire to follow Christ. It’s become very personal to him, and he has seen the transforming power of God change his life from the inside out,” said Spain, who baptized 23-year-old Napier on a recent Sunday morning.

Napier described Spain as an “awesome spiritual guide for us as athletes in Lake Placid Baptist Church.”

“Derek is always at the top of the track volunteering his time and just showing you that Christ is everywhere,” the Olympian said. “We have Bible studies multiple nights a week, and he’s always here to support the athletes and minister to us.”

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Napier, commenting on his love of bobsledding, said, “I go to the top of some of the scariest tracks in the world. We’re going 95-100 miles per hour. I love it. It’s two minutes a day but we’re out at the track for six hours a day waiting on other nations to slide, prepping our sleds, breaking them down and changing equipment — all to get ready for that two-minute ride a day. It’s a thrill and that’s why I do it — for the rush and the thrill. It makes me feel alive.”

But Napier — as the four-man bobsled team’s driver — said it’s hard going 90 miles an hour down an ice chute with only an inch of error on each side in a top-heavy sled that’s 12 feet long and weighs 1,200 pounds. “It’s my job to keep me as the driver and the three guys behind me safe.”

Napier said it takes good hand-eye coordination and good reaction time. “Driving is not only seeing, but it’s about feeling what the sled is doing under you. You have to drive off of feel a lot of times.”

After the Winter Olympics close on Feb. 28, Napier will return to his “day” job as a sergeant in the Army National Guard. He participates in the Olympics as part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program. His Vermont-based unit likely soon will be deployed to Afghanistan. Parking his bobsled for awhile, Napier will follow them — facing a different set of dangers.

Spain, meanwhile, will return home after the Winter Games in Vancouver and his stint as U.S. Olympic team chaplain to resume his ministry in Lake Placid as a NAMB resort missionary and Baptist pastor.

“But while the Olympic games are going on between Friday and Feb. 28, we’re praying that among the thousands of winter Olympic athletes from throughout the world in Vancouver, there would be a great awakening, and that hundreds of these athletes would come to Christ,” Spain said.

Prior to starting the resort ministry in Lake Placid nine years ago, Spain served as youth minister at Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula, Ga., and as a youth ministry associate at Hollywood Baptist Church in Rome, Ga. He received his bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Shorter College in Rome, Ga., and a master of divinity degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Spain and his wife Kim have two sons, Joseph and Andrew, and one daughter, Emma Grace.
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board. To view a video about Spain and other missionary and chaplain ministries through NAMB and its state partners, visit www.namb.net and click on the “Missionary Focus” gallery.

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  • Mickey Noah