LEXINGTON, Ky. (BP)–Parents smile nearby as Larry Leming quickly organizes the paint jars, then applies the first strokes of a brown horse’s head and mane to their boy’s left cheek. He wants a University of Kentucky logo on the other side of his face.
Leming, a North American Mission Board missionary, squints to concentrate and to block out some of the morning sun at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
“People say ‘face painting isn’t evangelism,'” Leming said, later. “No, it’s not evangelism. But these are all tools that open people up to a conversation that can lead to evangelism.”
Leming, as director of Low Country Ministries in South Carolina, typically facilitates ministry in the state’s low country area near Beaufort, but during the World Equestrian Games (WEG) he brought his specialty to the cooler climes of Appalachia where more than 300,000 people from 65 countries gathered, Sept. 25-Oct.10, to watch the world’s top equestrian athletes.
Leming and 500-plus other volunteers, including 100 Southern Baptists, with Affiliated International Ministries (AIM), the Kentucky Baptist Convention, other state conventions and area churches worked at Lexington-area venues where festivals and equestrian enthusiasts en masse provided opportunities to distribute “More Than Gold” horseshoe pins, Gospel materials and bottled water.
Face painting also was a favorite at the games.
“One girl told me she was too old for face painting and I said, ‘Look, I painted a 60-year-old woman’s face the other day,'” Leming recounted. “You’re never too old for face painting.”
Larry Martin, a consultant for the Kentucky Baptist Convention and AIM coordinator of ministry efforts at the games, reported more than 60 people made decisions for Christ.
Outreach efforts included the work of chaplains among event staff and security teams.
“The stress level is high at an event like this when you’re trying to keep 300,000 people safe,” said Bob Vickers, who led a group of chaplains. “We just want to be available if [security teams] need us.”
During the long walk from the center of the Kentucky Horse Park to the security command post on the outskirts, Vickers talks about the need for a chaplain’s work at an event like the World Equestrian Games.
Tall, lean and nearly deaf in one ear from standing too close to a firing howitzer years ago, the retired Army chaplain is working with AIM and the Kentucky Baptist Convention to apply his battlefield experience to aid the games’ security efforts.
At a cluster of Humvees, Vickers strikes up a conversation with soldiers cleaning and replacing parts to their vehicles.
“Are you all here for the whole time?” Vickers asks.
One of the soldiers holding an antennae rod answers yes.
“Well I served as an Army chaplain,” Vickers continues. “I’m here with a group of chaplains and we’ll be around if there’s anything you need.”
The soldiers brighten and smile. “I’m a chaplain’s assistant,” one of them says.
“Oh really! You guys are what make chaplains successful on the field,” Vickers says.
Minutes later, the Humvees roll out on patrol as other security teams make their way toward the command unit where Vickers works out details for coming days.
The security-related ministry opportunity came late in the planning for AIM. “The head of security heard we were coming and asked if we could help,” Vickers said of the official who also was on security for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
“He said he remembers a Southern Baptist chaplain praying with him after the bombing incident down there,” Vickers said. “It left such an impression on him that when he heard the Southern Baptists were here, he wanted us to join him.”
The team of five chaplains was given the task not only of ministering to security teams but also to vendors and other behind-the-scenes people.
“Sometimes with so much going on it’s hard to remember all the people who make this event possible,” Vickers said. “We’re here to minister to those people and remind them that they aren’t just employees but people as well. You can’t believe how much opportunity this provides us to be a Christian presence here.”
The Christian and Southern Baptist presence also included some world-class athletes competing in the games.
“This isn’t just a lot of fun, it’s also a good opportunity to be a Christian influence,” said Mike McLennan who with wife Jerry made a name for themselves as carriage driver competitors during the 2005 World Pairs Championship in Salzburg, Austria, and the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany.
“Let’s go!” Mike hollers.
The day is colder than expected, so the McLennans have to wear their big coats when they take two steeds, Tina and Ruff, for a run.
Jerry and the other grooms brush, bridle and saddle the horses for the morning warm-up in the 40-degree weather.
“Come on, Jerry!” Mike smiles, shouting to his wife who’s searching for a toboggan.
The McLennans, members of First Baptist Church in Brenham, Texas, were among a small group of Southern Baptist athletes.
In minutes, the two horses are attached to a carriage and pulling the McLennans behind them, guided gingerly by Mike. The grooms trail them in a golf cart to the practice field a mile away.
An hour or more later, round two of the day’s practice begins.
“What we hope is that our work will continue long after the World Equestrian Games are over and everyone has gone home,” Martin, the AIM organizer, said. “The impact I believe this has on the equestrian world and the international community is far-reaching.”
Adam Miller is a writer for the North American Mission Board. He was on assignment in Lexington, Ky., during the World Equestrian Games.