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Organization sends athletes abroad to complement missionaries’ work

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–A basketball in the hands of Michael Jordan immediately transforms into something else, becoming almost like a quill dipped in the poet’s ink. In the same way, a basketball in the hands of a missionary in a foreign country can become a powerful instrument for sharing the gospel. That’s because in some places around the world, a basketball can take the gospel where a Bible cannot. While no one would argue that it is God’s Word that opens the door to a personal relationship with Christ, the tool of an athlete’s trade can often be used to communicate God’s love.
“In many countries, it is illegal to carry a Bible -­ nowhere is it illegal to carry a basketball,” explained Cheryl Wolfinger, who has been president of the International Sports Federation since its founding in 1993.
Working with Southern Baptist missionaries under the auspices of the Richmond, Va.,-based International Mission Board, the ISF helps plan, recruit and coordinate sports evangelism missions trips.
Because sports is a “universal language” between people of different cultures, Wolfinger said it is not seen as a “threat” in countries that prohibit Christian witness.
“It’s an incredible platform,” she said. “Everyone [in a foreign country] will come to watch Americans play basketball.”
The area of sports evangelism is something Wolfinger became interested in while playing professional basketball in Europe. While there, she would see evangelistic teams come and go, without employing the efforts of the area’s missionaries.
“We needed to do something,” Wolfinger said, to combine the willingness and capability of those interested in sports evangelism with the resources and follow-up of a country’s established missionaries.
Her vision was later reinforced by a missionary to Madagascar, who voiced to her his desire for a “networking organization,” linking prospective missions groups to workers in the area.
That first year, ISF took three teams to work with missionaries abroad. This past summer, more than 40 projects shared the gospel with about 6,000 citizens of foreign countries.
“I am overwhelmed daily at how much has been done,” Wolfinger admitted, speaking of the blessing she’s received of having her divinely inspired idea turn into a thriving, fruitful ministry.
Those involved with ISF raise their own money ­- often thousands of dollars -­ to participate in a summer project. Recruits learn about the program through an ISF newsletter sent to Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ groups on college campuses or through requests made to the IMB.
After a two- to three-day training session in Dallas, during which ISF attempts to “close out their American way of thinking,” said Wolfinger, they are sent out to the field, or the court, or the diamond. “We’ve had people from all sports -­ boxing, swimming, softball, you name it,” she added.
The team members, who are usually complete strangers before their training session, put on clinics, compete against local or national competition and travel to schools or parks to put themselves in a position to witness. Through the clinics especially, many one-on-one opportunities arise for the athletes to share their faith. And one doesn’t have to be on scholarship at a major college to participate. “We had one girl go with us, she hadn’t played much basketball before,” Wolfinger remembered. Yet instead of idly sitting on the bench during games, she would draw her own crowd on the sidelines teaching children songs like “Jesus loves me.”
More information about the ISF can be obtained from the International Missions Board at 1-800-999-3113, ext. 1512.

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  • Jason Skinner