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Outreach at Athens Olympics reflects ministry’s aim beyond U.S. borders

ATLANTA (BP)–As a Fellowship of Christian Athletes staff member, Cheryl Wolfinger had found her calling after earning a master’s degree in religious education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Working with young people in Fort Worth, Texas, she saw countless lives changed during FCA’s summer camps and school groups known as “Huddles” during the academic year.

However, Southern Baptist missionary Fred Sorrells –- then stationed in Madagascar but on temporary stateside assignment –- suggested using sports for world outreach.

“When Fred presented the idea, he said that 95 percent of the world’s population lives outside the United States; was I willing to start a ministry that would reach the 95 percent?” Wolfinger said. “That was kind of my wakeup call.”

Since she organized the International Sports Federation (ISF) in 1993, the Atlanta-based ministry has worked with International Mission Board missionaries in more than 40 countries on six continents.

ISF has dispatched more than 1,500 volunteers on more than 200 projects, touching an estimated 20,000 people, its president said.

Its latest outreach will have international proportions. Thirty-one ISF volunteers are in Athens, Greece, to conduct clinics in volleyball, basketball and baseball during the Summer Olympics Aug. 13-29.

While sharing the Gospel with as many people as possible, Wolfinger said the organization has never tried to maintain a conversion count.

One reason is differences in opportunities. One team returned from Africa with members talking of 800 people accepting Christ; another that went to Afghanistan only had the chance to talk with a handful of Muslims.

“We could easily say we have 8,000 decisions,” said Wolfinger, 39, a member of Wildwood Baptist Church in Acworth, Ga. “But who’s to know someone raised their hand because they didn’t want to go to hell and who raised their hand because they wanted to accept Jesus?

“I am so amazed,” she added of ISF’s opportunities to share the Gospel. “I never felt worthy to serve as the leader. I feel it was a matter of willingness and not skill in putting together the organization.”

Still, ISF is ready to go when called; Wolfinger said they receive more than 100 requests a year for sports teams.

In the case of the Olympics, these athletic missionaries are capitalizing on interest in the games to reach local residents, according to Sarah Beth, director of Team ISF’s missions mobilization unit.

“A lot of this team is non-athletes,” Beth said of the members, who range in age from 17 to 73. “A lot of it is going to be recreational and relational ministry. We’re looking at ministry in parks, having drinks and food.

“Our number one goal is developing relationships with Greeks so when we leave, the [IMB] missionaries will have phone numbers, e-mail addresses or some way to reach them.”

Since ISF only sends teams overseas, it didn’t organize an outreach for the first Summer Olympics after its founding -– the 1996 games in Atlanta.

However, Wolfinger kept busy. Through her contact with Sorrells, she became a special assistant to a delegation of six athletes and two coaches from the islands of Comoros, a small nation 200 miles off the coast of Madagascar.

Working with Olympic champion Madeline Mims, Wolfinger collected surplus athletic equipment and imprinted the African nation’s flag on white tank tops to fashion team uniforms.

Wolfinger also videotaped their races and took numerous still photographs, which she presented to each team member. She also took them to a Gospel outreach and gave them a New Testament autographed by Mims.

Before the games ended, two of the Comores athletes had prayed with Sorrells to receive Christ as Savior, Wolfinger said.

Although Wolfinger then led a team of nearly 300 volunteers to Sydney, Australia, in 2000, she isn’t able to travel to Athens.

Diagnosed with lymphoma earlier this year, her treatments continued through Aug. 12. Wolfinger said the high temperatures in Greece would be too much for her weakened condition.

“I’ve been over to Greece twice to meet with missionaries and Greek pastors, so to be watching the Olympics from my couch is going to be tough,” Wolfinger said. “But when I was diagnosed in February, my attitude has been, ‘Why not me?’ America has the best healthcare in the world.

“Nothing surprises God. He knew all along this was going to happen. If I believe God is in control and He knew what was going to happen, this is part of His plan.”

Wolfinger knows those who go will face tough conditions. She said it is illegal to share the Gospel with anyone under 17 without their parents’ permission. Many who have visited Greece have returned disheartened by attitudes toward the Gospel, Wolfinger said.

Such conditions are why developing relationships are so important, Beth noted.

“They’re born Greek Orthodox and they die Greek Orthodox,” Beth said of the dominant church, which counts 98 percent of the population as members.

“It’s not about a personal relationship with Christ, it’s about culture. You’re going to have to develop a long-term relationship with people before they see the difference that Christ makes in your life.”

This will be the second outreach this summer in Athens. A team of 19 visited the city June 12-22 to lead clinics in volleyball and basketball for more than 75 teenagers, Beth said.

A 2002 graduate of Southwestern Seminary, Beth called sports a universal language that reaches across numerous boundaries.

“I started playing basketball at the age of 9 and I never dreamed God could use [my] passion of sports to reach other people,” Beth said. “It’s a non-threatening way to build relationships. You get to laugh and play together.

“Everywhere you go the goal is 10 feet tall. You don’t have to speak the language to play, and most of the time there is a translator. God opens doors for conversation. It’s an incredible tool. Some places we go people can’t be [fulltime] missionaries but the countries want people to come be physical education teachers and physical therapists.”

In addition to sports clinics, ISF volunteers will do prayerwalks, pass out water bottles and distribute Gospel tracts -– reaching both Greeks and people from nations around the world, Beth said.

With a huge influx of visitors to the city of 5 million people, Beth said they have warned volunteers they will need patience to deal with inevitable traffic snarls and other delays.

“You add 1 million people to the mix and there’s going to be headaches,” Beth said. “We’re telling our volunteers to be flexible. They’ll have a roof over their heads and food. Beyond that, we’re not sure what to expect.”
Tomorrow in BP: Features on ISF volunteers Nathan Scott and Kim Reed in Athens.

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  • Ken Walker