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SBC baseball ‘Toss’ honors church planter killed in accident

Kody Gibson throws to John Powell (left) in what had been the exhibit hall at the St. Louis America’s Center for the 2016 SBC Annual Meeting. The first SBC Toss has since grown to at least 45 registered for this year’s edition, scheduled for June 14 at 9 a.m. in Nashville's Walk of Fame Park. Photo courtesy of Twitter/Johnhpowell

NASHVILLE (BP) – It’s an activity that requires only a ball and glove. Yet, John Powell believed in simple acts like a game of catch. Such things had the power to lead to much bigger changes, he reckoned. Powell believed in the power of something simple becoming something great.

“He was like a renaissance man,” said Kody Gibson, who worked for Powell at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Powell was at one time the director of admissions.

Powell’s death almost a year ago left a gaping hole in the lives of many, including Gibson, who recalled Powell’s “fun ways to get to know people.”

“One of those ways,” he said, “was to get a baseball and toss.”

So, that’s what Gibson and Powell did. Whether it was just to get out of the office for a few minutes or during a student preview day, the two would find a spot and throw. It was so relaxing, freeing of the current stresses, that Powell, Gibson and Florida pastor Dean Inserra decided to have the first official/unofficial “SBC Toss” at the 2016 Annual Meeting in St. Louis.

Packed schedules for all three made it a challenge, but determination won out. On the final day, dodging forklifts that were moving displays being torn down, they held the first SBC Toss in the exhibit hall.

It lasted 15 minutes before they were kicked out. But still, a tradition was born.

“We tried to pretend we were there on official SBC business,” Inserra, pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Fla., said with a laugh.

Powell’s final act testified to his love for others, even as it took his life. On July 18, 2020, he died while attempting to help a motorist whose car had been struck and caught fire. Powell, who had four young children with his wife, Katherine, was 38.

“John was serious about the things he needed to be serious about but would also have a good time with buddies and relax,” Inserra said. “At the Toss, nobody cares about the size of your church or who you’re voting for president. You can relive glory days and laugh with friends and not take yourself too seriously.”

Since it began, locations for the Toss have improved and the number of attendees has grown. In 2018, more than a dozen showed up at Dallas Baptist University’s baseball field. Samford University played host on its diamond in 2019, with 20 participating. This year, 45 have signed up through an Eventbrite page.

In his honor, the John Powell Memorial Toss will take place Monday (June 14) at 9 a.m. at the Walk of Fame Park, which is located adjacent to the Music City Center across Demonbreun and Rep. John Lewis Way streets.

Minimal athletic ability is needed for any man or woman who wants to participate. If you can throw a rock – and let’s face it, many in church life are good at that – you can throw a ball. Powell would show up in jeans and his Kansas City Royals hat. Gibson was a southpaw pitcher for Ouachita Baptist University from 2005-07 with a nasty curve, but those days are far behind him. Inserra was a high school catcher who became a lifelong coach and now serves as a chaplain for the Florida State University baseball team.

“John was an influential guy and great at bringing people together,” said Gibson, who is now director of enrollment and communications at Phoenix Seminary. “Toss is about that, especially in a time like this where there is division.”

Inserra agreed, saying, “If there’s ever a year when we need something like this, it’s now. Let’s have some fun.”