When I walked into “practice” for Athletes in Action (motto: “Jesus was a player, too”), I must admit I had my reservations. Growing up in the Episcopal Church, I had no experience whatsoever with extended sports metaphors. But when I couldn’t find my Bible under my mess of kid leather gloves and diamond broaches, I decided that the time had come to reinvigorate my faith. In short, it was GameTime.
Athletes in Action encourages its participants to approach faith like any other sport: to engage in regular personal training and always use the right equipment. Founded in the 1990’s, Athletes in Action is a Christian student organization that caters to the worship needs and time constraints of Princeton’s athletes. The organization pushes its constituents-many of whom are not varsity athletes, but enjoy a rousing Princeton football game or edition of Sportscenter-to see themselves not simply as athletes, but as Christian athletes. As “head coach” Ryan Bonfiglio wrote in an e-mail, “We want to transform sport into a form of worship to God.”
This doesn’t mean that the Athletes don’t like to win. Far from it. The GameTime I attended started with a highly competitive round of finger-fencing to get the good Christian life-blood flowing. I wanted to play this blameless game of God, but I felt that my participation might be inappropriate considering how out of shape I was. At game’s end, I felt a righteous hunger for a speedy pointer finger that no man could put asunder.
Yes, I know what it means to walk the lonely street of dreams.
Fortunately, Athletes in Action offers several opportunities for intensive training. For example, this is where the Teams & Toys Holiday Service Project comes into play. Through this project, AIA offers each varsity and club team at Princeton a chance to sponsor underprivileged families in the Trenton community. By sponsoring a family, the team commits itself to raising money and buying gifts for each family member. Additionally, there are several summer programs, such as the Ultimate Training Games, that allows students to “compete with athletes from around the world and apply Biblical principles to [one’s] training.”
GameTime was progressing smoothly, and we lifted our voices unto the Lord to praise him with song. When our musical coaches, the Holy Rollers, left the stage, my fellow athletes and I opened our eyes and stopped swaying to the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar. A weighty silence of expectation fell over the field.
When Peter Kingston strode casually to the mount, and it was clear who would be the starting pitcher tonight. I’ll be honest – I wanted to dislike him. After four years with AIA, he graduated from Princeton in 2002. He then spent time in Africa and worked several months for the President Bush’s Economic Advisers Council. But Kingston was a good, solid, right-handed power-hitter, and you can’t argue with the facts.
Kingston gave a talk entitled “Can a Christian be a Capitalist?” (surely the Bible must be kidding about that camel and eye of the needle bit). Its title, he said, “like all good Christian talk titles, is meant to dupe and deceive you into listening to me.” Kingston explained what it means for him to be a Christian economist and how working in a capitalist economy can, in fact, be compatible with God’s teaching despite the apparent contradiction between capitalist and Christian values. Man, he said, is a selfish and greedy beast and no economic system can erase these traits. Capitalism, although it apparently emphasizes selfishness and greed, in fact allows the individual profit seeker to benefit his neighbors as well as himself by supplying them with the best goods at the least cost. Kingston closed by stating that he remained suspicious of unfettered capitalism and the wholesale accumulation of wealth and by encouraging each student to “view your workplace as your mission field.”
Kingston’s speech stayed true to the mission of AIA (real motto: “In a society looking up to athletes as heroes, we want to find heroes looking up to God”) by not only making faith more accessible through sports metaphors, but also encouraging students to carry this mentality into the world beyond Princeton’s iron gates.
It’s unfortunate that such an all-star group brings only its B-game to the Internet. The group’s website is the much like a child’s first exercise in pottery or macaroni jewelry – well-intentioned, but ultimately too ugly for even a mother to love. And just as a mother accepts such products with much praise of her child’s burgeoning genius and then later discreetly discards them with all the relish and exacting taste of spring cleaning, Athletes in Action seems to have cast off the handicraft of its website, as it has not been updated since early last December.
In short, the website is much like that acquaintance who is always telling you to “keep the faith.” You are never sure exactly why he thinks this comment is helpful or if he’s being serious. Similarly, the website never explains why the group insists on calling worship “practice,” or weekly meetings “GameTime.” It gives much credence to its sports analogies without ever explaining why this lexicon makes a better platform for worship than your garden-variety gospel-talk. Does Jesus favor the clean-and-jerk-inclined? Will a regular engagement with some manner of racquet sport bring me closer to God?
AIA sees “sport as a common language,” or “a starting point from which people can lock arms together in a pursuit of spiritual truth,” wrote Bonfiglio. I had to wonder, though: does the soft cadence of the godly afternoon ever got lost behind the roar of the worldly baseball game? Does the lexicon help students access God or does it prepare them to be the RBI kings of future Wall Street generations, the kind of men and women who enjoy the weekly roundtable huddle and always hit a home run?
As far as I could tell, all the athletes here were here in earnest. They seemed eager about The Game at a point in life when many athletes just throw in the towel. Many students, as Bonfiglio noted, “are interested in spirituality, [but] few are interested in pursuing any one religion in such a way that will transform how they see and understand the world.” AIA offers all students an opportunity to train in the Christian tradition, and reminds each and every one of us that there is no preseason in faith.