I Came for Basketball – But I’m Going Back with God

After serving Henri* a full American breakfast, my wife, Donna, and I gave him a choice between sleeping in or going to church. Sleeping in would have been the obvious choice for most people in Henri’s circumstances. A native of Cameroon, he had just arrived that morning at our home in Xenia, Ohio, after a long international flight from his home country to the U.S., followed by traveling on a bus all night through four different states.

Henri was visiting as part of Athletes in Action’s (AIA) International Coaches Academy based out of Xenia. The Academy offers the opportunity for 25 to 30 international basketball and sports performance professionals to develop their skills while learning about leadership, team building, and God. I serve as the Director of Athletes in Action Sports Performance. 

We didn’t have to wait long for Henri’s response. “I want to explore your church,” he said matter-of-factly.  

Dr. Ralph Vencill

Fifteen minutes later, our pastors, Dr. Ralph and Nancy Vencill, and the rest of our congregation at Bellbrook Community Church welcomed the six-foot-seven-inch tall Henri and his broad smile to our service. During the message, I found a French online Bible, quickly typing in Scripture references on my phone as Dr. Vencill wove them into his sermon. Henri’s broad smile grew even bigger despite the fact that English was not his first language and he understood only a few words outside of the Scriptures.  

He would later tell us that while he was listening to the message, he felt God “awaken” something in him. Two days later at an optional training session during the Coaches Academy, Henri again felt God tugging at his heart and realized that what was missing in his life was a personal relationship with Him. Henri asked one of the French-speaking AIA staff to explain the gospel in his own “heart language,” after which he decided to make a commitment to follow Jesus! He explained, “I am a new man, a different man. I came for basketball . . . but I’m going back [to Cameroon] with God.”

Henri continued, “I came because my sport federation sent me. I needed to learn how to physically train an athlete. Coming here was a tremendous experience for me because I received professional leadership [development]. I came for my profession, but my whole life was impacted. I received an understanding of how to know God. Time spent with people from different nations . . . was a very good experience for me. I learned how to be a better leader, how to develop objectives, how to help people improve, and how to resolve conflict. After attending a session about disciple making, I received Christ. Today I’m a different man.”

Seeing lives like Henri’s changed is why I left a career as a Division One NCAA assistant athletic director and head athletic trainer. A member of the Team USA medical staff at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games, I have served with AIA since 1981, first as a volunteer and then as a full-time staff member since 2007. I’m privileged to lead a growing movement of men and women who minister to physicians, athletic trainers, strength coaches, and others making an impact on every sport every day. They play a key role in AIA’s vision to see a Christ-follower on every team in every sport in every nation. 

He explained, “I am a new man, a different man. I came for basketball . . . but I’m going back [to Cameroon] with God.”

Billy Graham once said, “A coach will impact more people in one year than the average person will in an entire lifetime.” AIA Sports Performance’s calling includes ministering through multiple online Bible studies that serve over 50 high school strength coaches, one-on-one discipleship, and chapel outreaches at professional meetings. Our team builds relationships with professional and student athletes in order to connect them to a community of colleagues throughout the world. We also give them opportunity to experience missions by serving on AIA’s domestic and international mission teams, projects, and camps. My greatest joy has been mentoring 68 interns in the past 12 years, playing a part in developing them to be lifelong ministers of the gospel. 

With over 600 staff, nearly 1,500 volunteers and over 30 mission trips, camps, and projects annually, my team helps meet a wide range of needs, including organizing athletic training services at the 160-acre AIA Sports Complex and Retreat Center here in Xenia. In 2019, I was asked to be the Crisis Manager for Cru in the U.S., North America, and Oceania in addition to my duties with AIA. In this role, I facilitate 22 staff serving in six countries as part of one of the largest missionary organizations in the world. This team responds to the needs of over 8,000 missionary staff and volunteers serving around the world. 

Risk, obedience, and opportunity are indelibly linked. It’s rewarding to serve others when they are in need so their mission can continue and lives can be changed. The only way to accomplish such a large task is through collaboration and understanding each person’s role in responding to the crisis.

Even though athletic training and missions have taken me to thirty countries and three Olympic Games, the most memorable times in my career have been seeing changed lives like Henri’s. His story is a great example of how churches and para-church organizations can collaborate. The people of Bellbrook Community Church and Athletes in Action both played a crucial part in God awakening Henri’s heart. 

Dr. Vencill said, “Henri was not only open to the truth of the Gospel, he was seeking something that would give his life meaning.” 

Like Henri, other coaches, athletes, and sport administrators come to AIA to grow in their knowledge and skills. They return to their homes with a focused mission (and sometimes a new faith) to more effectively lead others. Henri summed it up best by saying, “If you want to have impact in life, you need to have something inside you can give. I have received many things here: how to become a good man and how to lead a team. And now I’m ready to impact my team, my family, and my community.”

*Last name withheld for privacy issues.

By Paul and Donna Newman

Paul Newman serves as the Director of Athletes in Action Sports Performance, based in Xenia, Ohio. He also serves as the Crisis Manager for Cru, AIA’s parent organization, in the U.S., North America, and Oceania. A member of Bellbrook Community Church, an Open Bible Church in Bellbrook, Ohio, Paul has been married for 21 years to Donna, who is a licensed Open Bible minister and gifted speaker.

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