Arkansans minister at Winter Olympics

by Jennifer Bryant, posted Tuesday, February 26, 2002 (16 years ago)

SALT LAKE CITY (BP)--The 2002 Winter Olympic officials did not realize the impact of "Light the Fire Within" as the motto of the Salt Lake City games, but that is exactly what thousands of Baptist volunteers from around the country wanted to do as they saturated the state of Utah with the gospel message.

Ten women from across Arkansas face-painted, balloon-sculpted, dressed like a moose, served coffee and hot chocolate plus much more as they shared the love of Jesus with the world around them at the games.

Anything that could attract attention to the group helped them draw crowds to share a message worth "More than Gold (MTG)," a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Stationed in and around Olympic Park, the Arkansas women ministered amidst frigid, winter air to many homeless residents of Salt Lake City as well as visitors from around the world. Working with Global Outreach, the Southern Baptist Winter Games Outreach, this team was a part of the 1,000 volunteers from 21 states who came to share a message worth "More than Gold."

One of the most popular outreach tools proved to be a moose, the mascot of Global Outreach. Volunteers dressed in a moose costume and paraded around streets greeting children, posing for pictures and sharing the gospel. Volunteers who dressed in the moose costume ranged in age from 20's to 60's.

As the moose was attracting attention, so were face-painters and balloon-sculptors as well others who manned a "free parking" area for visitors. Volunteers donned bright orange vests to direct traffic into the parking lot. Then they would offer an "Interactive Pocket Guide" and a "More than Gold" lapel pin. The pocket guide, featuring maps to downtown Salt Lake City, train schedules, history of Olympic events and the "More than Gold" gospel presentation, was a valuable resource to visitors. Offering these to people opened the door to share the gospel.

To reach the world for Christ is why I'm here," said Nora Earnest, a member of Crow Mountain Baptist Church, Russellville, Ark. "It's not an easy task."

Jamie Lawhon, member of South Main Church, Crossett, Ark., agreed. "I did not feel like I could go out and start witnessing to people, but I found it was easy here. It was one of my big prayer concerns."

The women said they learned several things about themselves through this trip. "Personally, it just made me realize how tough it is to share the Word. It's hard. Rejection is very hard," said Tonia Strebeck, another member of South Main. "I relied on the Lord, and He opened the doors to easy conversations. I've learned about myself, what I need to improve on. I'm stronger in that area (witnessing) now because I've actually done it."

"I've learned the importance of intercessory prayer and the need to pray for missionaries more," explained Jennifer York, from Pleasant Plains Church, Ark.

Monica Keathley, a member of the missions support team of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and leader of the group, jokingly said, "I learned I could keep 11 women together getting from Arkansas to Utah." But on a more serious note, she said, "If you are focused on being intentional, you can talk to whomever."

Margie Edwards, from Marshall Road Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Ark. said, "One thing I learned was no matter how strenuous and difficult the task may seem to be, if we put our hands and feet to the task, God will help us through."

Keathley praised the women for their flexibility.

"Everybody worked hard. We were focused, and everybody pitched in and did what was necessary," said Keathley. "Watching these women be bold when it's not necessarily in their comfort zones was amazing. Everyone was flexible and adapted to whatever they needed to do."

The Global Outreach staff had been planning for the Olympics for over a year, but they also had to be flexible and change plans when they discovered they were not working.

Original plans had included a parking lot with a stage set up where performing art groups would perform and attract crowds to the MTG Internet Café. Due to security concerns involving intoxicated people, the stage was taken down and the groups were moved into the Internet Café. Security was also hired for the evenings.

"We have a structure in place, and we can tweak it some to be more effective," said Doran Dennis, Global Outreach site supervisor for the MTG Command Center and Internet Café. "You have to first meet physical needs. The stage area will now be a parking lot, and we will offer parking for free."

Beth Ann Williams, director of Global Outreach, said regarding the change of plans, "I think you do your best to get information, and you make your plans. Then, you have to be fluid, not just flexible."

Dennis shared, "It's very frustrating at first" to change plans. "We want to keep it the way we planned. Finally, we have to give up our plans and figure out what God's plan is."

Each woman had a significant encounter with someone during the week. Some believe it was their divine appointment that God had prearranged long before they ever knew they were going to the Olympics.

Before Angela Wilkinson, a member of Kibler Baptist Church of Alma, Ark., ever came to the Olympics, she surfed the Internet and found there was a Hard Rock Café in Salt Lake City and knew she wanted to eat there. One evening, another group asked the Arkansas group if anyone wanted to go to eat at Hard Rock Café. Wilkinson immediately said she did. "It was God working," she said. She ordered and went to look at the merchandise for sale.

As Wilkinson was shopping, there were three workers in the store. When she could not find the size she wanted in one of the shirts, two of the workers went to the backroom to look for one. This allowed Wilkinson time to strike up a conversation with the other salesman.

"I could just feel God at work," said Wilkinson. "He had fixed it where no one was around." She asked the young man where he was from, and he said Chicago. "God sent him there to work during the Olympics," shared Wilkinson. "God had put us together."

Wilkinson, who is an avid Razorback fan, told the salesman one of the Razorback basketball players is from Chicago. That led them to talk about the University of Arkansas. The boy was looking for a college out of state, and he said the Fayetteville school sounded good. He gave Wilkinson his email and mailing address, so she could send him some information about the school. Now, she can continue contact with him and share more about Jesus.

"It had to be God working," said Wilkinson. "I will put him on my prayer list and will continue to pray for him."

Dana Morris, a member of Park Hill Church of North Little Rock, prayed that God would give her a significant encounter during her week in Utah. One morning, she was a little discouraged because she had not had one, but then she realized, her idea of a significant encounter may not be God's idea of one.

She shared that she had a really good talk with one of the other women on the trip. "That may have been my significant moment," she said. "It was definitely a divine appointment even though it had nothing to do with missions. This trip had brought them together."

Also, as Morris was serving coffee, she was able to have a very long talk with a homeless man from the area. She talked with him about many things for over two hours. This man just needed someone to care about him.

The women will never forget their experience at the 2002 Winter Games for many reasons. Sharon Williams, a member of South Main Church of Crossett, explained, "I can witness. I can walk up to a stranger now and ask about Jesus."

Edwards will always remember a woman who did not have any transportation or job and was very discouraged. "I told her to remember everyday that someone is praying for her."

Edwards also made an observation about the pocket guides. She said she never saw one pocket guide on the ground, and she did see other material thrown on the ground. That was encouraging to the women.

Ginger Smith, a member of Marshall Road Church of Jacksonville, will always remember the "sweetness of the people at the command center" and the willingness of the people on the trains to listen.

The Arkansas team alone distributed 698 pocket guides and 794 MTG lapel pins, 193 hospitality bags, 12 New Testaments and 57 Christian CDs. They also painted 25 faces, made 94 balloon animals and gave out 395 stickers. They were involved in over 367 conversations at warming stations and on the trains. They also served over 300 beverages. Many people received Christ through the Olympic ministry, 25 of whom made professions of faith during the torch Relay ministries around the country.

"All we are asked to do is spread the seed," said Edwards. "Anytime we pray, God says its not going to come back to us void. The greatest power in the world today is that people have the power to pray."


(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MORE THAN GOLD MOMENT, PASSER BY, BIG HIT, FREE SIGN, LIGHT THE FIRE WITHIN and OLYMPIANS.

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