February 23, 2010
Thousands are now in Vancouver, British Columbia attending the 2010 Winter Olympic Games cheering for their favorite athlete as they compete for gold. Many news headlines, however, have been less than flattering reporting all that has gone wrong during the Olympics - from overflowing ice cleaning machines, cancelled event tickets and the death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a training run, just hours before the Olympic cauldron was even lit.
But as the games continue, it is the friendliness, helpfulness and generosity tens of thousands of volunteers who are winning the hearts of the international athletes and guests.
"It's about radical hospitality," says Karen Reed, Executive Director of More Than Gold (MTG), a network of Christian faith community who has recruited and trained thousands of volunteers for the games.
"Whether we are serving free coffee to people waiting in line-ups, or offering directions and free maps to guests looking for Olympic events, we want everyone to feel generously served."
The strategy appears to be working. Reed reports that the locals and visitors on the street have been extremely grateful for the more than 160,000 cups of hot drinks served in the first three days by More Than Gold, as well as the warm conversation and helpful interactions. More Than Gold has already received commendations from TransLink, the Vancouver City Police, the RCMP, Vancouver City Hall, North Vancouver City Hall, Richmond City Hall and VANOC about the difference their service is making in adding calm and friendliness to a sometimes harried environment.
As an expression of "radical hospitality," some church members have even opened their homes offering free housing to Olympic travelers. Churches are making their facilities available for prayer, as well as places to simply rest and relax.
"We are thrilled to be able to show hospitality to guests from around the world," says More Than Gold executive director Karen Reed. "It is such a great opportunity to warm the hearts of athletes, officials, and spectators who are visiting our great country."
The creationist ministry Answers in Genesis (AIG) are among dozens of organizations with volunteers serving the large international sports competition. The global arm of AiG, "Answers Worldwide," has conducted similar outreaches at previous Olympic Games, beginning in 1996 at the Atlanta Summer Olympics and then later at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. At the Athens Summer Olympics in 2004, nearly 200 individuals came to faith in Christ and 5 new churches were started as a result of the AIG Olympics Outreach.
"The Olympics provide a wonderful opportunity to fulfill the Scripture's mission challenge to take the gospel to the whole world," said Dr. David Crandall, International Director of Answers Worldwide.
The Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, a nationwide network of crisis-trained chaplains across 40 states, has hundreds of volunteer chaplains working in Vancouver and Whistler. The chaplains and teams are specifically trained to deal with crisis situations like last month's earthquake in Haiti, but shifted to a lighter focus at the Games. Billy Graham's Rapid Response Team also trained MTG volunteers to minister to individuals at the Olympics in crisis and non-crisis settings.
During the first week of the games, some 50 inner city teens and 10 mentors from the US converged on the O-zone (Olympic zone in downtown Vancouver) to experience art promoting drug-free and joy-filled life. The art exhibit visit is part of their weeklong Olympic experience.
"It's been the trip of a lifetime for these underprivileged youth," says Andy Harrington of Youth Unlimited, who is hosting the visit, along with Youth for Christ Canada.
The two organizations are working with an American foundation committed to culture, education and drug free sport for teens, and are acting in cooperation with More Than Gold.
Not All Agree
But CBC News reports not everyone believes the Christian mission should support the Olympic dream.
Dave Diewert, an organizer with the Christian social advocacy group Streams of Justice, which works on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, says it is inappropriate for Christians to associate themselves with the Olympics.
"It seems unthinkable to align ourselves with the massive corporate enterprise as the Olympics," Diewert told CBC News.
Sharon Tidd, Vancouver/Whistler 2010 Olympic Outreach Coordinator for The Salvation Army British Columbia Division, says the naysayers have been few in number.
"We are simply here to provide support and help where we can," said Tidd. "We want people to have a great experience and know that God loves them."
But many churches and Christian activists say the Olympics provide an opportunity to host seminars calling attention to Vancouver's growing homeless problem, as well as spotlight sex-trade workers or what some call "victims of human trafficking."
Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity (REED), a grassroots campaign to raise awareness and effect change around sex trafficking, seeks to use the Olympics to promote its theme, "Buying Sex Is Not a Sport."
REED organizers say women and children in Metro Vancouver and Whistler are routinely coerced into the sex trade to meet its demand, and a large sporting event such as the 2010 Olympics only further increases the demand for commercial sex.
"Demand is an issue we have already flagged in Canada and have been working against for years," states REED's website.
To further its message, REED has coordinated several "Buying Sex Is Not a Sport" outreach events in Metro Vancouver through community-based public forums and distributing posters, buttons and t-shirts.
The Vancouver Sun predicts REED may have hot commodity in its t-shirt at the Olympics.
"If Christian activists have their way the most popular T-shirt to emerge out of the Olympic Games, which they argue typically places prostitutes in high demand, will be the one reading, 'Buying sex is not a sport.'"
While methods may vary to share the Gospel message, most outreach organizers agree that the Olympics is a good reminder that discipline and endurance are key ingredients to success on the slopes, but also to "winning gold" in Christian maturity.
Russ Jones is co-publisher of the award winning Christian Press Newspaper (ChristianPress.com) and CEO of BIG Picture Media Group, Inc., a boutique media firm located in Newton, Kansas. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri and St. Paul School of Theology. As a former NBC TV reporter he enjoys reporting where evangelical Christian faith and news of the day intersect. He is also president of the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers. Jones is also a freelance reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network. He may be reached at [email protected].