Sports and Faith in Europe – New Challenges, Same Sacred Remedy (featuring Ashleigh Vella as a contributing author)

From John, in Wroclaw, Poland
My fiancée, Ashleigh Vella, is the greatest. I love her because she pushes me to try new things. Even better, she pushes me to do things that I should be doing anyway – like writing. It is a skill of mine, but I do not work at it enough. Shame on me. Yet bless Ash for inspiring me to write, because she has taken up the desire to write herself. And she didn’t start with anything simple. She decided to write about her faith journey, and particularly her missteps in faith whilst in France. After you read it, you’ll find honesty and a message that we can all relate to if we subscribe to the same beliefs. Her first post was a brave one, and now I want to rise to the challenge and present to you my faith journey as of late. In fact, it fits nicely with what Ash wrote, which follows mine.

To begin, I will inform you that I am living and working in Wroclaw, Poland. Here, I am doing two things I was never expecting to do. First, I am coaching and playing American football. I didn’t expect to be doing this because I was certain to be finished with the sport about two years ago. The second is teaching English. This is unexpected because, well, it never occurred to me that I would want to or even could be an English teacher. Alas, American football was not finished with me and English teaching has provided a meaningful career option, and both have been my doors to Europe and beyond.

Witnessing stale religion

When I arrived to the western Polish city of Wroclaw, formerly Breslau, I was aware of only a few facts about Poland: 1) They aren’t communists any more, 2) Poland is a growing and developing country in its post-communist era, 3) they love vodka, and 4) they are very Catholic.
To the last point, I have heard and read that around 90 percent of the Polish population identify as Catholic. My excursions in Wroclaw and about elsewhere in Poland can attest to this. There are churches – beautiful churches – everywhere. Nearly every street, every neighbourhood, and every village has an ornate house of worship. Catholic/Christian symbols and imagery can also be found on every street corner and nearly every person. Small parks or even family’s front yards are adorned with a crucifix or shrines honouring other saints. People often wear crucifixes across their necks or keep pictures of their patron saint inside their wallet. In short, Catholicism is visible in Poland.

I must now be careful with the next few words. I have no intentions of exposing the dust in the eyes of the natives here, because I surely have a plank in my own. While Catholicism is visible, it is not felt, it is not sensed. Some people I know proclaim to be atheists even when they wear a crucifix or perform the sign of the cross. People – often elderly women – regularly enter an open church throughout the weekday to sit in a pew, say their prayers, then leave. The churches are packed, to standing room only, on every religious holiday.

After a few weeks, it was apparent that many here are Catholic in name only. It’s cultural Catholicism. This concept was personified in one particular moment I witnessed.

Discovering my own stale religion

The homeless and the beggars in Wroclaw number quite significantly. It is not rare to see men – and a few women – stagger about the streets asking for money or, more directly, for a beer. Indeed, Poland is growing economically, yet many of its residence still struggle to make decent earnings. Quite often I see men and women, who appear to be in decent health and wearing fresh clothes, digging through trash cans and dumpsters to collect used cans and bottles, all in an effort to gain an extra dollar or two.

Having covered much of the city by foot, I have become familiar with particular districts and the local beggars, homeless, or drunks, to be blunt. One day I was standing outside one of the largest churches – Kościół pw. św. Wojciecha – in the city as I killed time between English lessons. Kneeling by the door of the church was a man I have seen many times. He’s thin, dirty, and his torso and one arm shakes and jolts regularly, as if being lightly electrocuted. His forehead sometimes bleeds or is scarred from bleeding. To top it off, he is often sitting in a puddle of his own urine. I do not know the source of this man’s ailments, but every time I see him, my heart aches.

So there he sat, shaking, being baked in the hot sun outside the church. He doesn’t speak, at least that I have heard. He weakly reaches out his grimy hat, hoping for some coins to be dropped in. For about 10 minutes, I watched people file in and out of the church without giving him a notice. I can’t recall if anyone offered money to him.

At that time, I scolded all those who walked past him. I thought to myself, this man is sitting inches from a church, a place of refuge and shelter, and the church’s people lend no helping hand.
This country flaunts its Catholic roots, yet I rarely see deeds flaunted to those in need.

But, how was I any different?

I call myself a Christian, yet in similar ways as I have seen around me lately, I rarely express my Christianity. I am often irritated and bitter towards groups of people or my responsibilities, which I often feign as sarcasm. I was recently challenged from a sermon given at the International Church of Wroclaw: Am I really showing my faith? Is my real?

Being real

If we believe in the actuality and reality of Jesus’ life, his sacrifice, and his promise, our lives should be obnoxiously joyful and bountiful in good deeds.

There was a disconnect within me between my faith and belief and my actions and words. Lately, I have been devoting my free time to studying arguments and reasoning for the existence of God, the reliability of the Gospels, proof of Jesus’ resurrection, and so on, but I had rarely spent time acting out my faith. I decided this had to change, and the first and easiest way for me to step out was to help men like the one begging outside the church.

Through the International Church of Wroclaw, a small, English-based church, I have met Brett Hamilton. The Montana native serving as a missionary in Wroclaw for several years has encouraged me to assemble small snack packs with tracts attached to them proclaiming the good news of the Gospel, of salvation through Jesus. No longer do I need to suffer through an inner conflict of giving money to a beggar who I am quite sure will use it to only harm themselves more.

Helping the poor, in realisation, is an easier expression of faith. In truth, the language barrier between myself and many of the people I hope to help will limit my time engaging in a conversation. I can deliver the Polish-translated message of the Good News, give them a small bite to eat, then be on my way. ‘Express Christianity’, it could be named.

The challenge now is to act out my faith with people I know better, with people I spend more time with. Football is a love-hate relationship for me. To be honest, my yearnings for competing is waning; football does not hold the same amount of thrill for me as it once did. And too often I let it dictate my mood. The sport often makes me cranky and listless. It downgrades my otherwise good-spirited lifestyle. The challenges of coaching and playing in a foreign country brings with it a number of moments that make me into a person I don’t want to be. Only in a football context will the F Word leave my mouth!

This then has been the challenge to my faith. Many on my team know I attend church as regularly as I can, and I have professed my faith to a number of people here. But have they seen a difference in me than in others? Am I the obnoxiously joyous? When times are irritating, frustrating, or downright awful, do I face them with a smile? Is there a fervour of happiness within me?

Am I sharing my faith regularly, even to those I love? Am I being a spiritual leader and encourager to my fiancée? To my sisters? Friends?

I am reminded and reinvigorated by the story of Paul and Silas in jail from Acts 16. Once again locked up, cold, naked, dirty, in the dark, Paul and Silas did not throw their faith by the wayside. It was resonating through the stone prison walls, perking the interest of the fellow inmates. That is real 
faith. That is a faith I strive to have.
From Ash, in Saint-Brieuc, Bretagne, France:
So as of late I have had a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head, and really felt like I needed to get them out, and put “pen to paper” in a sense, and in more than a long-winded Facebook post. I asked Johnny about the idea of writing a blog post together and sharing our stories, experiences and most importantly our voice. However I am not sure I am as eloquent a writer as Johnny, for him it is a passion and a true calling for me it is more of an outlet.

Since arriving in France, I have never felt further away from God, my faith and, at times myself. I have always thought of myself as somewhat of a spiritual toddler of sorts. I never grew up in an extremely religious family. Sure, they are good people, taught me good morals and shaped the person I am today in more ways than one, but religion was just not something we really discussed in my household. It wasn’t until my senior year that faith, God or religion would enter into my life. My junior year I was introduced to our incoming freshman Blaire Brady, and we seemingly hit it off straight away. Joking about coach’s team hiking trip in which that would be our bonding moment we would become best friends (although on her recruiting I may or may not forgotten her name and embarrassed myself quite thoroughly). Little did I know meeting Blaire would be one of the biggest blessings of my life. What drew me to Blaire was her over exuberant personality, her ability to laugh at everything including herself and her general love of life. She was always so happy and positive even in the midst of contracting mono half-way through her freshman year. Even looking like death warmed up she was still so happy and positive. I started to wonder and examine my own life. Sure, I was happy: that year we had won the Big Sky Championship, my academics were strong and I had some great roommates, teammates and friends, but there was something still missing from my life. During the summer and leading into my senior year, Blaire and I started discussing her faith and her relationship with God. I had gone to church before with another teammate but it certainly didn’t stick. I didn’t feel a pull to return or follow up. But the more I spoke with Blaire and saw her conviction, the more I was convinced this was something I wanted to try. To cut a long story short or at least a little shorter going with Blaire to church and then eventually FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) at ISU was one of the best decisions of my life. There, I strengthening my relationship with God along with developed friendships and relationships that I will forever treasure. (It also didn’t hurt going each week to FCA so I could flirt with my soon-to-be husband ;))

After my senior year I felt like my relationship with God was solid, I had Johnny with me as we endeavoured to England for our Master’s degrees. Johnny was someone who challenged me to keep my faith strong and as our relationship grew together, along with our relationship with God.

I was lucky enough to have a second year in England in which I met two guardian angels in the form of Katie Benson and Melissa Jones. Those two girls become my rock! After Johnny was basically deported from England, I was at a real low point. We had never been separated like that and for that amount of time. There was a ton of uncertainty as to where he would end up and when we would see each other next. But Katie and MJ never let me wallow alone in my room. They were a constant source of strength and continually checking in on me. We even formed an FCA of sorts in Durham, where other teammates and athletes would participate in. Both of them renewed my relationship with God and encouraged me to sort out His strength in my time of uncertainty.

Which brings me back to the present, here in France. As I said early I have always felt like somewhat of a spiritual toddler in that a lot of the time I feel like I need someone to hold my hand when it comes to God. I’m not proud to say this, but often if I don’t have someone there pushing me to go to church, read scripture or just live my life in God’s image, I won’t. Therefore, being here in France, away from my support system and being away from the people that challenge me, I have never been further away from God. However as of late, I have been thinking a lot about this and about God, and I have realised the further away from Him I have been, the more I want Him; the more I NEED him in my life.

This year has been my first year of fulfilling a lifelong dream of being a professional basketball player. And whilst this has been a dream come true, it has also seen me face many unexpected challenges. One of the biggest is the pressure to perform. The number one reason you are brought on as a professional player is to, you guessed it- perform your job better than anyone else. You literally eat, sleep, and breathe basketball. I was training twice a day and my life was becoming consumed with basketball. For me this really wasn’t an issue; this is what I signed up for right? I love basketball, always have ever since I picked my first ball at the age of five. Twenty years on, my life for the game is just as strong. What I didn’t anticipate was the pressure I would put on myself to perform. In college we were put under a lot of stress to perform and to win, but there was more to us than JUST being a basketball player. You were a student as well; you could be involved in clubs and social groups. Being a leaders and role models in the community we were often expected to perform community services and projects, like every year we volunteered at the Pocatello Marathon. There were more facets to you than just basketball. About half way into this season in France, I saw a decline in my shooting and my general performance. It seemed that no matter how many shots I took or how many hours I put in the gym, I wasn’t getting any better. My coach and I tried the opposite approach: he gave me time off, we focused on other aspects than shooting, but still to no avail. I was so utterly frustrated with myself and the process.

Then I started to reflect and examine, this is my dream right? This is what I love to do. Why, then was I so unhappy? Then I realised I was rooting so much of my self-worth, so much of myself in my ability to put a rubber ball in a round basket. Honestly it sounds so petulant but, if I had a bad practice, or bad shooting day I would literally get depressed. I was basing all of myself and how much I valued myself as a person on my ability to put a ball in the basket. I realised just how warped my sense of self-worth had gotten. I am basing how valuable I am as a person on a job, on an activity that has a lot to do with luck or chance. No wonder I was getting so depressed and seeing a decline in my performance.

But that’s the thing isn’t it: we base so much of ourselves or what we do or who we are. We define ourselves by what we do. If you ask someone who they are, a normal response would be something about their occupation or their appearance or their family. But here’s the thing all of these things are tangible, changing things. Take me for instance: I am a basketball player, who’s about 6’0” tall, with brown hair, with a mum, dad and one sister and a fiancé that lives in Poland. But let’s be honest here, I won’t play basketball my whole life. I will eventually shrink with old age. I could go out today and chop my hair off and dye it blonde. My sister and her fiancé could have a baby and Johnny won’t always live in Poland. Therefore to root myself in what I do or the people around me or my appearance is difficult because they are not unchangeable concepts. So here I am thinking, “Well, shoot, I can’t keep rooting myself as a basketball player, even though it’s almost all I have ever known.” So what can you anchor yourself in? What is something that is never-changing and ever-present? The answer was simpler than I could have ever thought: God.

In a conversation with Blaire a few weeks back, I confessed my struggles to maintain my relationship with God and Blaire, ever the optimist, pointed out that God was a constant. God “is constant and even when we stray away from Him, He is waiting for us to return with open arms.” It was such a simple thing, such a simple concept, that I almost had the urge to face palm myself. This thought came into fruition a few weeks ago after an extremely tough playoff loss. I was mad and upset with myself, with the result, with everything. But I was able to take a step back and kind of recognised that although I despise losing, God has, blessed me with another opportunity to play. He blessed me with all of my amazing abilities and the opportunities that led me to being a professional basketball player. At the end of the day, this game is just a game and He is bigger than all of us.

When you anchor your self-worth in God and in his love, He will make you strong because he will never forsake you or, abandon you. He wants only the best for His children. I guess the message of this very, very long winded post is that no matter where you are in your walk of faith, be it at the beginning where you’re contemplating your first steps, or somewhere in the middle, is just to be assure you that we all struggle, we all fall down, but if you root your self-worth in God. He will be there each and every time to give you a hand up. Putting our self-worth in ourselves only leads to depression and stress, but putting our self-worth in God makes us bigger and stronger than the problems we will face.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your won understanding, in all ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6

So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.

Ephesians 3:17-18
From John and Ash: We hope, through this blog, we will be able to present discussions, thoughts, and topics that relate to you. Whether you are an athlete, or not, a Christian, or someone searching, we hope that what we write will relate to you in some way. We have been blessed with the special experience of playing our beloved sports in new and faraway places. This has, as you see above, presented to us new challenges to our faith. We are thankful for those challenges, and by sharing them with you, you will be able to take something positive as you walk with or search for Christ.

2 thoughts on “Sports and Faith in Europe – New Challenges, Same Sacred Remedy (featuring Ashleigh Vella as a contributing author)

  1. I've read your post with interest. I'm always courious how foreginers see my counttry and my city, some things that I take for granted. I can tell you, you hit bullseye with your comment about cultural catholicism. But there is something you probably don't know.There was big social campaign few years ago in Wrocław to stop giving money to beggars on the street. It was preached by municipality, police and social service. Why? Because poor people (and there are some of them) have numerous places in Wrocław, where they can seek help. They can find food, shelter and friendly people to talk to there. But they cannot go there drunk as skunk.And this is it. I talked with my friends, who work in local social service. They told me they know most of those beggars in Wrocław. Many of them are crooks. They have homes, sometimes families. Being beggars is their choise and their lifestyle. You can earn pretty good money (compared to averge Polish wages) as beggar and it's tax free!Of course there are some really poor and desperate people, but they are always approched by social service workers with offers of help. But you cannot help someone, who does not wish for your help or who doesn't want to stay sober long enough to get hot meal and warm bed.If you want to help, as your christian faith urges you to do, there are many activities you can participate in or just give them some of your money. But please, please, do not give your money to beggars on the streets.

  2. I appreciate the comment! Always good to hear from the locals. As to your very last point, about giving money to beggars, this has been a big conflict of mine, which is why I now put in the effort to give them something to eat and the Good News rather than a coin or two.

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