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I [HEART] Motor Sports Ministry

A strange, large metal thing sat on the table next to the powerpoint screen. It looked like a trophy, maybe. “What exactly is this,” I asked an older gentleman in a cowboy hat sitting up front. He looked at me like I am daft. “It’s a trophy.” “Oh, yeah, right,” I nodded. “But, what, exactly is it? Is this some sort of car part?” “It’s a piston.” Ah. Yep. “Are pistons usually this big?”

The dozens of men and two women at last weekend’s Annual Training Seminar in Ministry in Motor Sports were exceedingly kind about my ignorance.  Lucky for me, these guys walk the walk.  Just about all of the sessions had “PATIENCE” as one of the bullet points.

The extent of my experience with motor sports involves:

  1. My mother’s enduring, unrequited love for the Mazda Miata (which she absolutely has to buy soon, in candy apple red); 
  2. My being overtaken often on the highway by cute sports cars, race-car looking vehicles I usually refer to as “long front cars,” and crotch rockets;
  3. Watching the documentary Senna, which blew my mind;
  4. And attending a 13 hour endurance road race at the Virginia International Raceway last October, which, let’s be clear, is really a test of the pit crew.

So, at this event, I wrote little notes to my neighbor, such as, “What is a toader?” (The speaker had actually said “toter,” which, my neighbor explained, is short for motor home toter, or toter truck, a vehicle the speaker uses at some races to set up home-base. There were all sorts of terms I didn’t know for squat, like “flat track,” “local track,” and “Nehemiah.” (Ok, Nehemiah is a book in the Bible, but I had not heard a sermon on it, like, ever.) The seminar was held at a modest hotel with adorable retro-car prints on the wall, very near to the Charlotte Motor Speedway. We could hear the cars revving up Saturday afternoon. (Yea, that sound is sort of sexy.) It lasted all weekend, with long, detailed sessions and very short breaks. I took notes as fast as I could scribble, trying to get a baseline of knowledge so I can write a chapter on motor sports ministries for my book on men and faith.

CAM00002-1

With Chaplain Bill Beck (www.racerspastor.com)

But my biggest note-taking problem was not my glaring ignorance. It was my “gift of tears.” It was hard to stay analytically on-point because I was inspired. These men and women are working from a beautifully odd pattern of ministry. I am sure they have their faults, and recognition of their capacity to go astray is woven into the training. Accountability and transparency to one another and to their loved ones was one of the refrains. There were other refrains that sounded discordant, given the urgent, hyper-managerial forms of counting-success-ministry I hear often. Here are a few.

While “God will open doors,” shed your ideas about notable successes. The Great Commission, as they interpret it, will mean sticking with a community of people for the duration of a season at a raceway, people who are decidedly not there to hear from you. It will mean just being around, visible, tranquil, and attentive enough to earn their trust with daily struggles, be it jealousy, malice, marriage, divorce, alcoholism, financial struggle. People are there to get-their-race-on, not to find Jesus. There is a kind of quest for adrenaline that people in motor sports share. And each of the speakers from the Motor Racing Outreach team exhibited and preached chaplaincy as a kind of antidote, even while it was obvious each of these guys loves racing. They not only talked about the importance of serenity in the mix of a community addicted to speed. They themselves seemed strangely still.

The very gift that a good motor sports chaplain brings to the raceway – the gift of quiet, listening presence in a crisis – can mean that the men they minister to are not keen to acknowledge them later. One of the speakers did an uncanny impression of a guy doing the barely visible dude-nod that says, “Yea, I acknowledge you, but don’t you dare come hug me,” to describe the way some men will react after you have become a true gift of the Holy Spirit in his life. Hugging after a win, or maybe even after a loss, is part of the game. But being obviously friends with a guy who has seen you cry over your wife’s infidelity? That is a different matter. So, don’t expect a guy for whom you have been Jesus-with-skin-on to go around talking-up your weekly chapel service. (In fact, don’t expect most of them even to want a chapel service. One of the speakers was clear that counting chapel attendance is totally wrong-headed.)

Many of the competitors (which, I learned, is a term for the entire racing team) have a tendency “to find their self-worth in racing.” Many of the guys will think “I’m somebody” because of racing. This little fact did not come as a surprise to me. But, my jaw dropped when our speaker said, “Why would we find our self-worth in some silly thing like sports, like in racing cars?” Truly. He called racing cars “silly.” And, while these people take their ministry seriously – fourteen straight hours of butts-in-a-chair taking notes and I am clear on that – they don’t mistake themselves for God. Even with the somewhat crazed-sparkle in their eyes when they talk about racing, they don’t mistake their beloved sport for discipleship. And they seem not to mistake their presence at the track for ushering in the Kingdom. One member of the team told a salient story when, at a big-time champion event, winner after winner thanked Motor Racing Outreach. A guy standing beside him said, “Yea, too bad they aren’t thanking Jesus.” Really? Did he just tell that story on himself? Yep. He did.

There was often language of “investment” (this is Charlotte, after all) but we are not supposed to “invest” in people in order to “leverage them” to reach others. (Young Life-y leadery leaders, are you reading this?) In fact, be aware that “the Enemy” will tempt you to gravitate toward the people behind the wheel (or the handlebars), when you are often called to go out and be with the concession stand workers and the security guards, not because they will in turn witness and spread the word, but just because, guess what? They matter too. I will confess. I expected them to talk about the big MOMENTS OF MINISTRY around the horrible crashes that I know are a part of the story. But they talked about pumping gas, hanging out at the auto parts store, helping put up a tent, consoling someone whose pet had died. One speaker started talking about the movies Gladiator and Remember the Titans, and I was like, “oh, yep, here we go.” (Eye roll.) Meanwhile, after recounting Denzel Washington’s rousing speech for his team to “Hold the Line!” he then said, throwing up his hands, “Guess what? That is not realistic!” When you are in ministry, he explained, you can’t be in it all jazzed up to see results. Otherwise, when you watch men “stall at the cross” (a phrase he attributes to Dale Beaver) you will obsess over what you did wrong. When you see a brother count the cost of discipleship and turn away, you will think you can get it right next time, rather than realizing that it is up to God. We plant seeds, and then, we trust. This allows a good chaplain to be both prepared, with a game plan for each race, but also to be interrupted when someone needs you to go off-script.

I think all of this would have felt off-base if it had been at a big fancy venue with swanky food. But, it wasn’t. It was right off the highway next to the Five Guys Burgers and Fries. And, at that very joint (over truly amazing fries) Bill Beck (who is probably over 60) told me about how Facebook had transformed his ministry (what? really? there goes another stereotype) and several chaplains traded stories of mission work in Mexico. Their combination of creativity and piety really struck me. These are true improvisers, and they seem really, no-joke, to believe more in God’s power than in anything we can do, imagine, dream-up, or market. One story will have to stand in for many others, because I have to save some of this for the book, right? Apparently one woman persuaded her community to travel to each of the 31 states in Mexico and pray at sites representing the heart of each region. “What?” I asked the chaplain telling the story, “Who did she know that gave you all access to all those places?” He smiled. “The Holy Spirit.” I then realized I was working under the assumption that there was some opaque plan by these Americans to do something or other to change something or other in Mexico. Nope. They really, truly just went to pray. Apparently I need to get to the races more often.

photo_fixedBack to the trophy shaped like a giant piston. (You can’t make this stuff up.) On Saturday night, while I was mindlessly watching a hipster/sexist/romantic comedy (re Judd Apatow) on HBO, the rest of the conference participants went go-carting. The winner was Alyssa Lasater. She evidently trounced the guys. On Sunday morning, before worship, Kyle Froman, from MRO, presented her with the trophy.

She then turned to another MRO team member, who came in second, and said “Good race.” He smirked and said back, “Yea, glad you could dominate me.” She then did a beautiful Tebow, and we cheered.

 

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.s.alder Jeremy Shane Alder

    This is really good, ALH. I’m looking forward to your book. Have you spent any time with Christian motorcycle ministries? My parents have been leaders in The Tribe of Judah for 20+ years now, an international ministry to outlaw bikers. Lots of “muscular Christianity” and other disturbing stuff in it, but also a lot of genuine love and grace. Similar to what you seem to be witnessing among the motor sports ministers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=695361354 Missy Troutman DeSouza

    LOVE your totally unbiased “outsider’s” view of motorsports ministry! Now we MUST get you to a race …or two!
    Missy deSouza

  • Amy Laura Hall

    Hey!  I tripped while walking the dogs last week, and, it turns out, broke a bone near my elbow.  Good news is that elbows are supposed to bend, so I don’t have to wear a clunky cast anymore.   But I am behind on all sorts of correspondence, including scheduling time with you, Missy!  Soon!  Jeremy, I remembered your connection to Motorcycle Ministries, and I would love to connect with your parents!  Give them my contact information?  Also thought you all would enjoy that one old friend wrote me a fan letter about Motor Ministries with the subject heading Profligate (G)racing.  Isn’t that fun?  

  • Jim Zeirke

    Hey Amy Laura.  Mind if I swipe that “Profligate (G)racing” name?  I’ve been thinking about changing the name of my ministry. :)  

    Anyway

  • Jim Zeirke

    Hi Amy Laura, 
    Mind if swipe that “Profligate (G)racing” idea?  Been thinking about changing the name of my racing ministry. ;)

    I thought that I might give you an insider’s view of how what you saw at the MRO meeting plays out at the track.  I minister at Slinger Speedway in Wisconsin.  We race every Sunday night from May to early September.

    First, a little background on me.  I’ve been going to Slinger Speedway since I was 14 years old.  I’m 59 now.  About 10 years ago God began calling me to minister there.  I found myself wondering if the guys racing there have a chaplain. After several years I asked the track and they said no but that they’d be interested but they didn’t want just anybody to do that job.  So, I got trained by MRO and was accepted by the track.  I’ve since learned that MRO’s name, because of its relationship with NASCAR, means a lot to local track operators.

    At my first MRO training meeting Tim Griffin, at that time
    the lead chaplain to the NASCAR Cup series, told us that motorsports ministry
    was all about “hanging out”.  In an environment
    of hyper-egos, tight schedules, and the high speed of racing, we just go and “hang
    out”. Tim said that the last thing that we should do is be the Christian at the
    track, in the sense that we shouldn’t come in there with a Jesus T-shirt, wearing a big cross and handing out tracts because you’ll fail big time and in very short order.  So,
    I decided that I would just hang out at Slinger Speedway and focus on loving
    the people that I serve.   Every Sunday evening I go there and make friends and that
    eventually, it always has, leads to an opportunity to share the faith. That really is, at its core, what this type of chaplaincy is all about. I remember my very first day at Slinger
    Speedway.  I was standing there amid all
    of the insanity that is racing when suddenly I felt perfectly alone.  I asked God (and this is a quote) “Lord, what
    has my big mouth gotten me into this time? What do I do?”  In one those rare moments when I felt God
    close, personal, and talking to me, He said “Just love them, Jim.”  That still chokes me up.  All that I had to do then and now is just
    love those people and everything else happens from that. (In fact, I don’t even care if I lead them in prayer to receive Christ. I just let God use me however He chooses to use me. If all that I ever do there is plant the seeds that others water and still others harvest, well, so be it. Let God be glorified.) 

    I love them when everyone hates them because of a big wreck
    that they caused.  I love them even when
    they tell me that their girlfriend is pregnant or that they have been cheating
    on their wife. (Thank God that doesn’t happen very often!)  It took some time for the guys to overlook my
    ministerial background and treat me just like a friend, but it did happen and it happened a lot quicker than I thought that it would.   I think that it happened for two
    reasons:  One, I was a consistent
    presence—always there, the same Jim whether they won or lost, “wreckers or
    checkers” as they put it.  In the high-speed insanity of stock car racing, where things can change faster than you can blink an eye, being a
    consistent, unchanging presence means a lot. 
    Whether they are the fan favorite or the guy who always gets booed I
    pray with them and offer them the same loving support.  Two, I gave them the freedom to be just what
    they are: people who have a crazy compulsion to go as fast as
    possible on a ¼ mile high-banked asphalt oval. 
    If they cuss around me great!  Even
    if they vent their anger at me, great! They are being themselves and don’t have
    to be perfect to earn my friendship. 
    They merely have to be themselves.  I want them comfortable around me because when
    a crisis hits their life, whether a death or even if they have run out of money
    and can’t race anymore, they will contact me. Same goes for wonderful events of
    life such as weddings, births, getting a new job.  I’ve done weddings and funerals for these
    guys.  I’ve sat in a church with an arm
    around their shoulder while they sob. 
    But there is something else, in that when those things happen it gives
    me an opportunity to tell them how God loves them and will walk with them.  If they need assurance I can share the
    Gospel.

     

     

    So, for me it is all about building relationships and
    allowing the sinners to be the sinners that they are.  They know where I stand and they also know
    that I love them anyway.  Didn’t Jesus do
    that?  Did He turn His back on us while we were still sinner?  No, and neither do I. I don’t even fire Bible verses at
    them unless they ask and then I will paraphrase and just say that it is “in the
    Bible”.  Even in my chapel services (yes, I have one and I have it because the guys asked for one) I don’t preach the four spiritual laws or anything like that.  I focus more on teaching them who Jesus is and why He loves them.  I should note that I have prayed with folks to receive Christ.  But more often than not folks will tell me that they just got saved as a result of some other person witnessing to them. I’m just glad that God used me to play a role in that process.

     

    The other thing that I do is hang out where they hang
    out.  My ministry is not just at the track.  It is wherever these folks gather:  car shows, trade shows, swap marts, big racing events at other tracks. If I show up it is a sign of consistency and caring. I can’t believe all of the party
    invitations that I get from these guys! I go to them and hang out just like I
    do at the track. I also visit their race shops and hang out there.  That way they know
    that I’m committed to their lifestyle just as much as they are.  I don’t go to get in their face.  I go because I remember an old pastor telling
    me that you can’t love something that you don’t pay attention to.  He also said that Jesus spelled love
    T-I-M-E.  Paul said that he becomes all things to all people in order to advance the Gospel.  My experience is that racers highly value commitment, consistency, honesty, and faithfulness.  If I take those things and apply them in a ministry to those people then I guess that the Lord will do the rest.  As I said, He always has.

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