On Monday evening, most Yale students were settling into their rooms to begin a stressful three weeks of papers and exams. But while the rest of their peers got cozy with their textbooks, 12 students chose a different activity: bible study.
The students, who sat comfortably around the large wooden table in a Silliman College seminar room, comprise the leadership council of Athletes in Action, a group for Christian athletes. Led by John Hardie DIV ’02, a former University of Alabama baseball player, this small group of AIA members met, as they do every Monday, to discuss the “Christian lifestyle.” Some still dressed in their practice sweats, the athletes chatted as they pulled out bibles — some well-worn from use — from their bags and backpacks.
Athletes in Action is a national organization with ministries on almost 50 campuses nationwide. Though non-athletes are welcome at the meetings, the weekly Tuesday night meeting in the Branford College common room is meant mainly to help Christian athletes balance and connect their spiritual and athletic lives. Many of AIA’s members said the organization has changed their attitude both on and off the field.
“We’re not a group where we’re trying to help people in sports to use God as some kind of convenient tool to improve their sports career,” Hardie said. “What we’re trying to do is help students think about making their life count.”
The intimacy of the Monday night meeting, where the leadership council members share their opinions and joke around, is followed by more structured Tuesday night meetings for all members. Hardie said the general meetings usually draw around 55 to 60 people.
“Now I feel better when I play knowing that no matter what happens, God is going to love me either way,” said football player Kevin Littleton ’07, a member of AIA. “Athletes in Action is teaching us that our sport is not an end in and of itself but a means towards learning and seeing God.”
Attempting to help athletes see how they can use their sports as instruments to worship God is one of the main goals, Hardie said. And based on the reactions of many of the students involved in AIA, those goals are being met.
Littleton, who said he was inspired to join AIA after he saw the way it changed his older brother Ray Littleton ’02, a former Yale football player, said now that he plays for God, rather than his coaches and teammates, he has no excuse to perform less than his best.
Eleni Benson ’06, a soccer player, agreed with Littleton that AIA has helped her see that God will love her no matter her performance on the field, but at the same time gives her motivation to play her hardest.
“Giving 100 percent effort to everything you do is a form of worshiping God,” Benson said. “You know that your worth doesn’t come from winning a game; it comes from the fact that God loves you.”
The Tuesday meetings begin with “ice-breaker” activities, basketball player Tory Mauseth ’05, one of two female student directors, said. A talk on applying biblical principles to sports, usually given by Hardie, is followed by discussion. There are also smaller bible studies throughout the week, some of which are divided by gender.
On Tuesday night, talks often deal with what Hardie said he feels are the greatest challenges Christian athletes face, with topics including finding their personal identities. Sport, Hardie said, serves as an idol worshipped in our society; this is a notion he hopes to help change in athletes’ minds.
“People begin to find their identity primarily from their being an athlete or involved in athletics,” Hardie said. “One challenge for Christians in athletics is how they can find their identity in relation to God rather than through sports.”
Mauseth and others stressed the point that AIA also serves a social purpose, bringing together students from common backgrounds with common interests to relax and discuss their faith.
“People can come and relax,” swimmer Rebecca Knicely ’05, Mauseth’s co-director of AIA women said. “It’s intellectual but not in the same way as a classroom. Especially at Yale where a lot of athletes aren’t on scholarship and, I would say, sometimes under-appreciated, it’s a chance to be with other people that are like-minded, growing in your faith and fellowship.”
Athletes who do not participate in AIA said while they know of the group and may have been invited to participate, they do not feel awkward around AIA members or about turning down an AIA invite.
“I think it’s cool for the people that go to [AIA] to be able to talk about religion with people their own age,” baseball player Colin Ward-Henninger ’05 said. “I’m not really religious, but I never feel uncomfortable around the people that do go.”
Benson said she is excited that this year more of her teammates are choosing to attend the Tuesday night meeting, but she would never pressure anyone to come. Other AIA members said that while they invite teammates to check out a meeting, they never insist upon it. There are always a good amount of people at the Tuesday meeting who do not know how they feel about the organization or about their faith and have come to explore, Knicely said.
Though the Yale Athletics Department does not take an official position on AIA, Associate Director of Varsity Sports Colleen Lim said she sees it as a positive organization, not something that causes discomfort or tension among teammates.
“That’s what the teams are all about,” Lim said. “A close group of team members who really share in their daily lives, and sometimes asking somebody else to explore what they care about.”
The Yale Chaplain’s office, whose Yale Religious Ministry organization serves as an umbrella group for AIA, takes a similar stance.
Associate University Chaplain Cynthia Terry said there are YRM guidelines on encouraging membership to organizations.
Many of the athletes who do participate in AIA said learning and practicing their faith in relation to their sport has altered their lives for the better.
“For a long time I got my self-worth from how I was doing on the football field,” Ben Breunig ’05 said, as he sat in surrounded by fellow AIA members who nodded in agreement. “But playing sports is an opportunity to use my gifts to worship God. Now I’m not basing how I’m doing on what my coaches say: I’m motivated for the right reasons.”