Sports and Spiritual Lessons

On a weekend in August 300 Episcopal laymen from across Tennessee met to talk about sports in an unusual setting.

The 67th Conference of the Episcopal Churchmen of Tennessee, August 17-19, focused on faith through the lens of athletics, taking as its theme Hebrews 12: “Run with endurance the race set before you.” The annual meeting gathers laymen and the bishops of the three Tennessean dioceses at the DuBose Conference Center in Monteagle.

The men from the dioceses of West Tennessee, Tennessee, and East Tennessee listened to three speakers from the sports world: Former University of Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer, Nashville sports broadcaster Rudy Kalis, and the Rev. Colenzo Hubbard, who played football for the University of Alabama before becoming an Episcopal priest. Each spoke about overcoming adversity in sports and in faith.

Fulmer, who led the Tennessee Volunteers to the 1998 national championship, drew an analogy between football and faith as he urged the men to turn to one another in times of hardship.

“I strongly believe that Christianity is a team sport,” Fulmer said. “And when we have adversities that come along in our lives, that’s the first place we need to go.”

Fulmer told those gathered that his favorite coaching experience was not the 1998 national champion squad but the 1994 team, which lost three of its first four games. After the first two quarterbacks went down with injuries, the team came together for a Monday night prayer meeting and turned their season around. They finished with an 8-4 record and won a bowl game.

“They laid the foundation for what turned out to be the best era of Tennessee football history, from that 1-3 start and that Monday night prayer meeting,” said Fulmer.

When he lost his job in 2008 he found comfort in Romans 5: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” In fact, getting fired is “a bump in the road compared to many, many things that are out there in this world,” Fulmer observed.

Kalis, sports director at WSMV-TV in Nashville, spoke on Saturday morning, describing personal adversities at age 5 when he came to the United States from post-war Europe and a subsequent long journey to becoming a sports broadcaster. Always fighting to prove wrong those who told him he couldn’t do something along the way, “the hardest thing I have to deal with is my pride,” he admitted.

At a low point a stranger approached him in a Nashville restaurant and guided him to seek comfort in Jesus. Soon after Kalis realized his purpose was to use sports to help inspire and touch people’s lives. God had prepared him to impact others through his own adversity, he explained, quoting Proverbs 16:9: “The human mind plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps.”

Hubbard, executive director of the Emmanuel Episcopal Center in Memphis, spoke Saturday evening. He played football at Alabama under the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, winning a national championship in 1973.

Growing up poor and playing for Bryant, Hubbard learned to persevere. “I’ve learned to value not quitting,” he said, quoting Bryant: “If you have dedication and pride and never quit, you’ll be a winner. For the price of victory is high, but so are the rewards.”

Describing his long-running ministry in inner city Memphis, Hubbard likewise spoke of hardship and success, concluding: “I’m here to tell you that no matter what we have to endure, we win in the end.” And then he added: “But whenever God calls you to do something, it won’t be about you.”

Besides keynote addresses, the Tennessee laymen shared daily Eucharist and Compline, meals, and recreational activities from golf and hiking to mingling with the bishops. Their strong fellowship impressed Fulmer. “To hear a group of men singing as proudly as you all were singing a few minutes ago touches your heart,” he told the gathering.

Wheat Hotchkiss


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