03 August 2022

Athletes have that sinking feeling…

The excitement of being the Lead Interfaith Chaplain at the NEC never wains! And especially so in the midst of the ‘Friendly Games’ otherwise known as the Commonwealth Games’22. Almost three years ago I was asked to offer a Podcast to the CWG’22 Oversight Committee about ‘What’s a Christian?’ I was then invited to suggest Muslim and Jewish Leaders who could do likewise. This started a great relationship with several key members of the CWG’22 Organisers and not least through the exemplary model of inclusivity within Interfaith Chaplaincy of the NEC Group - being used to massive events and yet, where individuals matter enormously.

Three Athletes Villages were identified in the early days with a vision of about 2000 athletes and sports practitioners living in each one – the NEC Campus, University of Warwick and Birmingham University. I could easily offer personal introductions to the Chaplaincy teams at each campus. Further, with the Methodist Church ethos of inclusion I was a regular voice at all planning meetings particularly around raising the diversity provision - so it’s especially heart-warming to see the inclusion of Interfaith facilities and Pride House at each Village.

Crucially, the CWG’22 Chaplaincy provision is far wider than the Athletes Villages… Almost 150 Chaplains are supporting 3,000 additional Police Officers coming into 13 new settings around the West Midlands. Locally, Sue Ford, Stirchley St. Andrews Methodist, is a Police Chaplain during CWG’22 some days - then with a change of uniform she becomes a NEC Chaplain - taking care of Visitors to (Para) Table Tennis, Weightlifting, Netball, Badminton and Boxing and more.

Offering Chaplaincy within the Athletes Villages and wearing my Dignity&Worth gifted lanyard, along with other high security passes, I found myself in a breakout room. A meaningful conversation ensued with Pride House wellbeing volunteers which developed into a lovely discussion with a group of Athletes from the Falkland Islands. They were so glad to have someone of faith to share with. The Falkland Islands has very limited resource and they were very happy to be surrounded by outstanding CWG’22 healthcare, scanning equipment, doctors, wellbeing, physio-therapists and Chaplains – much of this super-care provision unseen by the general public... Certainly the Athletes from poorer nations have never seen anything like this state of the art equipment. Later in the afternoon a young Athlete came and found me – greeted me with a vice-like grip with a gold medal winning smile. Cautiously he explained that he identified as a trans-man and had been hugely encouraged by my lanyard. He asked could he speak about his loneliness, search for Faith and asked could I help? Of course I listened, offered help and positive signposts. It was his first time to share his moving story with a Faith Leader. Gladly, with his permission and a few e-contacts, he will meet Methodists in London very shortly.

Later on that same day a young man from the island of Tuvalu which has a population of 10,000 came over asking could he have some time. I soon learned that Tuvalu airport only receives two planes each week and the rest of the week it’s a sports ground! He is a Boxing Athlete and incredibly one of only two full-time Police Officers back home. Fiu Tui aged 33, representing his country, stood with me and within minutes, as we shared we both recognized we were ‘on holy ground’ - both experiencing goosebumps and near tears. His witness to God was and is profound. His Faith in God came to the fore when he and eleven colleagues were kidnapped by pirates and held as hostages for 4 months while he was a Seafarer in his previous job – container ship sailing between Dubai and Lagos. He profoundly shared that God became very real to him in those awful days. A lifesaving transformation. Indeed, God was powerfully close to us as he shared and I listened to his story of sacrificing his life to his country – now an increasingly and alarmingly small island country, where much land has already been taken by the sea as the climate continues to be attacked and threatening their very existence.

As we left each other, I knew I would never forget him – a world class Boxer, which we often think of as aggressive - but he was truly gently spoken and presents as a sincerely warm man of God doing his uttermost to engage with children - offering them a pathway of hope in a small corrugated shack. Fiu said Boxing and Faith were gifts of God and given to him to help save his island – poignantly, aiming to stop children dangerously sniffing petrol as they bunk from school and family life.

Never heard of Tuvalu? Perhaps that’s part of the amazing Legacy of the CWG’22 – all of us learn a little more about our neighbours… (Twitter Tuvalu-UN, Permanent Mission to the United Nations).

Through the CWG’22 so far, I’ve met Ghanaians - athletes who were delighted and very surprised as I said ‘Akwaaba’ (Ghanaian welcome); Australians and athletes from Trinidad, Tobago, Wales, Kenya, Jamaica and Mauritius to name a few… and countless CWG’22 Volunteers from everywhere – the world is indeed our Parish #OutsideChurchWalls.

In closing, the Wesley saying ‘May I call you friend’ rings so true and helpfully.

Revd David Butterworth
Lead Chaplain – Interfaith Chaplaincy
NEC Group
Birmingham 

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