|STORIES FROM THE U
SPECIAL REPORT: SHIFTING GEARS
We interrupt your summer with a special edition Newsletter! The big headline is that this has NOT been a normal summer for all of us. Big shock I know, but between COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd just a few miles from our Navigator offices and the unrest that has unfolded as a result, life in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota will never be the same again!
I wish I could predict what’s next, but as we are learning, things change at a moment’s notice. This newsletter I wanted to take a little more time than I normally would to share some things that I feel will give y’all a better picture of why I am here and why your support means so much to me and the ministry.
When it comes to summer, most campus ministries downshift to a slower pace. It’s a time to slow down and evaluate the previous year, get some rest and gear up for the new school year. Here at the University of Minnesota, that normally would be the case but on May 26th that all changed.
The week of May 25th 2020 is one that nobody will ever forget as we witnessed the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department.
His death sparked days of protests and rioting that awoke the world to the issues of systemic racism and how deep it runs not only here in the Twin Cities but in our nation. College students and young adults have been leading the outcry. It broke my heart to see them struggling with coming to grips to the racial situation in our country. The need to confront this head on was apparent.
We had already started to address the issue within our ministry. The events of that week made it crystal clear that we were already heading in the right direction but now it accelerated the work that was needed. One of the first actions we undertook was a call to prayer for our entire Navigator City Team which is comprised of nearly 70 people spread across the metro serving in various departments. I had the honor and privilege to co-lead this time with Dr. Susie Brooks EdD who is a part of our Navigator staff team here in MSP and the founder of Veritas Academy. We had a time of prayer, lament and seeking the Lord for direction on how to address the current events. I was also privileged to write an article for our organizations’ weekly newsletter sharing my perspective on the situation. Since then I have been engaged in many consultations with various staff members around the country in our organization as well as having the honor of being on a panel that was based here in the cities that discussed the issue of race and culture in disciple-making. All of this has just been the start of tackling this issue within the organization but the real work is with the students.
We had originally planned to do a summer book study on race and racism with the book “The Third Option” by Miles McPherson. The plan was to do a 9-week study but when the situation broke loose, we opened up the first meeting to all of our students and staff. As a result of that initial meeting we have had 10 people from various backgrounds engage with us for the entire 9 week study and we are planning to run the study again this fall and open it up to our campus community. I am so proud of this group of young men and women for diving deep into a difficult subject. It’s just the beginning but it gives me hope that we can raise a generation that will change this world.
MEET THE FELLAS...
When the Navigators asked me to focus on two main areas here at “The U”, multicultural development and disciple-making through the context of sports, I wasn’t exactly sure how that would look here at the U. These two areas have been the foundation and hallmark of my 25 years in ministry, but every new situation always brings about different experiences. The hope is that though the experience is different, the vision remains the same. For me, the vision is clear, to bridge the gap between people and a God who loves them and wants the best for them, and to bridge the gap between people of varying ethnicities/cultures. I have been gifted to use the platform of sports to accomplish this.
When I arrived on campus, I came with an open mind and a set of expectations. What I got...well was not exactly something I could have foreseen. This semester has been a whirlwind where we what we thought would take a year or so take only months to get going. The doors of relationship with guys on campus flung wide open when I arrived. The opportunities to connect came quite fast. I would like to share with you a couple of the stories of how the vision of bridging the gap between students, cultures and God have taken place. One of the first relationships came with one of the students in our ministry Tyson.
I introduced him to you in my last newsletter, but there is a lot more to our story. He was one of the first students that I met when I was in process of coming here to “The U”. We bonded quickly through a shared love of sports and God. As I moved to Minneapolis to assume my position with the team, one of my fellow teammates who was personally discipling/mentoring Tyson transitioned off our team to pursue other ministry opportunities. This left a discipling/mentoring gap for him which I was able to step into right away and pick up where my friend had left off.
Because we already had established a good relationship, it was easy to go well beyond playing basketball and hanging out together. We were able to dig into studying God’s word together and discover what becoming a disciple-maker means for him. Because of the dynamics of our relationship, (namely the fact that I’m black and he’s white) the opportunity to add race and culture to the discipleship mix was irresistible to the both of us. When the George Floyd murder happened, it shifted the discussion into another gear.
Everything was on the table now. There was no holding back on the subject as we dug into the book “The Third Option” by Pastor Miles McPherson. Tyson wanted to understand not only the issue in general, but he wanted to see it through my eyes. Here’s what he had to say about it:
My eyes have been opened as Jason has shared with me his experience as an African-American man living in America and ministering in the Church, and my heart has been broken by many of the things he has faced. I’ve been able to step into his shoes and begin to understand what it’s like to come from a culture very different from the one I grew up in. In a similar vein, I’ve been able to share with Jason the life I’ve grown up with, and it’s given him a strong understanding of how my upbringing has informed my interactions with those different from me.
One of the coolest experiences we’ve had together was when I asked Jason to point out my “blind spots.” A blind spot is defined as something about myself that I fail to recognize, which is clear to others. We were tasked by Pastor Miles to ask someone close to us what some of our blind spots are, and Jason was a natural person for me to ask. He pointed out a couple things to me that I would’ve never guessed myself, actions attitudes that I thought were beneficial in my interactions with others, but were not always perceived that way. They made total sense, but I wouldn’t have realized them without Jason speaking into my life. This is what discipleship is all about: allowing others to speak into our lives, and leading us to become more like Christ, correcting our faults, developing our strengths, and knowing God more deeply.
Jason and I’s relationship has been deeply transformational. We’ve become great friends, partners, and brothers in Christ, and we’re both better for it. This Fall, we will be pioneering a Navigators ministry built around the game of basketball, using our mutual love for the sport to connect with guys at the Rec, and study the Bible with both believers and non-believers alike. We plan to focus on relationships, meeting guys where they are at and getting to know them on a personal level, which will enable us to share the Gospel with them through the lens of their life experiences. I am confident that the connection we’ve developed will enable God to do great things through us, and I can’t wait to get started!
The full story can be found in the article “Reconcile: Race Culture and Disciple-making” (click HERE to read). Tyson is just one of several students that I have been able to establish mentoring relationships with on campus. Another student, Mark is a student at the U who is a talented basketball player and writer who has a great story of how he began to pursue his God-given purpose in life.
It was one of my first days in the "Rec" at the U. As my custom in a new gym, I went to find an open court where I could get some shots up before venturing on to the pickup courts. As I walked into the north gym on the 3rd floor of "The Rec" I saw this guy “putting in work” by himself which got my attention. I thought to myself that what he was doing was such a “J-Rob” thing. So as I got ready to do my own workout, I watched him for a few minutes. When I had seen enough, I decided to walk up to him to ask about what drives him to work so hard. What I learned that day was a “game-changer”
For the both of us it was the shared love of basketball that sparked our friendship. I was impressed with Mark’s passion not only for the game but his desire to find his purpose in life. He was open and real with me about what he was searching for. I asked him if he wanted to get some workouts in sometime, he said yes!
As we began to meet regularly, I discovered that my initial impression was right. His work ethic was motivating. He gave it 100% and didn’t try to impress but was just as comfortable in those moments when the drills weren’t going his way as he was when he nailed it. Even when I struggled he was extremely encouraging in a genuine way that reflected the level of humility that he walked with. That won me over. That first workout let me know that I was working with a “real one”.
One of the things we discovered is that we both not only loved the game and shared a similar story of how basketball led us to a pursuit of God, but we also had a shared love for writing. When I found out that his minor is in creative writing, I knew that we had to collaborate on some articles. I asked him to help me write a series that I had started. He not only accepted the offer, he blew me away with his writing abilities. In our first article together, we shared about how our relationship started and what brought it together. Here is what part of what he had to say:
“From the moment I met J Rob, I could tell that he was someone who specialized in making people feel special. As I’ve gotten to know him more, that still rings true. From that initial conversation in the gym, he offered knowledge and insight freely, and was a genuinely listening to everything I had to say. I could tell right away by talking to him that he was an inspiration to many, and someone who was in unison with God’s plan for his life. It was refreshing, and the beginning of a great friendship that is founded upon iron sharpening iron.”
You can find the rest of the article which is called “True Confidence: How To Be A Real One” (click HERE to read). Mark and I have been continuing to meet and write together throughout the summer. That article went so well that we crafted another one in the series “True Confidence” that you should check out and share with any athletes you know.
THE BACK STORY: WHY "THE SPORTMENTOR"?
For years you have been hearing about “The SportMentor” and you may have been wondering what’s the point, and has it produced results. On the surface it seems like a guy who plays ball with guys and gives them good advice on life, but it is much more than that. It is about coming alongside young men who are looking to learn what is their purpose in life, sports is just the means of communication. It is the call that God has placed on my life!
The last 25 years of my life has been dedicated to fulfilling this call. The call has never changed, the method has never changed, only the context in which it is done has changed over the years. I started in collegiate ministry, transitioned to church staff and now have transitioned back to collegiate ministry. In 2018, the transition back to collegiate ministry began through one of those young men that I mentored/discipled nearly 10 years earlier while he was a college athlete
Adam had just come to know the Lord through a relationship that he had with a teammate on his track team. One particular weekend, he was looking for a place to serve at church when he approached my sports outreach volunteer table. Since I was serving as sports outreach pastor, I was the right person for him to meet. He told me about coming to know the Lord and about running track at his college and playing basketball in high school which peaked my interest. As we talked I got the sense that we were going to be friends.
Well, that meeting turned into a now 11-year relationship that has seen Adam discover his call to the same call to discipleship/mentoring and he and I are now serving on the same campus through the same organization, The Navigators. You can read more about how he was able to “pay it back” by connecting me with the Navigators in our story “Better Together: A Paul & Timothy Story” (click HERE to read).
Several years later, I met a young man Michael who ironically was a track athlete at the same college that Adam had graduated from. We met at the gym across the street from the church that I had served on staff with years earlier.
After some intensely competitive 1-on-1 basketball, we talked. I wanted to know this guy who I just had this intense game with. I was impressed with his the intensity with which he competed. He shared with me that he actually knew who I was through one of his mentors. As strange as that sounded to me, I went with it and we ended up having a great conversation. I was so impressed with him that I gave him my card and asked him to get back to me. That initial meeting turned into something I will let you hear about directly from him:
"My journey thus far can be summed up by Matthew 7:24-27 pretty well. I spent the first 18 years of my life building my house on sand. My identity was so wrapped up into sports, my friends, my intelligence, my girlfriend, etc. I did not build my house on the word of God, even though I was vaguely familiar with this God I so desperately adore today. Long story short, this house on sand came crashing down New Years Eve of 2016 (my freshman year of college). The next morning, a friend of mine invited me to church, and that was the beginning of my house built on the solid foundation of God’s word.
Fast forward a couple years and the day before my 20th birthday, my 7th grade coach, teacher, and one of my current mentors is baptizing me. So what happened in between that New Years Eve and the day I publicly declared my faith in Jesus Christ? Discipleship. The Lord blessed me with many Christians that poured into me over that span of time, and continue to up until this day. One of these mentoring relationships is with J Rob, aka "The SportMentor".
You see, J Rob and I played a couple of 1 on 1 games at X-Sport before that New Years Eve crash, and J Rob gave me his business card. I kept that card in my wallet for months before ever coming in contact with him again. I would see his smile and faithful service at Mc Alisters almost every time I went in; however, our relationship went no further than some good ol’ UNC vs. Kentucky basketball banter. Little did I know that this man was going to challenge me on the court and in my walk with Christ in the near future.
I love the game of basketball. Any opportunity to play, coach, watch, etc, I’m taking. So naturally, J Rob and I got along well when it came to the game.
J Rob wasn’t willing to let that relationship end at basketball though, he was in it for the eternal game.
We would play our games to 100, then dive into a bible study and talk about how God was moving in our lives. We would push each other, pray for each other, and sharpen each others game, and spiritual life. The relationship we have helps me to build my house on the solid foundation that is Christ Jesus. That is the beauty of sports ministry. We were able to connect over a game with a bouncy orange ball, but became brothers over a Truth so good, everyone needs to know it.
Our relationship has inspired me to use sports to reach out to friends of mine that don’t know the love of Christ, through the game of basketball. I am so grateful that the Lord put J Rob in my life, and I am even more grateful for the ways God will use him to minister to the students at the University of Minnesota. God brought the house built on sand crashing down, and put the desire in my heart to build my life on his word. Discipleship provided me the way to make that foundation on the rock solid word of God"
You can read more about Michael's story in the article "Better Together: The Eternal Game" (click HERE to read)I have been blessed over these last 25 years to meet and journey with many young men like Michael and Adam. Their stories remind me why I do what I do. It’s what has drawn me back to where it all started on the college campus. I have been on the campus of the University of Minnesota only a semester but what has happened in such a short period of time has been amazing.