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Christian Union
December 2, 2015
Many athletes find a religious community on campus in one of the 37 recognized faith-based student groups on campus. Getting involved with these groups has given spiritual student-athletes a way to connect with their faiths and find another Columbia community outside of athletics. For religious athletes, faith can help them find the strength to excel on the field—and survive the agony of loss. - Catie Pellerin, Columbia Spectator

ThinkstockPhotos-78738837A recent article in the Columbia Spectator, the university’s newspaper, explores spirituality in the lives of athletes at Columbia. Christian Union’s ministry at Columbia is highlighted:     

Senior Joshua Foster, a wide receiver on the football team, grew up in the Methodist church as the son of a pastor. For him, that meant finding time for church every Sunday in between his practices and games. At Columbia he continued to attend church on his own.

Soon thereafter, he was introduced to Jim Black, the director of undergraduate ministry for Columbia Faith and Action.

Since its inception, CFA has been tightly linked to Columbia’s athletic community. Black estimates that 30-40 student-athletes are involved with CFA today—and the ministry now offers athlete specific Bible studies to fit their demanding schedules.

But Foster was the first football player to join the ministry. He has been actively involved in the group, serving as a [leader] in their weekly Illumina group and introducing some of his teammates to CFA.

Black met Foster and some of his teammates as the team fell into its recently broken 24 game losing streak.

“I had watched the last three years pretty closely with some of the football players and had seen how hard that journey had been, and just spent a lot of time with them trying to encourage them, praying with them,” he said.

Embodying the Christian Union distinctive to engage and connect Christian leaders, Black decided to reach out directly to the football team:

When Black learned that the football program had hired head coach Al Bagnoli to lead the team last spring, he was as excited about the program’s transition as some of the players he had come to know. At that point he reached out to Bagnoli to thank him for taking the position.

“I didn’t have anything in mind really,” Black said. “But I just got his email and I wrote him and just said, ‘I want you to know that I know quite a few young men—seven or eight—on the football team, they’re dear friends of mine. I really want to thank you for coming. They’re so encouraged. If I can be of any assistance just let me know.’”

What ensued was an incredible bond, that can only be attested to God’s grace and the diligent work of Christian leaders:

ThinkstockPhotos-179310306Black’s correspondence with Bagnoli resulted in him volunteering his time as a religious resource for Christian members of the team.

“In my other life we used to have reverends around us all the time who would actually travel with us,” Bagnoli said of his time as the head coach of Penn’s football team. “It’s had a pretty long precedent in my other life, so I was trying to take it and carry it over.”

Columbia’s football program had a team chaplain under head coach Norries Wilson, who offered spiritual guidance and conducted prayer services for interested players. But former head coach Pete Mangurian got rid of the position.

Now Black and Bagnoli are working together to redefine a role for his ministry for any interested players. Black attends Tuesday practices, and makes himself available to pray with the players afterward. He offers a football specific bible study as well.

For Bagnoli, this service is yet another resource to help build a well-rounded program for the student-athletes.

“I think it’s like a lot of things that you do in sports: It could be nutritionists, it could be your speed coaches, your strength coaches. This is just another vehicle to try to help our kids,” Black said. “And hopefully that translates into them being a better student, better athlete, better human being.”

Praise God for His work at Columbia in the lives of these student-athletes. Pray that they would continue to seek God, to represent him well on the field, in the classroom, and in their dorms and living areas. And pray that God would use them, as they graduate and pursue careers, to live out their faith in a way that makes an eternal impact and brings glory to God.
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