Reaching out through sports
"I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus."—Apostle Paul to the Ephesians, Acts 20:21. At 2 4 , Ja s on We s tbrook didn't see himself walk ing where
the Apostle Paul had walked, speaking where he spoke, sharing the gospel in a Muslim country where Christians can be unwelcome, to put it mildly. He didn't see himself playing basketball, a sport he hadn't taken part in since high school, to help bridge the gap between cultures and religions.
But God works in mysterious ways and the Sam Houston State kinesiology major recently used a sports mission in Turkey to make an imprint in that country—and on his teammates.
"It was totally a God thing," Westbrook said after an 11-day stint in Istanbul, Turkey with SportsReach, a ministry that uses sports to help spread the gospel.
He said the bustling city of 7 million was a new experience. Men walk arm-in-arm on crowded sidewalks just so they won't be separated in their conversation as others pass through. Even so, punctuality is not a high priority.
"We got a call at 5 a.m. that we were going to play a game at a place the guide had never heard of," Westbrook said. "We showed up and there was no one there. That was nerve-wracking, but the other team finally showed up and we played."
He said he only noticed hostility twice, once in the hotel health club, where he sought a workout. One big local kept giving him the eye.
"He was just kind of scowling at me," Westbrook said. "But I later learned that some get offended by the barefooted 'infidels'."
The other time was when fans booed the team as they faced off against a German team. "I just laughed and was thinking, 'Come on. It's Germany'."
The mission-minded part of his trip was not heavily publicized, he said.
"You just don't want to bring undue attention to the Christian missionaries that are already there," he said. Turkey does have its share of violent Muslim fundamentalists.
Westbrook ended up befriending the hotel manager, Lutfu Comazu, a Muslim man. The two spoke of their lives and their religions late into the night over tea.
"He had been through exper iences w ith Muslims and Christians," Westbrook said of his friend. "I tried to tell him how Christianity is not about the rules of a religion, but about a relationship with God."
The majority of Muslims are like 'C&E' (Christmas and Easter) Christians. They believe, but they are not active participants. When they have the call to prayer and are supposed to stop and bow towards Mecca, most of them just go on with their day."
Moved at Ephesus
The trip involved a short plane ride to Ephesus, where they saw excavations at the site of the former Temple, and the amphitheater where Paul spoke to the Ephesians.
"You just marvel at the acoustics," Westbrook said. "I was on the stage and just said 'Jesus Christ is Lord.' They could hear me all throughout the place.
"Paul spoke so long ago, but the holy spirit is still so huge in that place. Some teammates were egging me on and I quoted John 3:16 and just started to talk and words were coming out of my mouth that I'd never even thought about."
Perhaps his biggest victory was his own inf luence on his teammates.
He roomed with Tony Freeman, an All-Big 10 Conference player for Southern Illinois, who told him he was solely "here to win."
"Here I am, a short guy who hasn't played since high school, worst guy on the team, rooming with the college standout, the best player on the team," he said. "But we talked a lot and I told him God would be working on all of us this trip. By the end of the trip, he was participating in a nightly Bible study and helping other players with bags. He wasn't just in it for himself and basketball wasn't the number one thing in his life anymore."
Before the trip was done, 12 players had re-dedicated their lives to Christ and one became a believer.
Westbrook plans to have a hand in ministry in some form or fashion.
"I have seen more things and had more experiences. It really changed my outlook on things," he said. "God really pulls us out of our comfort zone, both myself and the team. The entire trip showed how much God is in control."