Carrying the torch for burning spiritual beliefs
Inside the stadium, athletes competed for gold. Outside, others competed for souls, writes MARK HENNESSY
FREE PRESBYTERIAN Church minister Stephen Pollock led his group in song on Saturday afternoon near the steps leading into the Westfield Centre and the Olympic Park beyond, but it was a struggle to be heard.
The Free Presbyterians was one of a multitude of religious groups competing for attention as Olympic spectators came and went on an afternoon: “But we’re lucky, we have a group that can sing, really sing,” said Rev Pollock.
“We’ve had absolutely no hostility at all,” he said, when asked how they had got on. “People have taken our literature. We brought about 5,000 pieces that speak about the Lord saving souls and they’ve all gone,” said the Omagh-based minister.
The Olympic-themed literature drew on the inspiration of Jamaican 100m runner Usain Bolt: “It is indisputable that this man has swift feet. In a spiritual sense we all have swift feet. God’s Word reminds us that our feet are ‘swift in running to mischief’ (Proverbs 6.18).”
On the competition for victory, the Free Presbyterians put forth an uncompromising view: “Admit it or not, these prizes will not satisfy for long. Those who receive bronze or silver will secretly wish they had won gold.
“The Bible declares ‘he that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver (Ecclesiastes 5.10). Some of those who win gold will inwardly wish to have won more than that. Ultimately the medals will be put in some drawer or cabinet somewhere, while younger and more skilled athletes arise.”
The colours of the medals on offer held lessons for “time and eternity”, with bronze depicting judgment, silver speaking of redemption, and gold “the coveted reward not just of Olympians, but of the world” in general “speaks to us of heaven”.
The Northern Irish group has spent time over recent weeks with the Free Presbyterian Church in Walthamstow, along with running children’s groups in Higham Forest: “We had a lovely response from the children,” said one of the group.
Nearby, Jermaine Lawlor, an evangelical Christian from Romford in Essex, was deep in good-natured, but intense, conversation about the superiority of the Bible over the Koran with a British Muslim convert.
Finishing up with handshakes, Lawlor told The Irish Times: “People are looking for fulfilment. Some are looking for Olympic gold, others are looking for it in drugs, or drink, but we tell them about the love of Jesus Christ.”
Conversion was not easy, given that all of the groups had but seconds to engage passersby, but Lawlor – half-Jamaican, a quarter Irish and a quarter Greek, as he described himself – was counting one victory in the race for souls.
“Yes, a Lithuanian man, I think. We prayed for him and I told him that Jesus Christ loved him and that Jesus Christ died for him. And we went through the Sinner’s Prayer,” said Lawlor, “Four years ago, I was on the street, lost and in gangs before I found Jesus.”
Dressed in yellow T-shirts, One Reason volunteers, a Muslim group, promoted their cause: “We have absolutely no problem with the Olympics,” said Saleem Chagtai. “Muhammad raced in the desert with his wife. Islam encourages healthy sport. Fitness is important, respect for one’s body, but it is all about balance: amusement, exercise, all of it.”
He said public events such as the Olympics offered Muslims “the chance to come out of our shell”.
“We have to get out there and engage people, rather than accept the characterisations of Muslims that exist. We have had a phenomenal response from people here at the Olympics, really phenomenal,” he said.