More than gold, more than trading pins: Debbie Wohler happily takes the gospel to yet another Olympics
Debbie Wohler says if you want a visual of the Kingdom of Heaven, sit at the opening ceremonies of an Olympics and observe.
“The nations of the world are literally there. The whole world is sitting there, in harmony, and it gives you hope about how you can live in peace. Our peace comes only through Jesus, of course, but this gives me a visual of what Heaven’s going to look like.”
The California resort missionary speaks as a veteran: the 2012 summer Olympics, in London, marks her 12th Olympics-as-mission-trip. Her first was in 1980 at Lake Placid.
“It is just such an amazing opportunity to reach the world,” said Wohler, who serves at First Baptist Church in Tahoe City when she’s not at an Olympic event. “There are many countries we cannot go to as missionaries.”
In Vancouver, she met a man from Iraq. In Beijing, she met people from Finland, Colorado and Japan. At the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics she saw Russian athletes accompanied by their KGB handlers. The influence goes beyond the diversity of ethnicities.
“It’s expensive to go there, so you’re dealing with the movers and shakers from around the world, and it’s not uncommon to meet those who have influence in their home country,” Wohler explained. “You never know who you’re going to meet; it could be a member of the International Olympic Committee.”
Olympics-as-mission-trip could be one of those missionary ruses that unfortunately occur: tourism disguised as missions. Not when Wohler is involved.
“Well, I can talk to a post, I guess that’s my best talent,” she laughs. But behind the humor is a heart bursting to share the gospel with any person who will give her even the briefest moment.
Wohler strikes up conversations with people on buses, subways, trains, standing in line (there are a lot of lines to be stood in at the Olympics). She gives stickers to children, Olympic trading pins to anyone who will take one. She plays the clueless tourist – “not hard, since I really am!” – to initiate conversation. And it’s there, in the easy conversation between fellow spectators, that she brings her ultimate mission to the fore: “When they ask me what I do, or what I’m doing there, I get to say, ‘Oh, I’m here giving away pins – or stickers – because I want you to know about Jesus.’ Or, ‘I have a free pin, can I tell you about it?’
“One unique thing about special event and resort ministries is that when people are at play and leisure, they’re much more willing to take the time to talk to you about stuff. I’ve had amazing conversations with people at the Olympics.”
A token sampling:
· A woman in Japan who admitted: “I don’t really believe in the prayer wishes” of traditional Buddhism … giving Wohler an opportunity to talk about the God who hears and answers prayers.
· Lengthy conversation with a Japanese family – the family of an athlete – at the Beijing Olympics, followed by actually finding that family in the crowd at an event.
· Speaking in front of a Buddhist temple in Japan, with the result that a Japanese television crew followed her around just out of curiosity.
· Countless conversations with those Wohler calls “the no-see-ums” of resorts and special events: janitors, servers, housekeepers, ticket-takers and others in the service industry easily overlooked among the glamor and glitz of the Olympics.
· A deaf believer in Salt Lake City who heard Christians were there to witness, and asked her to show him the “More Than Gold” pins and literature so he could use them. “I couldn’t imagine how he would help, but that just showed how limited my thinking was. He would just go up and write notes to people in the coffee shop and talk with them that way. He ended up leading a lady from Spain to the Lord.”
· Serving as chaplain and leading Bible studies at the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics.
“I would say it’s most challenging when you know people don’t want to hear a word you’re saying,” Wohler said. “It can be discouraging.”
Ironically, Wohler says so far the place most receptive to the gospel was Beijing in 2008.
“Oh yes, Beijing was the most spiritually alive. I had a (Jesus) fish on my backpack, and a member of a house church asked for all the materials I had so he could pass them out. Sometimes young people in Beijing would come up and ask us things like, ‘What do you think happens when people die?’”
One common strategic conversation-starter utilizes the evangelistic materials produced under the “More Than Gold” umbrella organization, which includes Southern Baptists and other like-minded groups. Chief among these materials is the “More than Gold” Olympic trading pin.
Pin trading has been a not-so-small side business of the Olympics for decades, long enough now for millions of them to be in circulation and thousands of them to command a high price among aficionados.
This year, Wohler and a number of other Southern Baptists are volunteering as official Coca-Cola pin trading company representatives.
“I anticipate meeting a whole different set of people,” she said as she explained the significance of this official volunteer status. “There are guys who make their whole living at pin trading, and we’ll have more access to meeting them. So I’ve asked for Olympic pins from all over the country, different ones, and I know people are going to want to talk to me because I’ll have those. And I’ll have the opportunity to say, ‘A person gave this to me because she wants you to know about Jesus. I’m glad you asked where I got all these!’”
The pin packet includes a brochure, transportation map and some of this year’s statistics, a written plan of salvation, an athlete’s testimony, and, for those who are interested in more, a New Testament with athletes’ testimonies.
“Please pray for the Christians who are there trying to tell people about Jesus,” Wohler asked. “Pray not just for safety but also boldness, and sensitivity. The Bible is true: if you plant enough seeds something’s going to happen. In Atlanta, 3,000 people became Christians. The goal is obviously to increase the Kingdom.
“Love people into the Kingdom. You have to have the words and the actions. Because no matter what year it is and where it’s held, people need Jesus.”