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Baseball Chapel spreads evangelical zeal in major, minor leagues

Christian chaplaincy group takes no stance on LGBT issues but doctrine murky

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Baseball Chapel, gay news, Washington Blade

Baseball and evangelical Christianity have a long history in the U.S. (Photo by Bill Andrews via Wikimedia)

Baseball and white evangelical Christianity have a long history going back to the days of Billy Sunday (1862-1935), an outfielder in the game’s National League in the 1880s who went on to become widely accepted as the “most celebrated and influential American evangelist during the first two decades of the 20th century,” according to a 1955 biography.

Sunday converted to Christianity and in 1891 turned down a lucrative baseball contract to go into full-time ministry with a Chicago YMCA. Although Sunday was ordained by the Presbyterian Church and his revival meetings were nondenominational, he was a strict Calvinist and taught traditionally evangelical and fundamentalist doctrine such as the inerrancy of scripture and that one must be saved to avoid hell.

The links between white evangelical Christianity and “America’s pastime” continue today through organizations such as Baseball Chapel, a group that appoints team chapel leaders to provide chaplain-like services to players in both Major and Minor League Baseball to “bring encouragement to people in the world of professional baseball through the gospel so that some become discipled followers of Jesus Christ.”

According to the group’s website, chapel programs are established for all 210 teams in the major and minor leagues and many independent league teams. About 3,000 players, coaches, managers, trainers, office staff and other team personnel, umpires and members of the media attend. The agency was formed in 1973 when Watson Spoelstra, a Detroit sportswriter, approached Commissioner Bowie Kuhn with the idea of an organized chapel program for every major league team. By 1975, all major teams had a chapel program. The minor league component was started in 1978, according to the Baseball Chapel website.

All board members and staff, paid and volunteer, agree to the group’s statement of faith “without reservation,” its website notes.

White evangelical Christianity has evolved in the U.S. and there are varying views as to its origins, although it’s a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of the Christian faith. There was greater overlap of belief with mainline strains of the faith (e.g. Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal) in the early 20th century but a starker line was drawn in the 1980s when Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority linked itself to the Republican Party. There was overlap with the Jesus Movement — conservative Christianity’s answer to the Woodstock era — where the born again experience was emphasized and eventually a full-on counterculture formed with books, movies, and especially pop- and rock-flavored gospel music created by and for this audience. These products existed to a far greater degree than anything comparable in mainline or Catholic Christianity.

Today, just 34 percent of white U.S. evangelicals support same-sex marriage (numbers are higher among 18-29 year olds but lower overall in the Bible Belt) compared to 67 percent of white U.S. mainline protestants and 66 percent of white U.S. Catholics, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. And white evangelical support of President Donald Trump is at an all-time high, according to the same group — in an April poll, 75 percent held a positive view of the president (81 percent of among white evangelical U.S. men). Trump won the white evangelical vote by more than 80 percent according to polling data.

Not all white U.S. evangelicals believe the same doctrine. There are charismatic and non-charismatic (i.e. “speaking in tongues”) strains, but there is much overlap of belief. Baseball Chapel’s statement of faith does not mention same-sex marriage or activity but reads much like those of other evangelical, anti-gay groups with language calling the Bible the “inspired, infallible word of God, inerrant in the original manuscripts.” It offers “daily devotions” with topics like “staying humble in success,” “thy will be done,” “remember God’s faithfulness” and many others.

Some LGBT activists say even if Baseball Chapel isn’t openly condemning LGBT people, the fraught history of LGBT people and the historically heavily heteronormative world of U.S. sports culture is cause for, at least, caution.

“Institutional religions have been part of the American sports story from the founding of this country,” says David McFarland, producer of the new sports documentary “Alone in the Game,” about the struggle of LGBT athletes. “I am very concerned for our LGBTQ athletes and their ability to fulfill their dreams in sports. Americans have habitually turned playing fields into praying fields. And more than ever, sports have also figured into the making of America’s civil religious discourse as athletic expressions of national identity. Extreme religious themes and ideas continue to attach themselves to sports in new and innovative ways keeping LGBTQ athletes off the playing fields and living in silence.”

But is there a danger of being too wary if Baseball Chapel has no anti-LGBT history to point to? If anything, it appears to have attracted more controversy for other reasons. Josh Miller, a minor league umpire for eight years, said the weekly services — always optional though held in the close confines of a locker room that made them difficult to avoid — made him uncomfortable because of his Jewish faith in a 2008 New York Times interview. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that a Baseball Chapel volunteer chaplain’s assertion that Jews are “doomed because they don’t believe in Jesus” inspired Major League Baseball to reevaluate its relationship with Baseball Chapel (it continued).

The group doesn’t appear to have attracted much controversy in recent years. McFarland says there are larger groups — some with annual budgets over $100 million — doing Christian outreach ministry at all levels. He says Baseball Chapel, in terms of size and scope, “doesn’t even compare” to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a more explicitly anti-LGBT group whose statement of faith says marriage is “exclusively the union of one man and one woman.”

Baseball Chapel, which has eight staff members (three are part-time) and hundreds of volunteers, declined the Blade’s request for an interview. In an e-mail, Baseball Chapel President Vince Nauss said the group’s work is private.

“Baseball Chapel’s service to the teams are intended to be behind the scenes and thus we are careful to respect the private nature of our role with the players and staff members,” Nauss wrote. “I rarely grant interviews with media outlets and therefore decline the request.”

Local minor league teams say their chaplain services have been non-problematic. A spokesman for Maryland’s Hagerstown Suns says there are no openly gay players on this season’s roster that he knows of. He wasn’t sure if any of their current chaplains are with Baseball Chapel.

Geoff Arnold, director of broadcasting and public relations with Maryland’s Frederick Keys, a AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, says he’s interacted with the Baseball Chapel folks “a decent amount.” There aren’t any openly gay players on the Keys, he said.

“They typically offer short services for players on Sundays regardless of whether the team is at home or on the road,” Arnold wrote in an e-mail. “To call it a religious group would be a stretch since they are more of a service for players who want to be able to practice their faith but can’t make it to normal services. … I can tell you that the services are non-denominational and inclusive to everyone regardless of age, race or sexual orientation. … Participation is 100 percent voluntary and it’s simply a resource. Everyone I’ve ever interacted with from Baseball Chapel has been first rate people who really care about the players and in some cases have played themselves.”

Arnold said it’s a “super low-key environment, the services are very short and nobody is pushy or makes you feel uncomfortable.”

But what about other groups? Are chaplain services offered for Catholics, Jews or even possibly Muslims? Do the leagues give those faiths equal time?

Arnold says he knows of “a bunch of Catholic guys who attend Baseball Chapel.” He was unaware of any Jewish groups offering comparable services and says there are few Muslim players in minor league baseball.

Rev. Anjel Scarborough, an Episcopal priest and LGBT ally in Ellicott City, Md., says she’s unaware of mainline, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim chaplaincies in sports settings. She says white evangelical chaplains are common in other sports as well. It’s not surprising, she says, since outreach efforts are part and parcel with evangelical belief.

While Pride nights in Major League Baseball are huge now (this year 24 out of 30 teams have Pride events planned), that only started in the early 2000s. Christian groups have been at it in baseball decades longer.

So is it any big deal for LGBT people if Baseball Chapel is that benign? Opinions vary.

Aside from LGBT issues, Scarborough said she has other concerns.

“Spiritual care from a group like this is very one-dimensional and only represents a narrow bandwidth of Christianity at that,” Scarborough, priest in charge of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Md., says. “Evangelicalism operates on a view of the church known as the salvation model. … In essence, this view is the church exists to win souls for Christ, hence the effort to proselytize in alternative venues like sports teams. But that’s a pretty narrow view of why the church exists.”

She says the evangelical vs. mainline view of salvation also differs.

“The view in evangelical Christianity is all about salvation so you can go to heaven when you die,” Scarborough says. “In general, mainline Christianity sees salvation as a here-and-now reality, not exclusively about a future promise about what happens after death.

Matthew Vines, executive director of the Reformation Project, a group that offers a “Bible-based, gospel-centered approach to LGBTQ inclusion,” says groups that aren’t more unequivocal in their LGBT positions can still be problematic.

“They may not have any anti-LGBTQ language on their website, but given how many conservative Christian groups offer harmful advice about how to respond to LGBTQ people who come out,” Vines said, “a closeted player considering coming out would likely worry about the message the group would send to its members about whether or not to support an out teammate.”

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Formula One racing star wears LGBTQ Pride helmet at Qatar Grand Prix

“It’s down to whether you decide to educate yourself, hold the sport more accountable and make sure the sport is actually doing something”

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Lewis Hamilton Formula One helmet design via Hamilton's Twitter

DOHA, Qatar – Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team’s seven time Grand Prix champion driver Lewis Hamilton won in the inaugural run of the Qatar Grand Prix Formula One race Sunday.

That was not the only significant event that the 36-year-old race car driver participated in during his Qatar stay as prior to the race, Hamilton had shown support for the LGBTQ+ community during a practice session on Friday, wearing a a helmet featuring the Pride Progress Flag, a redesigned and more inclusive version of the traditional rainbow flag, and emblazoned with the words “We Stand Together.”

The flag features additional black and brown stripes to highlight the oppression of people of color, as well as pink and blue stripes for the trans flag and a purple circle on a yellow background, which is the intersex flag.

On his personal Twitter account the Formula One racer tweeted pictures of his helmet, which he wore at the end of Trans Awareness Week and this weekend which marks the International Transgender Day of Remembrance on Saturday.

Hamilton had received a knighthood from the British monarch Queen Elizabeth II in December a year ago for his human rights and advocacy work with his private charity, The Hamilton Commission, which the Stevenage, Hertfordshire, UK native set-up to simultaneously address the underrepresentation of Black people in UK motorsport, as well as the STEM sector.

The queen’s honors are awarded twice a year, in late December and in June, when the monarch’s birthday is observed. The awards acknowledge hundreds of people for services to community or British national life. Recipients are selected by committees of civil servants from nominations made by the government and the public.

In an interview with the Guardian, Hamilton said that he believes “sportspeople are duty bound to speak out on human rights matters in the countries they visit. With Qatar hosting its first Formula One Grand Prix this weekend and facing new allegations of worker exploitation and abuse in its preparations for next year’s football World Cup, Hamilton insisted he would hold the sport to account for the places it chooses to race.

Prior to the debut of the Qatar Formula One race and with the 2022 FIFA World Cup matches slated for 2022 in Qatar, focus once more fell on human rights issues. The Guardian reported that workers within the state have claimed that reforms to the country’s restrictive kafala labour sponsorship system have been ineffective while human rights groups continue to highlight oppressive male guardianship policies as well as discriminatory laws against women and LGBTQ+ individuals.

Lewis Hamilton 2016 Malaysia Grand Prix
(Photo by Morio)

“We’re aware there are issues in these places that we’re going to,” Hamilton told the Guardian. “But of course [Qatar] seems to be deemed as one of the worst in this part of the world. As sports go to these places, they are duty bound to raise awareness for these issues. These places need scrutiny. Equal rights is a serious issue.”

He added: “If we are coming to these places, we need to be raising the profile of the situation. One person can only make a certain amount of small difference but collectively we can have a bigger impact. Do I wish that more sportsmen and women spoke out on these issues? Yes.

“It’s down to whether you decide to educate yourself and hold the sport more accountable and make sure the sport is actually doing something when they go to those places.”

CNN reported that British intersex activist and columnist Valentino Vecchietti finalized the version seen on Hamilton’s helmet, which includes the intersex flag. “It means everything,” Vecchietti told CNN. “I can’t express what an amazing, massive, massive thing Lewis Hamilton has done. And I feel emotional talking about it, because we are so hidden and stigmatized as a population.”

The Pride Progress flag by Valentino Vecchietti to include representation for the intersex community.
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International Olympic Committee issues new “Framework On Fairness” for inclusion of Trans Athletes

The International Olympic Committee announced new guidance allowing “every person” to participate & abandons testosterone levels as criteria

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International Olympic Committee Headquarters (Photo by Greg Martin; courtesy IOC)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland – Following the first Olympic Games in which transgender athletes not only competed but made history by winning a gold medal, the International Olympic Committee stunned the world of sport Tuesday by not revising the criteria focused on testosterone, as expected, but moving away from it altogether. 

The IOC announced its new Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations in a Zoom meeting hosted in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The leaders said they consulted with 250 athletes and “concerned stakeholders” including medical and legal experts over two years, and determined “every person has the right to practice sport without discrimination and in a way that respects their health, safety and dignity.” While stressing that competitive sports “relies on a level playing field,” the IOC tacitly acknowledged the complaints of trans-exclusionary cisgender women athletes by stating support for “the central role that eligibility criteria play in ensuring fairness, particularly in high-level organized sport in the women’s category.”

GLAAD heralded the announcement as making it clear that “no athlete has an inherent advantage over another due to their gender identity, sex variations, or appearance.” 

“This is a victory for all athletes and fans, who know the power and potential of sports to bring people together and make us all stronger,” said Alex Schmider of GLAAD. “Sports are for everyone, and fairness in sports means inclusion, belonging and safety for all who want to participate, including transgender, intersex, and nonbinary athletes.”

What the IOC didn’t do was issue new criteria for testosterone levels and did not define who is or isn’t a woman, and for the first time in modern Olympic history, is walking away from its “one size fits all” guidance. It’ll be left up to each sport and governing body to determine who is eligible to compete. The IOC guidance is that the criteria should respect internationally recognized human rights, rely on robust scientific evidence as well as athlete consultation, and that “precautions be taken to avoid causing harm to the health and well-being of athletes.” 

Although intended to guide elite athletes, the committee suggested all levels of sport, even recreational and grassroots sport, respect inclusion and non-discrimination policies.

Here are the 10 principles outlined by the IOC to to welcome all athletes at every level of participation, centered on the values of inclusion, prevention of harm and non-discrimination.

1. Inclusion 

2. Prevention of Harm

3. Non-discrimination

4. Fairness

5. No presumption of Advantage

6. Evidence-based Approach

7. Primacy of Health and Bodily Autonomy

8. Stakeholder-Centered Approach

9. Right to Privacy

10. Periodic Reviews

Athlete Ally was one of the agencies consulted by the IOC in determining this framework. “We hope to continue working closely with the IOC to ensure that the policies and practices governing sport actually include and represent the diversity of people playing sport,” said Anne Lieberman, Director of Policy and Programs at Athlete Ally. 

“Far too often, sport policy does not reflect the lived experience of marginalized athletes, and that’s especially true when it comes to transgender athletes and athletes with sex variations,” said Quinn of Canada’s Olympic Soccer team and the world’s first trans nonbinary gold medalist. “This new IOC framework is groundbreaking in the way that it reflects what we know to be true — that athletes like me and my peers participate in sports without any inherent advantage, and that our humanity deserves to be respected.”  

“I think that the IOC has made a powerful statement in favor of transgender inclusion, but I think that items 5 and 6 in their framework are problematic,” said Joanna Harper, the visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at Loughborough University in the U.K. and a former IOC consultant. 

“On average, transgender women are taller, bigger and stronger than cisgender women and these are advantages in many sports,” Harper told the Los Angeles Blade. “It is also unreasonable to ask sporting federations to have robust, peer-reviewed research prior to placing any restrictions on transgender athletes in elite sports. Such research is years or maybe decades away from completion. I do think that recreational sports should allow unrestricted inclusion of trans athletes.” 

As San Francisco-based trans journalist Ina Fried noted in Axios, the IOC said that sex testing, genital inspections and other medical procedures to determine gender put all athletes at risk of harm and abuse, not just trans, intersex and nonbinary athletes. But the bottom line, Fried wrote, is that this new framework isn’t legally binding on any sports governing bodies, which now have carte blanche to write their own rules for eligibility.

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Proud to be a Fury

New film a touching tribute to the history of women’s rugby

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(Photo courtesy of Coleen McCloskey)

The last time that the Blade checked in with DC Furies player Liz Linstrom, she mentioned that she would always contribute to the club even if injuries sidelined her ability to play.

That statement proved to be prophetic as Linstrom experienced her third ACL tear while in the beginnings of filming a documentary about the Furies.

Linstrom had created a short documentary on women’s rugby and femininity as an undergraduate student at William & Mary and the itch was still there to produce more creative work.

Even though she was working three jobs and playing with the Furies, she felt she had enough work flexibility to pitch a documentary to the club in the fall of 2019.

The original idea was a past, present, and future look at women’s rugby in the United States through the lens of the players. 

Established in 1978, the Furies quickly developed into a highly competitive club, and they are currently competing in the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Union and the Capital Geographic Union, with both Division 1 and Division 3 teams.

In March of 2020, the Furies were ramping up to host their 40th annual Ruggerfest tournament, one of the largest all-women’s rugby tournaments in the United States with brackets including high school, college, social, and competitive clubs.

Then the unexpected happened.

“COVID hit, the tournament was cancelled, and filming of the documentary came to an abrupt stop,” says Linstrom. “The story shifted to the resilience of women and club sports in a way that professional and semi-professional sports teams can’t relate.”

The resulting film, “Furious,” is a touching tribute to the history of women’s rugby, women’s rights, the Furies, tradition, family, and maneuvering through COVID.

Four gay women are central figures in the film with one being married and another nonbinary. The players share what women’s rugby was like in the 1970s.

“The beginnings of women’s rugby in the United States coincided with Title IX in 1972. As a sport in its early beginnings, teams couldn’t afford to push people away. If you wanted to hit someone, you were on the team,” Linstrom says. “By the 1990s, the women’s rugby community was advocating for LGBTQ rights and the Furies had Candace Gingrich as a long-time player. Eighty percent of the team were lesbians.”

Other aspects of women’s rugby that are brought to light are the camaraderie, commitment, sense of family, and the queer elements of the community.

One Fury player breaks her nose 20 minutes into a match, shoves a tampon up her nose, and goes back in as a blood substitution. Another player breaks her wrist and carpools five hours the next day to North Carolina to support her team during a game.

Toward the end of the film, Linstrom addresses the impact of COVID on a club team such as the Furies. Some are concerned about coming back to play and wonder whether the excitement will still be there. Others think about trying to replace the players who are leaving the D.C. area.

“Nothing will keep us from getting together. We are not pro athletes, but the highest levels of women’s rugby in the United States is still club teams,” says Linstrom. “The legacy of the club is very important to all of us. Every time we step onto the pitch, we are standing on the shoulders of the players who came before us. They are our founding bricks.”

“Furious” premiered online in September for family, friends, and Furies players with viewership in 15 states. Linstrom funded the project as producer and director along with a grant from Arlington Cultural Affairs. The film will now be submitted to festivals to reach a larger audience. 

Linstrom has moved on from her three part-time jobs and is now working full-time as a video editor at a production studio in Alexandria along with coaching rugby at American University. 

The Furies were able to play sevens rugby over the summer and had the first game of their fall fifteens season on Sept. 25.

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