Athletics Opens Doors
As a high school senior in Joplin, Missouri, John D. Williamson was ranked as the top linebacker in the state for 1988. College recruiters came calling. The burly 6-foot, 3-inch, 230-pound player picked the University of Arkansas.
For two years during spring practices Williamson impressed coaches enough to be named a special team starter. But by the time the fall season rolled around he had sustained injuries that kept him from playing. Although the Razorbacks went to the Cotton Bowl twice and the Independence Bowl once during his college playing days, Williamson for the most part could do little but root from the bench because of a trio of football-related surgeries.
Even though he had attended Assemblies of God churches all his life, Williamson says he didn’t make a commitment to Jesus as Lord until his junior year in college. Part of that surrender involved despair over his gridiron-related injuries.
“I was so frustrated because I didn’t feel this was the way my career was supposed to be playing out,” Williamson says. “God helped me connect the dots and see that there was a purpose for all I was going through.”
At the end of his junior year, Williamson got involved in Chi Alpha Campus Ministries, the AG U.S. Missions ministry on secular college campuses. So did his girlfriend and future wife, Sharon, who had accepted Jesus as Savior at the University of Arkansas after transferring from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Sharon was a four-time All-American sprinter/hurdler and heptathlete who qualified for the Olympic trial team.
Ironically, both John and Sharon’s athletic careers came to a crashing halt on the same weekend. In a tackle, John suffered a fourth football concussion when a vertebra slipped in his neck. Sharon fractured her shinbone in a track meet.
Yet less than a month later at Chi Alpha-sponsored revival services at an Arkansas church, both John and Sharon spoke about how the Lord had helped them focus on what was truly important: a relationship with Him. Together, John and Sharon felt a calling to sports ministry, but at the time, none existed in the AG. So the couple, who married in 1993, opted to minister through Chi Alpha to athletes on the campuses of the University of Arkansas, Arizona State University, and Oklahoma State University.
In 2006, John became the Fellowship’s first U.S. missionary sports chaplain. That field has since expanded to include everything from a missionary associate martial arts chaplain (Zach Anderson) to a missionary associate marathon chaplain (Jerry Mullins). The Williamsons, now based in Corinth, Texas, equip local churches with the use of Global University materials to use sports as a bridge to the community to win souls to Christ. They also provide training to local churches about how to implement a chaplaincy representative from the local congregation onto a local junior high, high school, or college campus.
“Every church has the opportunity to send a chaplain representative into their community through sports,” says the amiable Williamson, 49. “That gives an opportunity to build relationships and impact their city.”
As chaplains, the Williamsons have access to public educational institutions that ministers typically don’t. They in essence become clergy to unchurched coaches and athletes.
“Chaplains never really get an opportunity to see all the work they’re doing until a crisis moment hits,” says Williamson, who has conducted funerals, weddings, hospital visitations, and grief counseling. “I’m constantly in a position of discipleship and mentorship.”
Lately, the couple has been focusing on athletes who are transitioning out of college or pro sports.
“We have been called to use the platform of sports,” says Sharon.
“In rural America, high school sports is the most important thing in lots of towns,” John says. “If a church can build a bridge and be relational, it opens doors to be more visible.”
During summers, the Williamsons also promote the AG’s MEGA Sports camp program alongside or in place of vacation Bible school at various churches.