Dialogue with an Adventist pastor and sports chaplain from Italy
Davide Sciarabba was born into a family that loved sports, and he participated in many sports activities while growing up. Over the years, as Sciarabba spent much of his time learning the techniques of various types of sports, he not only excelled as a sportsman but also became interested in the challenge sports offer to the development of the whole person. While sports interested him from childhood, he was challenged even more by the concept behind sports and other physical activities: the idea that such activities are only a part of the wider challenge of developing the human person wholistically in order to be of service to the Creator God who made human beings in His own image.
Sciarabba is a fourth-generation Adventist, and his family’s first concern was spiritual development. With that as a given, he and his family members were fully involved in the imperative of Christian education to be of service to others and to the church. As such, Sciarabba devoted his life to being a Christian educator, particularly in the field of physical education.
Davide Sciarabba received his first degree in physical education. Later, he obtained a master’s degree in education. Eventually he completed a master of arts degree in theology and became a pastor. His master’s dissertation dealt with values found in the Pauline use of sports metaphors. Currently, he is working at Andrews University on a Ph.D. in religion with an emphasis on ethics.
Although he did not win any races or medals in sports, he was very involved in interacting with young people who were participating as professionals in various sports. Youths involved in sports often get discouraged by failure or disappointments. Some get overtaken by victory and miss out on the essential meaning of sports. To these young people, Sciarabba became a personal friend and counselor. He found his ministry in sports counseling and reached out pastorally to many young people, both within and outside of the church. The chief moment of such involvement came during the Turin Winter Olympic Games in 2006, when he served as a chaplain to many athletes from around the world. Three years later, he was equally successful at the World Track and Field Championship in Berlin. The first Adventist to serve as a sports chaplain at such major world events, Davide Sciarabba brought comfort and strength to those who experienced disappointment, and encouraged the winners to place their victory within the context of providing an example of hard work and training to the younger generation.
As an ordained minister, Pastor Davide Sciarabba has served the church for 10 years in Italy, France, and Spain as a pastor, chaplain, and professor. He is married to Sonia Badenas, assistant professor of French at Andrew University, and the couple has two children: Flavia and Marco.
What kind of religious or spiritual counsel do sports persons seek? Do those who seek such counsel really believe in a personal God?
Athletes are just like other young people, with their own personal needs, problems, and desires. Some are committed believers, while others may not be. Most of the athletes who come to see a chaplain are believers, but others who feel a special need for spiritual counseling may also come.
Each person is different, and it is not easy to make a personal judgment on their quality of faith. Some think of God as a good luck charm that brings success. To others, God is a contract partner (“I promise this, you do that for me”). Still others view God as a predeterminator: God has foreordained, and whatever will be. Others look to God as a disposer of commodities – maturity, peace, comfort, and other blessings. Regardless of the quality or maturity of their faith, I try to be a counselor, sharing my knowledge and experience about God with them. I encourage each one to find a faith they can rely on.
When counseling with athletes, how do you help them deal with victory and defeat?
Victory is an important perception for athletes. They are aware that only one person or one team can win, and they dream of being that person or on that team. Defeat makes them feel frustrated and disappointed, while victory gives them pride and happiness. Victory and defeat shape the mind of an athlete, and can be life changing, but it is important to recognize that victory or defeat is not the whole thing in life.
Sports as a social phenomenon tends to globalize feelings, pressures, results, and economic interests. As a result, we have a culture of “one winner” and “many losers.” When we deal with victory and defeat, we have to keep in mind that these concepts are quite relative. One sports association has taken as its motto, “More than Gold.” I like that. It is important that athletes understand that in life there is something more important than the gold medal: life, values, dignity, and God.
Do you try to evangelize the athletes you work with?
It depends on what you mean by “evangelizing.” If you are asking whether I proselytize, my answer is no. I don’t try to make athletes into Adventists. If they ask me questions about my personal faith, I will tell them that I am a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, and I will share with them what I believe. If they are Christians, I do speak to them about Jesus. I evangelize in the sense that I help them, at their request, to meet Jesus. Together we may start or explore the journey of faith. If they are not Christians, I try to help them find God with the maximum respect for their faith. From there, if they ask about my Christian faith I will present Jesus to them. I personally believe that God has many ways to reach His children.
What do you think God expects from you when counseling at a sports event?
I believe God expects me to sow the seeds of the gospel in a respectful way. What I can do depends very much on the athlete’s culture and beliefs. To sow the good news does not mean only to speak about Jesus but also to act like Jesus: meeting, listening, helping, caring, healing, encouraging, praying, etc. I think that He wants me to ignite the desire in the athlete’s heart to search for God. He asks me to be His ears, mouth, heart, hands, and feet. Thus, a strong relationship can be created. Even after many years, I still maintain contact with some athletes and volunteers I met during major sports events.
Do you know of any Adventists in major sports?
Unfortunately, no. One of the biggest obstacles for Adventists to excel in major sports is that such events usually fall on Sabbath.
Are there other ways to approach this challenge? What is the official church position on this?
The Adventist faith and practice, such as Sabbath keeping, have their demands on life as a whole. Sports is no exception. As Adventists participate or interact in various professions, they have to make decisions in consonance with their faith. While we have no right to pass judgment on others, we personally should submit what we do, what we say, and how we relate to the principles revealed in the Scripture, including Sabbath keeping. I do not think it is right for me to be the conscience of others. Rather, it is the singular believer who before God has to make his/her own decision. It is not just the type of work that I do not do on Sabbath that makes me holy, but also the reason and the spirit that inspires my action: to be useful, to help, to heal, etc. Sports can hardly qualify for the three examples mentioned. Nevertheless, I believe that there are ways to avoid playing on Sabbath. For instance, special contracts exempting Sabbath play, worked out with a reduced salary, may allow one to be involved in some key events.
Do you think the church should promote Adventists becoming elite athletes?
I do not think the church should be involved in any such promotion. The world of sports is very vulnerable, changing, complex, and full of problems. We cannot be sure that everything we see in the sport elite is real. We know that athletes train very hard, and they need to have a healthy lifestyle; however, in order to perform better, they are too often pushed to go beyond what is reasonable, natural, or even healthy. Sports was born as a peacemaking medium among ancient Greek cities. The Olympic Games turned into an offering to the gods. Subsequently, sports has been used to distract the masses from the main problems in society (corruption, poverty, etc.). I believe that today sports may serve the same purpose: to help people forget their personal, social, and religious problems for a while. Should we encourage sports as an escape mechanism among Adventists? While the decision may be left to each individual, the church should help young people to face life realistically and lead an authentic Christian life.
How can we use sports in our mission of preaching the gospel?
Sports may be a good means of conveying Christian values. Sports chaplaincy is certainly one of the best ways to reach athletes. Catholics, Protestants, and Evangelicals are already using this ministry to reach elite athletes. Our church needs to better understand the importance of chaplaincy ministries. We are so focused on classical evangelistic campaigns that we only reach a very small group of people through lectures. Chaplaincy is a way of witnessing to gospel values where the people are, where they work and live, with fewer barriers.
What attitude should we as Adventists take toward sports today?
The church has always insisted on the importance of a healthy life, and this is not possible without appropriate exercise. Historically, our educators preferred to promote physical exercise by means of useful activities, such as farming, gardening, etc. For many years, sports was considered to be a worldly activity, and more or less looked on with disfavor by committed believers. But our society has changed. Most people now live in big cities. Agriculture and farming have become very specialized and industrialized. What was easy to do a few years ago – namely, useful physical work – has become more and more difficult in our urban societies, schools, and universities. In many countries, work requires a minimum age. Meanwhile, sports has become part of regular school programs. Our health principles have not changed, but the way of fostering and obtaining physical exercise has changed. Sports has taken an important role that we cannot ignore.
What is the current philosophy of sports in Adventist education? How can sports teach our Adventist values?
Adventist education has always advocated a balanced development of the individual – physically, spiritually, and mentally. Physical education is an important part of this goal, and in our present situation we must develop a new philosophy of sports. This is something in which I am personally very much involved. I am working toward a better way of teaching Adventist values through an alternative way of practicing some sports.
Sports is so pervasive in the world today that we should take advantage of this situation. Instead of remaining passive or hostile to sports, we should take a fresh look at holistic education and bring a new clarity to how sports may help us achieve this goal. Our schools and universities should be leaders in this domain, by organizing and promoting sports activities from a Christian perspective. This is what I try to do in the sports courses that I teach at Andrews University.
Finally, what have you learned from being a counselor to athletes?
I have learned a lot about values such as discipline, determination, teamwork, and enthusiasm for a goal. I have also learned from their perseverance, their methodical work to strive toward overcoming problems. I have also been impressed by their humility in the face of competition.
Rubén Sanchez is a Fulbright graduate student in religious studies and journalism at New York University. E-mail: email@example.com.
Davide Sciarabba’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.