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Jerome Ropati, Holly van Dalen and CJ Bruton on faith in professional sport.
Jerome Ropati, Holly van Dalen and CJ Bruton
Posted January 24, 2013

Jerome Ropati, Holly van Dalen and CJ Bruton are well-recognised sportspeople.

Jerome runs and tackles for the NZ Warriors (rugby league), Holly is one of this country’s top running athletes, while CJ shoots hoops for the champion NZ Breakers (basketball).

But despite competing in different sporting codes for championship glory, one team that all three turn out for each day is Team Christ. John Lazo-Ron asked the three athletes about their lives as Christians in the professional sporting arena.

Every Christian has a testimony, a story to tell of how they came to know and follow Jesus Christ. Jerome, CJ and Holly are no different.

Q: When and why did you decide to follow Jesus?

Jerome: When I was 18, one of my cousins shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with me. It was then I heard the truth—the truth about my sin, the truth about my life’s purpose, and the truth about death and where I’d spend eternity if I continued to be ignorant towards God’s grace and salvation. It was that truth that drove me to give my life to Jesus. Jesus says in John 8:32, ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ Since that day I heard the truth of the Bible, I was set free. The Word of God changed my life completely, and now, I long to know Jesus through the scriptures and to live by them in all aspects of my life.

CJ: Letting Jesus lead the way is the best thing anyone can do. I started following Jesus when I was 14. It was around the time when my family split. During that time my mother told me that the Lord would never leave my side. Even though I was going to Sunday school, I still found that tough to hear, mainly because I thought I had something to do with my family splitting. Many times I tried to run away from God, but for some reason he always found a way to bring me back and put a light bulb in my head and tell me, ‘I’m still here for you.’ And he always has been!

Holly: I’ve loved God all my life. He’s been a big part of it since I was young. But it wasn’t until I was 16, while on a mission’s trip to Fiji, when I really chose to follow Jesus. Seeing all the hurt in the world, the way people were struggling, it kind of opened my eyes and made me realise that I’m not only here to run, but to also help others and use my gifts for him. I really believe God’s given me a gift to run and I just want to use it to glorify his name.

Surrounded by worldly pressures, being a Christian and a professional sportsperson can’t be easy. However, despite the temptations, ‘Team Christ’ say they still endeavour to be the best representatives of Jesus they can be.

Q: What’s it like being a Christian in the professional sporting world?

CJ: Living for the Lord in professional basketball has been pretty awesome! As an athlete, most people think you’re a punk and a pushover. But with faith in God, I feel like I have that extra bit of strength to be a little more physical and aggressive, as well as having the willingness to compete and go further than anybody else with Jesus’ presence surrounding me.

Holly: To me, running is a great way to speak about Jesus. I go on long runs with people all the time who haven’t known Jesus in their lives. Amazing conversations about God always come up while on those runs, which ultimately build great relationships. I really love talking to my teammates about God, but I also think just living your life for God is the best way to influence someone. I truly believe God puts a strong spark and excitement for life in his followers so people can see him through that. So, to me, it’s just a matter of shining God’s light to people who don’t know him. And that’s a big reason why I believe I am in this sport.

Jerome: Although God and his Word have helped me so much in my career, I admit that being a Christian in the professional sporting world can be challenging. You constantly have to remind yourself that the priority is not to be the best athlete, but to be a testimony for Jesus. ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men …’ (Colossians 3:23). I still endeavour to be the best athlete I can be, but that is totally motivated by a desire to please God—not man, myself, or [to pursue] any other worldly goals.

Being a professional athlete involves tight schedules—training, competing and lots of time on the road—but ‘training’ for Team Christ is just as important.

Q: How do you juggle your tight agenda in sport with time with the Lord?

Holly: Early in the morning I spend time with God before I go out for runs. It’s in that time I really cherish and crave God’s Word. I also listen to worship music before races—that really gives me peace.

Jerome: Spending time with God in this profession isn’t always easy due to the NRL’s (National Rugby League) long season and tight schedule. Nevertheless, I still make sure I’m either reading God’s Word, Christian literature, talking to my wife and kids about Jesus, or fellowshipping with others at my church. To do this, I plan. I know what my schedule is like on a weekly basis, but setting a regular routine of those things does not work for me because game days and training days, etc, always vary in time. The key for me is to be flexible and always make time—prioritise! Before some games I read the Bible, but one thing I always do before a match is to pray and ask the Lord to give me strength to glorify him. That means showing my teammates an honest work ethic and a clean competitive nature, which is all part of my testimony for the gospel.

CJ: Being in this sport means I’m always on a tight schedule, but I always make sure putting God first in my life is a priority. I do this by reading the Bible and having regular prayer times by myself and with my wife. When I’m on the road I have prayer with some of the team, and I always make sure I pray for the entire team before every game and at dinner time so everyone knows that God is always around us. I also let [the team] know where God stands with me and try to allow for them to come to church with me. It’s not something that I try to force on anybody, but just letting the players know and see that God is a big part of my life on and off the court, and that he has helped me achieve everything I’ve done and that he can actually help them in the same way too, is important to me.

Just like anybody else, Team Christ goes through struggles and needs Jesus to help them in all aspects of their lives.

Q: How has the Lord helped you in your sporting career and life?

Jerome: God has blessed and helped me in more ways than I can explain. He definitely blessed me with two beautiful kids, Elijah and Ehsani, and gifted me with ‘the grace of my life’, my wife Leah. But God has also kept me motivated and focused amidst all my injury problems. I would have given up a long time ago had God not reminded me of the real reason why I play footy—to honour him by being an obedient employee and talking about Jesus.

Holly: Injury and struggle is a part of running. I’ve always known this, but it didn’t really sink in until I recently suffered a heavy knee injury. I was out for 10 months and eventually had to go to surgery because it didn’t heal. There were many tears in my coach’s office and on the phone to my mum—tears of sadness that came as a result of not being able to run and not knowing what to do next. But despite all the pain, I am thankful for this—God testing my passion for running, as well as my character. Through the hurt, God was an amazing, constant joy. He really uplifted me and showed me that he’s the only one that’s always there, and that his love for me is enough for my life. If it wasn’t for God, I wouldn’t be standing here today on the road to recovery.

CJ: God has done many amazing things in my career. Through his direction and favour God has taken me across the world, allowing me to reach goals and dreams that I never thought I would see. He brought my wife and two beautiful boys into my life, which I’m so grateful for. And he’s allowed me to see through pain. One particular miracle God did for me was this past year (2011–2012 season) when I tore part of my patella (knee). I was out for a while. People were saying, ‘This is it for CJ’, but once I knew what the injury was—and that it wasn’t career ending—I knew I would be back! Away from my teammates, I worked hard. I also always prayed that God would allow for me to make my return, and had faith that the work I was doing was going to pay off in the finals. It just so happened that [the NZ Breakers] ended winning our second consecutive title and I was also a finals MVP. When the media interviewed me the night we won, I told them that I always had faith in God and this was the reason why I never doubted my ability.

Jerome, CJ and Holly all have mentors when it comes to getting guidance in their sport. But they also have people who have supported their walk with the Lord.

Q: Who has been the biggest influence in your walk with the Lord?

CJ: My mum has been the biggest influence in my life. She’s always encouraged me to keep God as number one in my life and has been the backbone of our family. From a very young age my mum was always preaching to the family that the Lord has blessed us and provided for us, and that everything we have is not just by working hard but because the Lord has given it to us and put this in place for us. She’s absolutely right! I don’t know what I would have done without my mum.

Jerome: Keeping God’s scriptures within my spirit is important to me. That’s why I’m blessed to have my wife Leah, and my pastor (John Henry) influencing me in my walk with Jesus. John teaches me the Bible and constantly reminds me to live according to God’s Word in any circumstance. My wife keeps me accountable to that.

Holly: People who have been a shining light to me are my mum and dad. They are both amazing Christians, full of amazing faith and just have a big love for Jesus. Their support—as well as from other family members, friends, athletes, and coaches—helped me move forward through my troubling times. I really respect my parents and look up to them. They are definitely the biggest influence in my walk with the Lord and life.

Often, one or two Bible verses stick strongly within a Christian’s heart. Holding onto God’s Word has helped Team Christ enormously.

Q: What’s your favourite verse and why?

Holly: Two verses that have really helped me, especially through my fear of injury are Romans 5:3–5, ‘... but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope’. Also Hebrews 12:1, ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’ Through my year of injury I was going through that stage of persevering through it. I truly believe that if you persevere from beginning to end and put all your hope in God, he will also change your character through it.

Jerome: There are many verses I love in God’s Word, but two verses that have always stood out to me are Jeremiah 9:23–24, which state how important it is for all men to know God, and remind me to be humble in a job where it’s difficult to be—‘Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, exercising loving kindness, judgement, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord.’

CJ: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight’. These verses from Proverbs 3:5–6 are my favourites and ones that I have tried to live by all my life. Because if you give your heart to God, he will guide you in your life—which is what he has done for me!

By John Lazo-Ron (abridged from War Cry 26 January 2013, p5-7