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Canadian Pentecostal Performs Rare Multi-Faith Role at Games
Head chaplain David Wells was suddenly called to respond to death of Nodar Kumaritashvili the Eastern Orthodox luger.

David Wells readily admits Pentecostal Christians are not exactly famous for leading multi-faith efforts.

…Wells believes the five major world religions have a right "to be at the table" at the Games...

After all, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, which Wells heads, has close ties to the large Assemblies of God denomination in the United States, which is known for producing fire-and-brimstone televangelists such as Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and Benny Hinn, and polarizing Republican vice-presidential candidates such as Sarah Palin.

But Wells – who has already been a chaplain at the Turin Winter Games in 2006 and the Summer Games in Athens and Beijing – believes he's "fully qualified" to serve as the official head of multi-faith chaplaincy services at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

The Pentecostal leader is in charge of coordinating the Winter Olympics for more than 40 clergy from five major religious traditions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism.

In an interview this week, Wells acknowledged with a laugh that Pentecostals are "not recognized for working in interfaith" organizations.

In fact, when people hear that Wells has for years been formally involved with multiple faith representatives through the Olympic movement, he says many "rightfully" respond with a shocked: "Huh!?"

Many just can't believe a Pentecostal, whose leaders generally teach that those who don't accept Jesus Christ as their saviour will suffer eternal damnation, would be able to support clergy from competing Christian denominations and other world religions.

Even though Wells, who resides in Metro Vancouver, is clear that he doesn't share the theological doctrines of many of the non-evangelical Christian clergy he oversees at the Vancouver Winter Games, he said, "That's not what this is about."

Along with the International Olympic Committee, Wells believes the five major world religions have a right "to be at the table" at the Games, where their representatives can help all interested athletes obtain the spiritual support they need during the ups and downs of the once-every-four-years competition.

The priests, pastors, imams, rabbis and monks who serve for free in Olympic chaplaincy positions make themselves available in athletes' villages to 5,000 competitors and officials from a host of countries by holding daily worship services, meditation sessions, prayers and offering one-to-one guidance.

In addition to his busy role as head chaplain at the 2010 Winter Games, Wells wears many other religious hats.

He is general superintendent of the 230,000-member Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada and chair of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the politically influential umbrella group representing Canada's roughly three million evangelicals.

Wells is also on the board of directors of More than Gold, the large Canadian coalition of evangelicals and Roman Catholics that is committed to offering the "radical hospitality" of Jesus Christ to Olympic visitors – including through outreach, sharing the faith and highlighting social justice, such as the plight of Canada's homeless.

However, it was as the unpaid coordinator of multifaith chaplaincy for the Vancouver Winter Games that Wells was tragically and suddenly called upon to leap into high on February 12.

That was the opening day of the Games, when international headlines announced that Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old luger from the country of Georgia, had been killed after running off the track during a training run at Whistler ski resort.

Since many Georgians are members of the Eastern Orthodox church, Wells had to scramble to find Eastern Orthodox clergy who could help support Kumaritashvili's devastated Georgian Olympic team and the athlete's loved ones.

Cooperating with Eastern Orthodox chaplains within the Olympic family, as well as other clergy from Metro Vancouver, Wells did what he could to help set up a Monday funeral for the luger in Vancouver.

Arrangements were also made to have Kumaritashvili's body returned to Georgia, a country on the Black Sea. As well, Wells helped make available two books of "remembrance" for Kumaritashvili, which athletes and others could sign.

Even though many Winter Olympic athletes come from highly secularized European countries, Wells said Olympic administrators found roughly 70 per cent of athletes at the Vancouver Games who declare a religious loyalty (which is most of them) identify themselves as Christians.

As a result, Wells said, 28 of the clergy who serve in the two Olympic athletes' villages, in Vancouver and Whistler, are Christians – mostly Catholics, mainline Protestants, evangelicals or Eastern Orthodox.

Muslims and Buddhists make up the next largest religious group, each accounting for roughly eight per cent of athletes, with Jews and Hindus making up much smaller teams.

In response, the Vancouver 2010 Games have brought in four "full-status" Muslim clergy, four Buddhist clergy of various statuses, three Hindu priests and one Jewish rabbi, whose work is supplemented by eight local rabbis.

Although many of the Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish spiritual leaders volunteering at the Olympics are from Canada (mostly B.C.), about 12 hail from the Olympic athletes' countries of origin.

Most of the chaplains, whom Wells considers "friends," offer daily services and spiritual counselling in rooms designated for worship or contemplation within the athletes' villages in Vancouver and Whistler. The rooms are not open to the public or the media for reasons of security, mostly to do with fear of terrorist attacks, such as the one that targeted Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Summer Games.

With his vast experience in Olympic chaplaincy, Wells has become prepared for skeptics' questions about athletes who might take advantage of chaplains services to pray to God solely to win a medal.

That is not what most athletes want, Wells said. The closest most Winter athletes come to praying for victory in a race is to ask God for help in "doing their best" or "to not perform half-heartedly."

Emphasizing that he knows Christian athletes better than Muslim or Buddhist ones, Wells said some Olympians might say they "want to bring honour to Christ" through their skiing, sliding or skating.

Even though Winter Olympic athletes do not necessarily take advantage of chaplain services in overwhelming numbers, Wells said, many end up quietly doing so by attending a small religious service, meditating or seeking confidential spiritual counselling.

Instead of praying to become "No. 1," Wells said, many athletes yearn to calm their anxiety at an intense time in their lives, during a historic event. They seek to find inner strength while facing the potential reality of failure or even accident – which this year, tragically, included an Olympic death.

Douglas Todd's blog has been cited as an "Editor's Selection" by the New York Times. He is the editor of Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia - Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest./span>

Originally published in The Vancouver Sun, February 18, 2010.

Used with permission. Copyright © 2010 Christianity.ca.

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A ministry of
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada