When Wagner Oliveira, a Seventh-day Adventist and a retired physical education teacher talks about her methods of using sports to share a Christian message, the analogy she turns to is that of a famous Brazilian aviation pioneer.
“I keep inventing, more than Santos-Dumont, ways to speak about God to people in a language they can understand,” said Oliveira. She lives in Goiânia, capital of the state of Goiás in central-west Brazil, and the comment about inventing summarizes her day-to-day as an evangelist. Now 68, Oliveira still uses sports to connect to people and introduce them to the Bible.
Oliveira works during the week in a social project, partnering with the city's sports department, teaching needy children in a sports school. For almost 20 years she's done this, and no class starts before there's a moment of worship.
"We always have a devotional that tells the life story of some athlete, and then there is a spiritual application."
“I do it all in their language,” she says. “We always have a devotional that tells the life story of some athlete, and then there is a spiritual application. Sometimes the parents who come to bring their children also participate in the devotional. It’s very nice!”
Without much technology and resources, her happy disposition and good relationships are “da roça’s” (meaning “someone from the country”), as she is tenderly known to her students. On weekends, she does similar instruction for another group.
Oliveira crosses the city and goes to the Porto Seguro Seventh-day Adventist Church to play basketball with children of that area. As she says, “The kids are not very interested in church,” but organizing basketball games, always preceded by a Bible study, will bring the kids in.
Basketball is Oliveira's true passion, and she's been involved for many years. She played for the Brazilian National team in championships in Peru, Chile, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Greece. In Brazil, she competed in many state and regional tournaments, representing several teams. But her mission to evangelize has always accompanied her as a player. She shares that she likes to spend time with a team, do evangelism there, and then go on to another team.
“I play because I love it, but I do not lose my missionary focus, because that is what God called me for,” she emphasizes.
Oliveira says that working with team players requires more elaborate strategies.
“They are a group that is harder to reach. We cannot just go up to them and talk about God. We have to develop a friendship, win their trust,” she explains. “If you go to a basketball court during championship period and ask about ‘da roça,’ everyone will tell you about me. I’ve made many friends and practically all of them have received a missionary DVD or Bible study. I do not travel without bringing materials.”
Even in her daily life, wherever she goes, Oliveira takes her ‘mission bag,’ as she likes to call it. In it, she carries the same materials that she hands out in the basketball courts. “I never know who I’m going to run into, so I have to be prepared, right?”
The high point of her work every year is always the Friendship Congress, which takes place in a Seventh-day Adventist Church. In that relaxed environment, with guest singers and pastors, the kids and players that Oliveira worked with for 12 months familiarize themselves with the Christian community. There is also a lunch for the guests; they get a kit with a Bible and other keepsakes, and of course, there’s a basketball festival to close the event.
The process of monitoring and bringing the group closer to the church is what, in fact, cements the knowledge acquired in their Bible studies. Oliveira values the work of discipleship even before baptism.
“I want them to enter into the church with a passion for mission. And we see the results: almost all of those that I have worked with are evangelists and have a passion for it as strong as I do,” she said.
Oliveira considers her relationship with God to be very important. Even though it isn’t easy to balance career with her religious principles, she assures listeners that remaining faithful was worth it.
She recalls, “In Croatia, for example, there was a game on Saturday. The team insisted for me to play, but I said, ‘No, guys, I’m going to stay in the hotel. Someone has to pray for you.’ We won the game! Today, they already know that I do not play on Saturdays. So, when they schedule games, they do everything possible for the games not to be on Friday evenings or Saturdays. This is a way to witness.”
During the 40 years she has worked in this specialized ministry, many Adventist pastors have supported Oliveira in her work, and she is grateful. All told, more than 4,000 people have accepted the Gospel message through this ministry.
André Macalé, an employee in Goiânia’s town hall, is one of them: “In the circumstances of daily life you find few people that do God’s work, especially the work of rescuing people in need, with family problems or drug problems. It is gratifying and encouraging seeing her doing this with so much enthusiasm,” he says.
Stories such as Oliveira’s confirm mission comes out naturally when you are passionate about it: “You do not need to make schemes to knock on a door, nor spend hours planning something to say. If you are on the street and someone comes and asks you something, take that opportunity to speak about God,” she says. “Everything can be an excuse to sow a seed. It is something that has to come from the inside out!”