March 2009 Clay Meyer Going the Distance Heiden Ratner James Madison University
You shouldn't need to consult an atlas to know that Las Vegas and Harrisonburg, Va., are pretty far apart. Not only are they separated by miles — 1,989 to be exact — but also by climate, terrain and, most notably, lifestyle.
But God's power is not restricted by earthly distances. He gives each of us the ability to touch lives no matter what our location, especially in today's connected society. In the case of James Madison University basketball player Heiden Ratner, who hails from Vegas and attends college in Harrisonburg, there is one athlete influencing lives for Christ on both sides of the country. It is a calling he received neither in Vegas nor Virginia, but in a small town in northern Georgia called Lookout Mountain.
Heiden Ratner #4
|School: James Madison University|
Height/Weight: 6-0/170 lbs.
Hometown: Las Vegas
• Dec. 3, 2007, CAA Freshman of the Week
• 2005 Nevada Gatorade High School Player of the Year
As a teenager in Las Vegas, Ratner was a standout on the Silverado High School basketball team. He was named the 2005 Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year as only a sophomore. Two strong seasons with the Skyhawks followed, and despite the school's distance from his home, Ratner signed on to continue his education and his work on the hardwood at James Madison.
"At first, the move was pretty hard because there weren't many trips I could make back home," he said. "I know it's a long distance away, and it is a different lifestyle and place here in Harrisonburg compared to Las Vegas, but I can definitely see now that it was God's plan for me."
During the first week of school, Ratner — a self-proclaimed Christian by head-knowledge only, not by lifestyle at the time — was invited to an FCA meeting. But his unfamiliarity with the group made him hesitant at first.
"I decided to go after a couple of weeks, and, after that first night, I really grew an interest and desire to keep going," he said. "I met a lot of great people there and gained a ton of knowledge and grew in my relationship with God."
His intimacy with the Lord developed quickly — a transformation that FCA's Joe DeZelle was able to witness firsthand. As the FCA area representative over JMU, DeZelle watched Ratner's spark of faith become a fiery blaze, partly as a result of the friendship they formed.
"He caught fire pretty quickly," DeZelle said. "I met Heiden within the first couple of weeks of his first year, and we started talking about what it meant to be a Christian and a man of God. It was neat to watch him take off in his faith."
Ratner continued to attend FCA meetings, as well as any other campus ministry event or meeting he could get to. He couldn't get enough of the gospel message and what it meant for his life.
"When I came to school, I didn't really know the gospel of Jesus Christ, or I hadn't heard it in a way that I could understand it," he said. "Once I did, I was like, 'Oh, my goodness, this is what Jesus did for me?'"
Things were going well for Ratner on the court, too. Only a freshman, he played in all 30 of the team's games and was named the Colonial Athletic Association freshman of the week on Dec. 3, 2007. Unfortunately, the team's successes didn't match Ratner's, as the Dukes finished the season 13-17.
Following the season, Ratner was looking forward to wrapping up the school year and going home for break. Instead, DeZelle presented an alternative option for the freshman and a handful of FCA student-athletes. FCA was hosting its first-ever National College Conference at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., and DeZelle wanted to take some of the JMU athletes.
"...it is a different lifestyle and place here ... but I can definitely see now that it was God's plan for me."
— Heiden Ratner
Having never attended any kind of FCA conference or camp before, Ratner was slow to say yes. After prayer and consideration, however, he and teammate Matt Parker decided to head south with former JMU football player Dominique "Scooter" Smith, DeZelle and four other collegiate athletes from the area.
Throughout the four-day conference, the JMU group, along with more than 125 collegiate athletes from around the country, experienced Christ in an unforgettable way. It was a true mountaintop experience in every sense of the word.
"Everything was amazing: the fellowship with the other athletes, chapel services, and worship music," Ratner said, "and they had some of the best speakers I've ever heard."
Parker agreed, commenting on the spiritual focus of the athletes and staff.
"Every person there was trying to seek Christ and grow in Him, and that was their main focus," Parker said. "All of the conversations were about the Lord, and that passion was encouraging. We had a really good group of Huddle Leaders that had a history of being on fire for the Lord and wanted to help us as much as they could."
In typical FCA fashion, there was plenty of good-natured competition on the playing fields as well.
"It was fun playing other sports than we normally would and not being worried about what the coach on the sidelines was thinking or trying to impress people," Ratner said. "We were just going out there to have fun and bring glory to God."
The weekend may have come to a close, but the athletes left forever changed. They had been inspired and encouraged by one another and were ready to take that fire to their next environment, which, for most, was home for summer vacation. That included both Ratner and Parker.
"I left with a real strong feeling about my faith," said Parker, a Charlotte, N.C., native. "I think meeting some other strong believers left me with a passion to be unashamed of my faith and to walk it out."
JMU's Heiden Ratner (left) and Matt Parker (right) with FCA's Joe DeZelle
For Ratner, as he returned to his old friends back home in Las Vegas, living it out would be more challenging than it had been at the conference.
It was an anxious time for Ratner. Considering the transformation in his life, he didn't know if his friends would accept him as a changed person.
"I knew going back to Las Vegas was going to be tough because I had all this fire going for the Lord and a passion to grow closer to Him," he said. "I had a lot of great friends that had the same mindset back at JMU, but I knew I didn't share that with many people back home."
Rather than hiding his new passion for the Lord, Ratner challenged himself to spread the faith to his Vegas friends and began planning a Bible study to lead for them.
"Most of the people thought I was crazy because they knew me as the 'old Heiden,' but I was set on doing it," he said. "Four or five of my friends stood by me and said, 'All right, if you are going to do it, then we will be there.'"
Word spread, and on the first night nearly 20 people showed up. The environment was one of acceptance, no matter what a person's faith experience. Ratner's goal was simply to meet each person where they were.
"It was really just a good time for people to open up and share their experiences about God," he said. "Some people had never heard of God, some had been going to church all their lives. Everybody had a different story and different struggles, so we were able to take prayer requests and really explain the gospel in a way that a lot of my friends could understand. Once we were able to do that, then it sparked interest for them to bring more people."
"Once I [heard the gospel], I was like, 'Oh, my goodness, this is what Jesus did for me?'"
After five weeks of meetings, each with a larger attendance than the one before, it was time for Ratner to return to school. He didn't leave, however, without ensuring that the group would remain intact. Now under the leadership of Ratner's friend Ronnie Brakes, the group continues to meet to this day.
Ratner arrived at James Madison last fall with a stronger-than-ever desire to grow closer to God, which he has used to continue impacting his peers for Christ.
He joined the FCA leadership team and, with Parker, who is now JMU's FCA president, designed and printed T-shirts bearing the slogan "New Creation" to hand out on campus. The slogan is based on 2 Corinthians 5:17: "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come."
So far, the Dukes are experiencing on-court success under the direction of a new coach, but the transition of leadership has altered Ratner's role on the team. His minutes have decreased, but the change has taken him to deeper places in his faith.
Said Ratner: "I find my peace and joy in God and God alone."
Off the court, Ratner is planning to return for the second FCA National College Conference this May, again at Lookout Mountain.
"We're going to try to advertise and bring a lot more people from JMU and also a lot of my friends from Las Vegas," he said. "I'm definitely excited about this year's conference. I know it is going to have an impact on people's lives, and I'm excited to see that. I feel that God's definitely going to be there."
True, Vegas and Harrisonburg may be almost 2,000 miles apart, but that hasn't stopped Heiden Ratner from impacting lives in both cities. And for one weekend this May, some of those people from opposite sides of the map will be praising, worshipping, and, of course, playing, all in the same place. It isn't exactly halfway, but it's unlikely that any of them will mind.
2009 FCA National College Conference
|Don't miss out on the second annual FCA National College Conference. Scheduled for Memorial Day weekend (May 22-25) at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., the four-day retreat will focus on influencing athletes to begin living "Inside Out."|
Curious? Go to fcacollegeconference.com.
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of James Madison University Media Relations.