Wildfires aren’t typically associated with Hawaii, but that may be about to change—just don’t expect to see actual flames consuming the palm trees and pineapples. This fire is spiritual, and it’s one that is being used by God to spread His Word across the islands, specifically through FCA and the student-athletes at the University of Hawaii.
It started as a small spark four years ago in the football program and has since overtaken many of the university’s sports teams, directly impacting the athletic department through what has become a vibrant ministry. And, because Hawaii has no professional sports teams and local fans are focused on UH athletics, that spiritual fire is making its way into the community as well.
“The impact has been amazing,” said FCA Area Director Barrett Awai. “It’s been great to watch God work in both the campus and the community, even bringing some positive notoriety to the university. He’s definitely at work here, and I know He’s just getting started.”
SPARKING AN INFERNO
Because so many eyes were focused on the school’s athletic teams, Awai, who joined FCA staff in 2009, knew the university was ripe with potential for spiritual impact.
“I just knew it was a place where God could reach athletes,” Awai said. “So, it was a place I really focused on when I came on staff with FCA.”
2010 National Blocker of the Year Brittany Hewitt helps fan the spiritual flame at Hawaii by serving on the FCA leadership team.
Having had no FCA Huddle at Hawaii for 20 years, Awai began to pray for a contact with the university, and he soon found it through football. After meeting with the UH football chaplain, Awai began helping with chapel services and saw that there was already a number of Christian athletes at the university. Immediately he knew it would be powerful to assemble them in one place for fellowship.
Thus was the beginning of FCA. It wasn’t long before Bible studies were formed and a campus Huddle was established. Like many campus ministries, it started small with only one or two members from each athletic team attending, but out of that group emerged leaders who took their faith back to their respective teams. Now, not only does the football team have chapels before games, so do the baseball, softball and women’s volleyball teams.
“FCA helps keep them accountable,” Awai said. “It reminds them to stay plugged in with other believers who are going to support them in making righteous decisions. We strive for fellowship so that they can be successful in their walk with Christ and not fall to the temptations around them. We want them to live the lifestyle they are called to live.”
ONE HEART ABLAZE
According to Awai, when it comes to specific examples of spiritual impact, the UH volleyball team offers one of the best. In fact, it has become a testament to the changes Christ can make on an entire team based on the faith of just a few.
Middle blocker Brittany Hewitt was one of the first volleyball players to start going to pregame chapels. At the time, Hewitt was just a freshman and only she and a handful of her teammates attended. Now, as a junior, Hewitt has seen the numbers double, and now more than half of her team gives praise to God before competition.
According to Hewitt, the spiritual cohesion of the Rainbow Wahine (the Hawaiian word for women) helped create a positive team dynamic during the 2010 season that spurred them on to a 28-3 record and an NCAA Tournament appearance. More than that, it also facilitated the most enjoyable team atmosphere she’d ever experienced.
Said Hewitt, “That season is going to stick out in my mind the most because of the relationships made on the team.”
Away from the court, Hewitt’s leadership potential was highly recognizable, especially to Awai, who challenged her to embrace it through FCA.
“Because I’d stepped into a leadership role on the volleyball team after being part of it for a few years, Barrett came to me for input on what to do in the Huddles,” said Hewitt, who had looked to the ministry for fellowship upon her arrival to the islands from her home in Idaho. “FCA was the first place I met people. When I was new and didn’t know anybody, it was a great place for connection, so I was excited to get more involved.”
Her journey from the continental United States to the University of Hawaii was what she calls a “God thing.” Hewitt had always joked about going to college as far away as possible, and, after talking to a number of schools and submitting the decision to God through prayer, she took a leap of faith and headed to Hawaii. It was the only school she had peace attending.
“I couldn’t have chosen a better school for me,” said Hewitt, who enforced that statement statistically by becoming a second-team All-American in 2010 and the CVU.com National Blocker of the Year. “Those are only trophies; they won’t last forever. Honestly, playing volleyball is just a tool for me to reach out to other people and tell them about God. It’s a way for me to shine His light out there.”
As for Hewitt’s own faith journey, it originally began at home with her Christian family, but, like many believers, she had to overcome times of lagging faith. During Hewitt’s senior year of high school, she struggled with Christianity and the church and even looked into other religions.
“I didn’t know who I was,” Hewitt said.
After a frustrating year athletically as a freshman, Hewitt returned to Hawaii for her sophomore year but soon called home wanting to fly back to Idaho. Her parents, though, wouldn’t allow it. And looking back on how her story has played out now, Hewitt attests to the sovereignty of God and His ultimate plan for the situation, citing Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV) as a benchmark: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
“This verse keeps me going no matter what happens to me, good or bad,” Hewitt said. “It gives me the comfort of knowing that God is in control. It reminds me that everything I accomplish is only possible through Him.
And, as an athlete, it helps me push through frustration, pain and disappointment.”
Since that turning point, Hewitt’s walk with Christ has continued to strengthen, though she admits that there have been times of spiritual laziness and backsliding. With help from FCA, Awai and his wife, Tara, though, she says she has a great support system that helps her stay focused on the ultimate prize.
“I’m stoked on life,” Hewitt said. “I’m happy to be here, and I’m just trying to share that with the people around me as best I can.”
When it comes to God’s power at work on the Hawaii women’s volleyball team, both Hewitt and Awai are quick to point out another source of spiritual influence: legendary Head Coach Dave Shoji.
“You can just tell when someone has God in their life,” Hewitt said. “Coach Shoji just has that presence about him.”
According to Shoji, a two-time National Coach of the Year, that presence is the Holy Spirit, who helps him remain calm as a coach, especially in tough game situations.
“I get that from the Lord,” said Shoji, who cites Philippians 4:6 as his go-to verse for battling anxiety on the job. “I’m not always that way, but, whenever I get worked up, my faith helps me calm down.”
As a coach, Shoji keeps his influence in mind knowing that his example of peace in athletic chaos can be transferred to his athletes. He tries to inspire his players through his demeanor, and, as a result, Shoji’s players are reaping the benefit.
“Our players have that calmness on the court, and many of them give glory to God,” Shoji said. “We have a lot of Christians on the team who lean on their faith. I can’t say if that translates into wins or losses, but it definitely has a calming effect on their play.”
Hall of Fame Coach Dave Shoji’s go-to verse for poise on the court is Philippians 4:6:
“Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”
After growing up in Hawaii, Shoji went to college in Santa Barbara, Calif., and then joined the United States Army before transitioning back to Hawaii for graduate school. When UH needed a volleyball coach and no one wanted the job, Shoji took it. That was 37 years ago.
As a Christian, Shoji also has enjoyed watching the development of FCA and how it has helped cultivate the spiritual strength of his athletes and enhanced team unity. He cites the pregame chapels as particularly transformational.
“They just have confidence—that’s what I see after chapels,” Shoji said. “They aren’t as nervous. They let Christ be the One who determines what is going to happen, and they feel a big burden off themselves. I think the chapels do a lot to just take the pressure off.”
As a collegiate coach with a successful career, part of Shoji’s job is also recruiting. Although he recruits based on character, not denomination or religion, it seems to him that his team’s faith has a way of spreading on its own.
“The girls lead others to Christ just by being examples and being who they are,” he said. “They see girls like Brittany and Kanani Danielson who are strong in their faith and pretty much at peace, and they want to be like them. I think that is a big part of it.”
Last year, for his success at UH, Shoji was inducted into the AVCA Hall of Fame after becoming just the second Division-I coach to notch more than 1,000 wins and leading Hawaii to four NCAA national championships.
“I thank God every day for my situation,” Shoji said. “I’ve been very blessed to be in this position and to work with young women who are terrific people. I’ve been blessed with a good life, a good family and a good job. I’m just very thankful for all we’ve been given.”
FANNING THE FLAME
Hebrews 12:29 refers to God as a “consuming fire.” From the big-picture growth of the FCA Huddle to the spiritual impact on the women’s volleyball team, it’s clear to Awai, Hewitt, Shoji and, really, anyone who is watching, that this verse is being illustrated before their eyes.
“What God’s doing at the University of Hawaii is incredible,” Awai said. “He’s taking hold of hearts and changing lives in a way that is clearly the work of His hands. I’m excited to see where He takes it in the future.”
Hewitt agreed. She can’t wait to watch as God “consumes” her campus through the power of His Holy Spirit.
“Something is definitely happening,” Hewitt said, “and it is awesome.”
--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.
Courtesy of Hawaii Athletics