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Olympic-Sized Faith

Emily Springfield

Shelly-Ann Brown's faith-infused mission to help children experience Jesus' love...is crossing borders and boldly spreading a message of hope across Haiti.

I'm sitting in a little room in my mother's house in Brisa Oriental, a suburb of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, watching Olympic silver medalist Shelly-Ann Brown as she packs for her early flight back home to Canada. I'll admit it: I'm a little awestruck, a little stunned that a few days ago she and I were strangers. Tonight we're both giggly and tired; after all, anything seems funny at 2 in the morning. I've laughed more with Shelly-Ann in the past four days than I have for months. The new bond she and I share arises from the strong sense that we're standing on the precipice of something really big together.


COLLIDING WORLDS

My part of our story began seven years ago. That's when my mother Iris and her husband Juan decided to begin Ambassadors of Christ in the Dominican Republic and, eventually, in Haiti. It was my mother's dream to reach out to and serve the impoverished children of this beautiful land on behalf of Jesus. My mother calls the kids "joyas en el desierto"-"jewels in the desert."

Mom and Juan have seen their ministries grow dramatically over the years; today they serve more than 200 children between the ages of 7 to 12 in Santo Domingo and the surrounding rural areas. Mom knew they needed help. So she asked God to send the right people to the aid of their small-but-growing mission. God's answer to my mother's prayer came in an unexpected form: The superhumanly strong body and spirit of Shelley-Ann Brown.

There's nothing ordinary about this transplanted Jamaican Canadian. A quick glance at her résumé will tell you that she competed-and won silver-in the 2010 Winter Olympics with the Canadian women's bobsledding team. Brown is the "runner"-the team member who, through carefully cultivated strength and powerful skill, pushes the fully loaded team sled off the starting block and onto the ice chute. Brown's been on the Canadian World Cup Team since she was recruited in 2007. She set five World Start records in the past three seasons, and she trains for three to six hours, six days per week during the season.

But world-class athletic ability isn't all there is to know about Shelley-Ann. In her other life, she's a noted proponent of children and education, and she holds a master's degree in educational psychology. She's a committed Christian with a very special place in her heart for reaching children for Jesus.

In 2005, Shelley-Ann put her faith into action and founded Camp Edify (campedify.com) in Ontario for kids. Her dream then was to provide a safe and loving place where "kids could just be kids" and experience positive social relationships in a safe and camp-like, faith-based setting. Her experience with Camp Edify inspired her to seek ministry to kids on a more global scale.

Their common interest in ministry to hurting children brought Shelley-Ann and my mother together on, of all things, Facebook. Their casual, "cyber acquaintance" quickly grew into a shared goal and passion. Their connection was immediate and powerful as they realized that not only did they share important goals, but they also could work together to meet those goals. God took their two hearts and two dreams and wove them together for his glory.


JOINED MINISTRY

Shortly after their meeting online, Shelly-Ann boarded a plane to the Dominican Republic to meet my mother and Juan. Her focus was on how they could work together.

"I was able to compete earlier this year in the Olympics," says Shelley-Ann humbly. "It was a great time for me and a terrific experience. But by the time I arrived here in the Dominican Republic, it was at the end of a 'rush era' in my life. I was tired. Not just physically, but emotionally, and to a degree spiritually as well. I needed a reminder that what I think I am is not ever what Christ knows I am. Here, I definitely was reminded that God has a plan and that I don't have to figure it all out. I just need to trust him."

My mother admits that when she asked God to send the right people to her underfunded, understaffed, and unknown ministry, she never expected an Olympic medalist to show up. But it's a role-and a responsibility-that Shelley-Ann revels in.

"The Olympic experience really opened doors," she says. "It's given me an audience to speak to. People are interested now in what I have to say. And I think there's something I have to say that's worth hearing."

She says she's learned through experience that the perk in choosing to follow Jesus is that you get a life of adventure and a deep-rooted sense of purpose and satisfaction. She refers to that-doing what we're wired to do and called to do-as the "sweet spot" or the "zone."

At the most basic level, Shelley-Ann wants to make a difference in children's lives. Seeing her with the children in my mother's ministry, it's obvious that the kids adore her. She has a way with them that's fun to watch-and rare. And her message to them is simple, straight from an athlete's no-nonsense perspective: "Believe, and get real with yourself. Don't settle for less than 100 percent, or you're just cheating yourself and those around you."

She believes that God has equipped her for her mission. "My job," she says, "is to inspire kids to believe in themselves. Inspire them to work hard when it feels like they can't take another step. Inspire them to dream big and see their potential through God's eyes."

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