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11 min

The Pan Am Games and its Christian ties

More Than Gold, and its partners, promise to play fair

Christian organizations have had a major presence at major multi-sport games going back to the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta. Credit: Andrew Jacome

Outside of the Mattamy Athletic Centre in downtown Toronto, home of basketball during the Pan Am Games, a crowd has gathered hoping to spy their favourite players. It’s mere hours before Canada will play, and defeat, the United States in women’s basketball on July 20, 2015.

As spectators make their way to the arena, they pass a man wearing a blue polo shirt standing in front of a nearby hotel on Carlton Street. “Jesus loves you,” he says, as he passes people a small copy of the The Gospel of John. On the cover, a hand clutches a gold medal. Above the the Gospel title, in larger letters, it says More Than Gold.

The Pan Am Games have brought communities together from around the world — including religious ones that have been involved behind the scenes at some of the world’s largest sporting events.

Christian organizations have had a major presence at major multi-sport games going back to the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta. They’ve handed out water, recruited games volunteers, provided beds for athletes’ families and led the Christian chaplain teams.

Some of those same organizations condemn same-sex relationships and have histories of LGBT discrimination.

And this summer, they are descending on Toronto for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games — an event currently being touted by some as the most LGBT-inclusive multi-sports game in history.

When I speak with More Than Gold CEO David Willson over the phone about two months before the Pan Am Games, he is consistently upbeat — even when I’m asking how he defends some of the beliefs of the predominantly Christian organizations that are under More Than Gold’s umbrella.

“With the programs that we do they have to be inclusive — we can’t be exclusive,” he says.

More Than Gold started in 1996, coinciding with the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games, to recruit volunteers for the games and find housing for athletes families. Since then, it’s helped provide a phalanx of volunteers for international sporting events, including the 2012 London Summer Olympics and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

In Toronto for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, More Than Gold is providing the same services. It also recruits games pastors — volunteers who assist spectators moving from venue to venue and, according to More Than Gold’s website, “have an eye open for those who may be in special need.”

The pastors are trained by organizations such as Athletes in Action — a division of evangelical organization Power to Change Ministries — and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association — whose CEO and president, Franklin Graham, is currently on a personal crusade to boycott any business he considers pro-gay.

Willson says that the groups represent a wide variety of denominations, from charismatic evangelicals to more liberal churches.

“We have denominations that very much have gays and lesbians represented in their congregation,” he says. “So we wouldn’t oppose anyone particularly being involved with any of the programs.”

Included on the list is the Anglican Diocese of Toronto which, in 2011, turned away a gay couple hoping to be married (same-sex marriage is widely debated within the Anglican community); several churches that view any intimacy outside of a heterosexual marriage as sinful; Catch the Fire, a quickly growing Pentecostal denomination; the Mennonite Church Canada, which started to perform same-sex marriages over the past five years; and the Presbyterian Church of Canada, another community that has widely debated same-sex marriage (the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted in 2014 to allow their pastors to perform same-sex marriages).

And then there is The Salvation Army. As one of More Than Gold’s six sponsors, The Salvation Army has a major hand in one of the key components of the group’s volunteer initiatives during the Pan Am Games: the Cup of Cold Water program. During the games, thirsty spectators will be offered water by teams of Salvation Army volunteers, including games pastors, who will be outside of venues and at transit sites.

This is the same organization that is best known among the LGBT community for actively opposing equality and anti-discrimination laws.

The Salvation Army denies many of the claims of LGBT-discrimination — a webpage on the American Salvation Army’s website, “Debunking the Myths,” sprang up after various outlets began reporting on the Army’s activities.

Both Willson and Major Gord Armstrong, the Salvation Army lead on the Cup of Cold Water project, are emphatic that they will serve anybody. “[If] you want a cup of water, I’ll give you a cup of water; if you want to come talk with us we’ll talk with you,” Armstrong says. “There is no discrimination in this.”

“This is a matter of a service on a hot day that people can come and enjoy, and I really don’t care who you are.”

Willson and Pan Am spokesperson Kevin Dove say that the Games have no official partnership with More than Gold. According to them, More Than Gold receives no funding from Pan-Am organizers or from any level of government for their activities during the games — and neither does the Salvation Army, according to Armstrong.

Dove tells me in an email that Pan Am did approach More Than Gold early in 2014 to raise awareness about their volunteer programs — “similar to hundreds of other organizations throughout the Greater Golden Horseshoe.”

However, all three parties have a close relationship. Willson describes speaking regularly with Pan-Am organizers, as does Armstrong — a fact Dove acknowledges. Darryl McKenzie, the vice-president of volunteer services at Pan Am 2015, also appears in a segment on Crossroads360, explaining the important role that More Than Gold takes in the volunteer recruiting.

Armstrong says that they had originally negotiated to be inside the Pan Am venues, but that deal was vetoed after staff said it would conflict with sponsors. Even after that, a Cup of Cold Water advertisement with the Pan Am logo was featured on a Salvation Army website. The advertisement was removed from the website shortly after I contacted staff on May 15, asking about the connections between Pan Am and the Salvation Army — Armstrong says it was taken down because they had used Pan Am branding, something they were not supposed to do.

While the organization More Than Gold may not officially be involved in the Games, its co-chairperson is.

David Wells, chairperson of More Than Gold, is described in an email sent to me by Dove as “one of the world’s most experienced Games chaplains.”

He is volunteering his time to help recruit the chaplains needed for the multi-faith centre in the athletes’ village during the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, along with several other religious leaders, according to Dove. He’s filled the same or similar roles at multiple multi-sport games, including the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Wells has also made his presence felt internationally in other ways — he was among the 10 evangelical leaders who joined Prime Minister Stephen Harper on his 2014 trip to Israel.

He is also the general superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC), an Evangelical Christian church with over 200,000 members across the country.

As per PAOC’s constitution, homosexuality is, essentially, forbidden. Marriage is strictly defined as between a man and a woman. Pastors can be disciplined for engaging in any form of homosexual act. 

When same-sex marriage was still up for debate in Canada, PAOC was publicly against it. A representative for the church testified in favour of the “traditional” definition of marriage when Parliament debated Bill C-38, The Civil Marriage Act, in 2005.

Wells declined my interview request, citing a code of conduct he signed with the Games “no Member should speak publicly on behalf of TO2015, without authorization.” But in an email, Wells also affirmed his dedication to providing services for everybody.

I and the Inter-faith working group and the Multi-Faith chaplaincy I work with will continue to ensure athletes, team officials and volunteers within the Pan Am/Parapan Am Village are able to practice their faith and receive encouragement regardless of faith, race, gender or sexuality as is our commitment.”

Reverend John Joseph Mastandrea, an openly gay minister at the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto — a church which welcomes all faiths and orientations — is also a chaplain at the Pan Am Games. He did speak to me — and he could not have been more glowing in his assessment of Wells.

“David Wells is quite amazing,” Mastandrea told me over the phone, noting that Wells makes sure that ministers and officiants have everything they need, from prayer mats to smudging sticks, to perform their duties. According to him, inclusivity comes up in every meeting he’s been at.

“We start with inclusivity about faith traditions, and then we include all aspects of inclusivity, which is LGBTQ, as well as accessibility,” Mastandrea says.

* * *

Pan-Am officials were not so forthcoming with details. Dove wouldn’t provide any details about the specific denominations that would be present in the athletes’ village aside from the five major faith groups — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism — and that there would be a contact list of other faith communities.

The Games do have a diversity and inclusion recruitment policy — the first in almost 60 years of Pan-Am history, according to Dove — but it’s aimed at ensuring their workforce is diverse. Dove repeatedly said in his email that the organization is very committed to diversity and inclusion.

But Dove did not provide me with any evidence that the Games have an anti-discrimination policy or enforcement mechanism. “Anyone in Ontario who has been discriminated against should contact the Ontario Human Rights Commission,” he wrote in an email.

Salvation Army’s volunteers are trained in “presence of ministry,” according to Armstrong — which amounts to church-speak for accept everybody. “In other words just be there for the people,” Armstrong says. “I don’t think there’s any discrimination setup.”

A 2010 article in Charisma magazine — aimed at the evangelical community — gives a better idea of the role Wells, and More Than Gold, plays at sporting events. The article chronicles the activities of both at the Vancouver Olympics, where Wells coordinated the Christian chaplaincy at the Vancouver site, and where More Than Gold and the Salvation Army did similar activities to the ones that are planned for Toronto.

One More Than Gold staffer, who is also a PAOC member, notes that they hope their role at the Games will have a “transformation” on the city — they go on to say that Vancouver has the lowest church attendance in North America.

On More Than Gold’s Facebook page for the Pan Am Games, several posts note the amount of some of the literature they have given away already. “It’s the last week of the games, and of the 25,000 Gospels of John donated by Gideons and the 25,000 donated by the Canadian Bible Society, we have distributed approximately 20,000,” says the most recent post. Another says they’ve given 1,000 New Testament Bibles to athletes in the athlete’s village.

* * *

Of course, people are welcome to have their own religious beliefs, even if anyone else finds them personally offensive. And there are athletes who will be attending the PanAm and Parapan Am Games who will want to see priests and ministers that represent their own faith beliefs.

However, there are also the LGBT people who will be playing in the Games, attending them and working for them. According to the 2013 Diversity and Inclusion Progress Report, about six percent of Toronto’s Pan-Am’s workforce identifies as LGBT.

And there will be people coming to Canada for the Games — or who already live here — who have felt the ill effects of evangelical organizing abroad. Some Caribbean activists point squarely at the activities of religious organizations for increasing the levels of homophobia in their countries.

Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican LGBT activist and lawyer living in Canada, says that once evangelical organizations lost the culture wars over gay marriage in the global north, they turned their eyes, and finances, to Jamaica.

“This is where they partnered with local groups; local churches,” Tomlinson says. “There was a lot of financial incentive to promoting homophobia because it was very attractive financially.”

“You get tithing; you get donations; you get offerings from persons who can’t agree to condemning any other sin.”

Tomlinson says that Open Bible, a Pentecostal association headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, is one of the organizations still leading the charge against the gay rights movement in Jamaica. Both Open Bible and PAOC are member organizations of the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America.

And in 2013, when the Jamaican government was considering reviewing its anti-buggery laws, Church of God executive director Reverend Lenworth Anglin shouted from a pulpit that “he was prepared to die to ensure that Jamaica does not succumb to pressure from homosexual activists,” according to a report in the Huffington Post. And according to a 2012 US State Department International Religious Freedoms report, 26 percent of Jamaicans identify as members of the Church of God.  

Salon reports that in 2011, a survey found that 82 percent of Jamaicans think homosexuality is morally wrong. In 2014, Human Rights Watch issued an 86-page report outlining how vulnerable LGBT people in Jamaica are to violence. According to the report, 231 attacks against LGBT people were recorded between 2009-2012 alone.

* * *

As Warren Schell, a retired attending reverend at Glen Rhodes United Church, begins a blessing of PrideHouse Toronto, the smell of burning sage fills the air of the ballroom in the 519. About 30 people stand in a circle, watching him.

“Nobody is left out,” he says, asking people to stand in a circle. As the blessing continues, a smudge stick is presented to each person in the circle — a barefoot Wiccan, an atheist from the Centre for Inquiry Canada — as part of a cleansing ritual. Nearby, Deana Dudley, the pastor of morning worship at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto and emcee for the evening, watches, clad in a blue and pink Hawaiian print over her clerical collar.

On July 9, 2015, just a day before the formal opening of the Pan Am Games, PrideHouse Toronto organizers invited several religious community leaders to come formally bless the space before it begins to welcome people from around the world.

PrideHouse Toronto’s mission is to ensure that the Pan Am and ParaPan Am Games are the most LGBT-inclusive games in history.

Matthew Cutler, director at PrideHouse, says that he is aware of volunteer recruitment among religious communities. When we spoke on May 26, he was unaware, however, that the Salvation Army would be doing any kind of service at the games.

“I would expect that any services, whether it’s the Salvation Army providing water, or anything that the organizing committee does, are provided free of discrimination, and in a way that is inclusive and welcoming to everyone,” Cutler says.

“And if any supplier, contractor or organization working with the organizing committee is doing anything that makes LGBT people feel uncomfortable in accessing the Games, then that would be an issue for us.”

Dudley was also unaware of the Salvation Army’s involvement at the Pan Am Games. She says that none of the staff from MCC are involved in the inter-faith centre either.

But she doesn’t believe their involvement is a bad thing. “Certainly my own particular form of Christianity doesn’t necessarily square with their kind of proselytization,” she says. “However, I think to the extent that they are offering hospitality to people; to the extent they are offering water or food or housing, that’s a good thing. That’s a blessing, and I certainly welcome that.”

The religious community and the LGBT community have an often fraught relationship, but they have a relationship all the same. Identifying as part of the LGBT spectrum does not automatically mean that one person will disavow their religious beliefs. Others find ways to reconcile the tenets of their religious faith with their own views on sexual orientation and gender identity. And then there are those religious organizations that have gone above and beyond to ensure their churches, mosques or other spiritual spaces are truly safe spaces.

Diversity is not relegated to a single identity ticked off on a form. It includes intersecting identities, and for many, that includes religion. Dudley points out that this may be a chance for Torontonians, and all those attending the game, to embrace, as she puts it, “divine diversity.”

After the blessing finishes up, I chat briefly with El-Farouk Khaki, from the Toronto Unity Mosque. When I ask him whether he sees any issues with religious organizations like Salvation Army or More Than Gold being involved in the Pan Am Games, he echoes Dudley. “I don’t see a problem with that as long as it is done respectfully,” he says. “I think that the foundation has to come from something like the Pan Am Games where it lays down very clearly what is acceptable, what is not, that is based on an anti-oppression inclusionary framework.”

Khaki also offered another option — that one of the Salvation Army or More Than Gold volunteers, by virtue of interacting with all of the people making their way to and from the games, might have a eye-opening experience of their own.

“Maybe they might learn something. Maybe one of them will engage or encounter somebody, or have a particular experience, that will open their hearts up to queer folk and acceptance of humanity.”