Athletes for Christ

Cedarville’s basketball team has been going to the mission field since 1971

by Josh Burris and Tim Miller

The Cedarville men’s basketball team has been going on mission trips since the summer of 1971 when Dr. Don Callan was the team’s head coach. The idea for the Cedarville basketball mission trips came from Callan and retired Lt. Gen. Loren Reno, who was playing at the time.

Callan went on a basketball mission trip to Taiwan when he was a player at Taylor University. Reno, Cedarville’s vice president for academics, went on a mission trip to South America in the spring of 1970 with another team. Reno figured, “why couldn’t Cedarville do a trip?” Other players on the team had been on mission trips in the past, and all of their experiences formed the idea for Cedarville’s team.

Callan said short-term and sports mission trips were still a new idea to people.

“At that time, you didn’t do things like that,” Callan said. “Short-term missions was not highly proclaimed because it took money from the real missionaries and you are going to have fun.”

Athletes in Action was not born yet. Fellowship of Christian Athletes was still in its infant stages.

Cedarville’s basketball team stands in front of the Roman Colosseum during a much needed break between games and mission activities on their trip to Italy last summer. [Photo provided by Pat Estepp]

“It was not my idea necessarily, but I developed beyond what my coach did,” Callan said. “Boy did it become a big movement.”

Dr. James T. Jeremiah, Cedarville’s president at the time, bought into the ideas Callan had and they were off for their first trip in 1971.

In the first year, the team went to Japan, China, Taiwan and the Philippines. They called themselves Athletes for Christ. The team featured intercollegiate players and intramural players who had a heart for missions. The team played 45-50 games in a six-week period. Sometimes they would play two or three in a day.

The team had a few obstacles they had to overcome while overseas. The first was the language barrier. The team had to use a translator, who was usually a local pastor or missionary that knew the language. The team found it easier to communicate by using words with one or two syllables as well as slowing down their speech.

“Most in the Philippines had an understanding of English and wanted to practice,” Reno said. “So we turned the conversation to eternal matters.”

It was also difficult to find safe drinking water. Staying hydrated was important since some of the places the team played were tropical locations. They couldn’t let their starters play the whole time for hydration purposes.

The team also had to carry its equipment everywhere to make sure it didn’t get stolen. Some of the countries overseas did not make shoes big enough for the American players. Reno wore a size 12 and would not have been able to find replacement shoes if his were stolen.

Reno said they were able to lead dozens of people to the Lord on the trip through basketball. He said the trip was encouraging to them and made them want to continue to lead people to Christ.

“It gave us a passion for soul winning, it gave us a passion for missions,” Reno said. “We have always had a special place in our hearts for missions ever since.”

Reno said the experience from those trips has helped him share his faith here in the States.

“It emboldened me to share the gospel here,” Reno said. “It opened our eyes to the challenges missionaries have. My wife and I have found it important to give to missions. It has had a special place in my heart.”

One experience Reno said he remembers well was from when they played in Iloilo, Philippines. They were playing on an outdoor court across the street from a prison. Reno noticed some of the prisoners looking out to see what they were doing.

“I decided I was going to get my guitar and see if I could go across the street into the prison,” Reno said.

Callan said he thought it was a long shot.

“I said ‘Loren get real, you’ll never get into the prison,’” Callan said.

Reno decided to try anyway. He knocked on the door and someone who knew English answered. Reno told him he would like to talk with some of the prisoners, but he was rejected at first because it was almost supper time. Reno asked again since it was just “almost” supper time if he could come in and stay until it was. The worker granted him access.

In a half hour, Reno was able to sing a couple songs and share his testimony to some of the prisoners.

“I believe to this day the Lord opened the prison door so I could give the gospel to those prisoners,” Reno said.  “God prepared the way before me.”

Callan said it took courage for Reno to go somewhere that was full of uncertainty.

The team helped repair some buildings and paint them as part of their ministry in Italy. [Photo provided by Pat Estepp]

“I didn’t know what a prison was like over there,” Callan said. “He was brave enough to take initiative to do things like that.”

Reno went on two more trips as a player and one more when he was stationed in the Philippines during his time in the Air Force when he was on leave.

Callan continued to do missions with the team until he retired in 1995. The team still continues to do mission trips today, but things are a little bit different.

In 2012, Cedarville University joined the NCAA on the Division II level. With the jump to a full-time NCAA program, Cedarville had to adjust to the NCAA’s mandates.

The NCAA only allows a team to go on a foreign trip once every four years. Because of that, head coach Pat Estepp has to make his trips count.

Last year, Estepp took his crew to Italy. He wanted the Yellow Jackets to play solid competition while also having the opportunity to minister to people in Italy.

One Cedarville player already had a connection to Italy. Sophomore forward Gabriel Portillo is a native of Italy, and his parents are currently serving as missionaries there.

Estepp was able to take his team to Portillo’s parents’ church camp, and the team helped serve at the camp.

“We helped them painting two buildings, played games with the campers each night and did some street evangelism one evening,” Estepp said.

Outside the camp, the Yellow Jackets handed out tracts in Italian and also took the opportunity to tour Venice.

Estepp said what the players experienced was exactly what he intended.

“I want the basketball to be valuable, to have organized opportunity for ministry and to challenge the guys to get out of their comfort zone,” Estepp said.

The trips aren’t just for the players. The coaching staff gets just as much out of the trips as their players.

“They are wonderful because of the opportunity to see your players grow spiritually, get out of their comfort zone and see God move in your team,” Estepp said.

As Estepp gears up for his team’s next visit, he said he’s unsure of where they might travel to. Multiple players are planning to go on trips with Athletes In Action until Cedarville’s next trip, and Estepp said it depends on what kind of connections he can make when trying to get the right combination of basketball and missions.


Josh Burris is a senior journalism major and the sports editor for Cedars. He is interested in sports broadcasting and reporting. He enjoys watching sports, lifting, and listening to rock and rap music.

Tim Miller is a freshman journalism student at Cedarville University. Tim loves anything that has to do with sports, and hopes to write about sports for a career after graduating from Cedarville.

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