How one Hall-of-Fame basketball coach set the stage for decades of short-term mission trips 

By Jonathan Snyder

The sweat glistens off Don Callan’s forehead as he enters the bus. As usual, public transport buses are standing room only, but Don and his team are the star attraction despite this. Filipino men and women stare at the basketball team from a university halfway around the world. Each man and woman is an opportunity for the team to share the gospel. From the woman attempting to calm two babies to the man who brought his three chickens on board, their feet tied together.

The team has already gone through a lot. They will play six days a week throughout the trip, which will last for a month and a half. They are tired, and the Filipino roads that jostle the bus deny the team any opportunity to rest. How did a team play basketball continually at this pace? How did a basketball coach from the other side of the world minister in a foreign nation? How did one man touch the lives of Filipinos while also impacting the culture of an entire university?

. . .

It is 1980. Don Callan knows he’s called to ministry; he had prior experience with the Venture for Victory program at Taylor University. He went on mission trips throughout his undergraduate studies, giving him the platform he needed to succeed on future trips around the world. David Jeremiah, the former president of Cedarville College, gave Callan the go-ahead to send a team. “One of my goals was to try to take my teams (to the Philippines).”

Although Jeremiah permitted Callan to go, this trip was not affiliated with Cedarville College. Lots of things were kept quiet from certain people and for good reason. This trip would have violated NAIA procedures for the players involved, so Callan had to be sneaky about what was leaked, lest his team be punished. “I didn’t run it through them, because I didn’t want them to control it.”

Once Cedarville started to affiliate itself with the trips, they initially called it the Missionary Internship Service (MIS) program, which would eventually be named Global Outreach. Harold Greene, the former Vice President for Christian Ministries, would help Callan flesh out MIS’s logistics. 

Mark Womack, a 20-year-old basketball player under Callan, had just finished up classes for the spring semester in 1980 when he went on the trip to the Philippines. It was a small group with a mix of basketball players, alumni director Gary Kuhn, a baseball player and other students. Callan christened this group the Athletes for Christ team. This team would play local all-star teams in the Philippines. The trip lasted five weeks, and the team played 32 to 50 games. 

They say that no matter where you play, the court is the same size, but these courts symbolize more than just a team for the Filipinos. They tell a love for the game prevalent across the nation. For the night games on the outdoor courts, a common venue throughout the trip, the stadium lights consisted of 4-6 light bulbs across the middle of the court, a far cry from the air-conditioned arenas that Womack and the team were familiar with. 

Basketball would be the hook to bring people in, and lots of people showed up. Callan believed that each game had at least 1,000 people in attendance, and at most there were over 10,000. Callan quickly noted the team’s influence on the locals,  “The Americans were an attraction, and the tall ones were an attraction.” It is a tantalizing prospect to see a 6-foot-9-inch athlete play a sport that you’ve fallen in love with.

At halftime, Callan and his group would present the gospel and sing praises for the audience. After the game, the players would stay and talk to anyone who came up and was willing to listen. Around 30 people on average would attend these post-game sessions and hear the gospel message. 

During the trip, the team would stay in churches with missionaries and see what life was like on the other side of the world. Thanks to the generosity of the missionaries in the Philippines, the team only had to pay for travel expenses and food. Mark Womack was touched by each gesture, “It’s life-changing when you see local pastors, who by our standards hardly have anything… they’re just there to glorify God.”

The most challenging part of the tour, according to Womack, was the traveling. Filipino public transportation saw buses nearly overcrowded with people running through their daily lives. Thanks to world events, however, the Filipinos were welcoming of the team.

Womack was stunned by the sight, “They just packed the buses with people… there were people then who were used to WW2 and used to U.S. soldiers around the Philippines a lot, so they had a lot of really good relationships with the United States.” 

Despite this, Callan had an uncanny ability to keep people focused on the task. “He influenced so many men who went on that trip, basketball players and general students and staff.” The team continued despite the issues; even dysentery was a minor inconvenience compared to the end goal. Callan would have to run back and forth from the hospital to the games when somebody came down with malaria, further compromising the team.

Callan’s desire for the Filipinos went so deep that the only reason he didn’t go one year was because of riots throughout the nation. Even so, he only said no because parents were concerned for the students’ safety.

Through it all Callan still turns the attention away from himself, “I don’t want people to think I was good, I want people to know I had enough nerve to try it.”

. . .

Brian Nester has been Cedarville’s Director for Global Outreach since 1994, and he credits Callan for building the foundation of the program. “Coach Callan is one of the godliest men… just an incredible man of God… the Philippines is just one of the dozens and dozens of countries he’s been to.” Callan’s devotion to Christ inspired many, which in turn changed the culture of Cedarville, opening the door for the University to focus more on missions.

Sometimes specific departments go to Global Outreach and talk about starting a mission trip. What started with an embassy connection in the Philippines, now has about 20 to 25 agencies calling Cedarville about Global Outreach opportunities to serve on mission trips. The program spiraled upward from the Philippines to trips in Europe and Africa, away from early expeditions. 

“Our faculty and administration have been so supportive of mission trips that it’s a part of the culture.” Cedarville faculty are now openly looking for opportunities to send their students overseas for mission trips. This cultural shift occurred thanks to those early trips by Callan to Asia and Eastern Europe.

Nester never believed that Don Callan truly retired, citing the many trips that Callan went on in his 70s and 80s. When people were hurt, the village of Cedarville would be one they could go to. Callan now works in a nursing home helping elderly folks keep in touch with the word of God. “[Callan] had a natural yet supernatural giftedness in turning normal conversations into gospel conversations.”

Before Nester came to Cedarville, he lived overseas doing field missionary work in Hungary. Callan took a team to Hungary in the early 90s and contacted Nester. Before this trip, Nester had no connection to the university, but by helping them organize the transportation for the mission team and hosting the team in his home, he got to meet Callan and see his work. When Nester visited Cedarville three years later, the university offered him a position in the Global Outreach program, which Nester accepted.

“I call him [Callan] the best ‘aw shucks’ evangelist and administrator I ever met.”

Callan was unassuming and relied on the Lord, sometimes traveling himself to hostile nations. But because of his conduct, people knew that he was a Christ follower, and that reputation got Callan some connections in those nations and helped to further his ministry.

Even as an award-winning head coach, “when you would talk to him about missions, his eyes would light up.” It’s a desire that nearly moves Nester to tears talking about it.

Callan was a brilliant coach who could motivate a team to follow him, quite literally, to the ends of the earth. The 500 wins as a coach, the three NCAA Midwest Region championships and his enshrinement into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame pale in comparison to what Callan knows is his call; to further the ministry of Christ. Even so, Callan never wanted praise from his ministry exploits, always maintaining confidence in the Lord that the goal would be accomplished. “My pride is in what God did for me, a little farm boy in Indiana.”

1 Reply to "How one Hall-of-Fame basketball coach set the stage for decades of short-term mission trips "

  • comment-avatar
    Tom January 18, 2023 (4:58 pm)

    Don is an absolute treasure to Cedarville University. Spending the last 5 around him has been a great joy for both Conner and me.

    GBY Don

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