I have been a United Methodist pastor for 20 years, and lived in various communities: the foothills of Georgia, metro Atlanta, and in various towns and cities in Western Tennessee and Kentucky. However, last Saturday evening I witnessed community like I've never seen it before.
Every year at this time, Marshall County (KY) High School sponsors the annual "Hoopfest" - a high school basketball tournament that USA Today identified at one of the Top Ten places to see high school hoops. It is a VERY big deal: over the years it has attracted teams like Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) and Mater Dei (Los Angeles). Six of USA TODAY's Top 25 boys teams played in the event in 2003. Notable players who have played at Hoopfest include Carmelo Anthony, Dan Langhi, Barry Goheen, Mary Taylor Cowles. Marshall County's own Howard Beth, the girls basketball coach, has a 647-104 record. This year, Oak Hill Academy was there once again, along with Chicago Hales Franciscan, DeMatha (Maryland), Chicago Simeon, and Chicago Whitney Young H.S. (where a young man named Marcus Jordan plays... son of Michael Jordan). Over the years, coaches like Tubby Smith and Roy Williams have come to scout teams.
The final game is on ESPN on December 13th - the #1 and #2 ranked high school teams in the nation: Oak Hill Academy vs. St. Benedict's (New Jersey). The Hoopfest website is here.
It's great basketball. And I was honored to be selected to officiate a game there Saturday night. But that wasn't the real blessing of the evening.
There is a young man who is on everyone's prayer list in the Jackson Purchase Area of Kentucky: Gunner Gillespie. Gunner has an inoperable tumor on his brain stem. He's a handsome 7-year old boy who has been fighting all of his life, being born premature and enduring the struggles that premature babies often have. And now Gunner is fighting for his life, undergoing treatments at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital. Gunner is the son of Gus and Janna, both teachers at Marshall County H.S. Gus is also the boys basketball coach. Here begins the real blessing.
Anyone who has even been to Reed Conder Gymnasium knows that the primary color there is orange, and on a game night the gym is all orange (which is actually comforting, having grown up in Tennessee myself). But at Hoopfest this year, the usual orange was subdued by yellow - yellow shirts that had been screened with a picture Gunner had drawn of the Little Engine That Could: "I think I can, I think I can."
I'm not talking about a few shirts. Reed Conder seats 6,000, and they are at capacity for Hoopfest. Now I know I'm a preacher, and preacher estimates can be highly inaccurate, but I'm guessing there were over 1,500 "Gunning for Gunner" t-shirts.
Not just Marshall County folks were wearing them. Teams from around the nation came out of their locker rooms to warm up wearing them. Fans all over the gym were wearing then. Marshall County boys played Rose Hill Christian on Saturday, and Rose Hill's coaching staff all wore Gunner t-shirts the whole game. Bruce Pearl, men's coach at the University of Tennessee, was wearing a Gunner T-shirt.
People bought T-shirts. Officials signed over checks. That money will certainly go a long way to help Gunner and the Gillespies. But I'm thinking about all of the people wearing those shirts: one of the most competitive atmospheres in all of high school basketball, yet showing that even in this tough, win-at-all-costs sports community, there are things that transcend sports and winning. Seeing all of those t-shirts won't just raise some money - it will raise Gunner's spirit and the spirit of his family.
I am frequently told that I don't smile very much - that I seem stoic and seem to wear a frown a lot. As you can tell in this picture, I was having a great time (I'm holding the ball, standing next to one of my partners, Mike Wooten - click on the pic and you can see more of those Gunner T-shirts). I think seeing all those yellow shirts out there reminded me that life is very, very precious - and to be celebrated for its joys.
Many of you who know me know that I usually conclude worship services with the following benediction. It continues to mean more and more to me:
My brothers and sisters: life is short,
and we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us.
So be quick to love, and make haste to be kind,
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
True community lifts each other up: when things are at their worst, Christians are at their best. Such is the Body of Christ.
God bless you Gunner. I think you can, too.