Those people don’t live in Alabama. Children here return to school with summer just coming into its own, and the most dramatic color change outside is the grass turning a scorched, brittle brown. Sweaters are unthinkable as temperatures regularly approach 90, and frosts to quell the mosquito swarms are still months away. Alabamians, however, still anticipate September with relish. Autumn may linger out of sight, but college football is on the horizon.
The fervor that is college football in Alabama is no mystery. Only Texas can vie for more ardent fanaticism. The distinction that may give Alabama the slight edge is the polarization between rival powerhouses. Separated by only three hours, the University of Alabama and Auburn University divide the state into halves of crimson and orange.
I should know. Two years ago I found myself moving to the fractured no-man’s-land between the two schools, an expatriate from Tennessee. Upon arrival, friends immediately pressed my wife and me to discover our allegiances. Tide or Tiger? I deflected, torn between the two. Our address places us slightly closer to Tuscaloosa, but my upbringing gives me an affinity for the Auburn colors, if nothing else.
Even if I could decide, I know better than to show my hand. Staking either claim would surely alienate half my friends. I remember travelling through Alabama as a child on a road trip. When we stopped for lunch, my dad had me remove my Volunteers baseball cap, afraid that we might not receive service otherwise. Our simple disguise worked and we continued on our way satisfied. A few hours down the road our car limped to the shoulder. After a friendly mechanic replaced the faulty belt, my dad offered a cheerful “Roll Tide,” sure that just outside Tuscaloosa the greeting would be well received. The mechanic, apparently a misplaced Auburn fan, proceeded to remove the replacement belt!
Since these formative experiences, I’ve remained incognito in this foreign land of football fanaticism. The last two years I’ve felt somewhat subversive as I’ve drawn the shades each Saturday before turning on my game. The rest of the week I maintain my silence, dodging appeals to declare a side and certainly hiding my true loyalty. That is, until recently.
One afternoon at the gym, a boisterous conversation interrupted my typical routine. The man on the treadmill beside mine was practically shouting to another patron. I could just make out the usual preseason recruitment speculation through my headphones. I paused my podcast, not so much to eavesdrop as to let the din die down lest I miss some of my program. Convinced that the men beside me would hold the typical allegiances, I could hardly believe when I began to recognize the names of the coaches and players that they mentioned. These men were fellow partisans, behind enemy lines!
I had almost decided to press play again when I remembered my recent visit with urban missionaries in London. These men and women participate in a variety of gospel ministries, but one of the most central tasks uniting them is a deliberate engagement with their neighbors. Door-to-door visitation is central to their ministry, but not every visit culminates with an invitation to faith, or even a spiritual conversation. Rather than offering a gospel sales pitch, the missionaries make themselves available as caring neighbors, allowing the Spirit to create natural opportunities for witness. Returning from the trip, I had vowed to pay more attention to such opportunities. I realized at the gym that one faced me without even knocking on a door, so I leaned over to my fellow Vol and confided, “I didn’t realize there was more than one of us here.”
I would love to narrate how we struck up a conversation and before long knelt to pray together beside the elliptical machines, but we didn’t. We shared a few words and a smile and then continued our respective workouts. What we did do, however, was establish a connection and a sense of camaraderie with one another. The man and I have seen each other dozens of times before but never spoken until now. To be honest, I’ve been intimidated by someone who almost certainly was a football player himself, which I equally obviously was not. A common interest as mundane as football provided a culturally acceptable opportunity to overcome my timidity.
Even though our conversation didn’t turn to spiritual matters that day, I don’t consider it a waste. Strangers in an Alabama gym may grow defensive if I mention the Fall, but they are always eager to discuss the fall. Football offers fodder for casual conversation where more direct evangelism could create uncomfortable barriers. Over time, these casual greetings may turn to more fruitful witness through the Spirit’s prompting. The two of us will certainly recognize each other the next time we meet, and when I see my new friend again I think I’ll remove my headphones before being interrupted. Who knows whether our next conversation will be the one that leads to eternal transformation?
For a Christian, each day brings new encounters that offer chances to share the love of Jesus through words and deeds, and not all of these conversations will follow a scripted outline. In fact, most will not. A chance greeting at the gym has given me new intentionality about creating relationships beyond my usual circles. As the heat index soars and the mosquitoes swarm in Alabama, football has given me a new, deeper reason to look forward to autumn and the conversations it may bring.
Joshua Hays is a writer and a student at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.