Running As Prayer: Racing for the Nations

This weekend had special meaning in my training for the Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon. I’m only two weeks away from toeing the starting line at the Clinch Ave. Bridge at the World’s Fair Park. By the grace of God, I haven’t had major injuries in my training and–thanks be to God–I’ve begun the tapering process.

With the race just two weeks away, I set off with the wife to drive the course so I could get a sense of the whole race, the terrain, and the areas of the city where I’ll be running. It’s a beautiful course that showcases our beautiful Knoxville. I love how the course designers included several different areas of the city. You get a sense of the diverse communities within Knoxville when you follow this course. From the starting line in downtown K-town to the finish line at Neyland Stadium, I’ll be running a broad circuit around this city with hundreds of other runners.

As I run through Knoxville’s many streets and neighborhoods, I will also be praying for our city. Running has taught me as much about the life of prayer as it has about endurance training. Long runs are great occasions to pray for those you love, to meditate on the longings of your heart.

On race day, I’ll be praying for our city in a specific way, a prayer that I’ve carried with me throughout these months of training–that Knoxville always be a welcoming home for the nations. I’ll be praying that our international neighbors will find friendship, hope, and a bright future in this city I love.

When I Was School Teacher for Sudanese Refugees

It’s not often that I speak about my days as a school teacher. Yes, I taught school for a brief period of time, between college graduation and the beginning of seminary. For one semester I taught Software Applications at a night high school in Hendersonville, TN. Half of my students were American teenagers who were pursuing graduation after being expelled from a traditional high school. Another half of my students were Sudanese immigrants, most of whom were adults in their 20s and 30s.

With a room full of computers, students would spend 5 minutes or so on the internet before the bell rang. The American students searched for the next thing to purchase–prom dresses for the girls, car speakers for the guys. The Sudanese students always read news reports about the civil war back home. All of my students had lived in war-torn south Sudan, the Christian region of that nation.

Over the course of that semester, I befriended all my students, but I had a special bond with my Sudanese students. Maybe it was our nearness in age that connected us, but I became fascinated with their culture and story. I was amazed at their attitude toward education, their gratitude and commitment to this opportunity. These students would attend classes from 4.30pm until 10.30 pm. And then most would work a third shift job. Most of my students had young children at home, too. Some had suffered for their Christian faith, yet a positive and even joyful spirit remained among these students.

During breaks we had great talks and laughs together, too. One day, we talked about the recent presidential election they asked my thoughts. We talked about presidential politics for a bit and then one of my Sudanese friends suggested I run for president in the next election. Apparently basic aptitude to teach PowerPoint and keyboard prepares one for the Oval Office. I decided to go with this, because why not? ‘Guys, if you’re going to nominate me for president, I need a campaign slogan. You know, T-shirts, bumper stickers, yard signs, the whole bit. What’s my campaign slogan?’ My Sudanese buddies agreed we indeed needed a campaign slogan. A few seconds later they had it. My presidential campaign slogan would be: “Mr. King–We Like This Guy!”

When my time as an interim teacher ended, it was so difficult to say goodbye to my Sudanese friends. I could see good things for their future. They shared with me their dreams beyond high school. I knew some were college bound. I wanted to stay and help those who were still struggling, to encourage the discouraged. Nevertheless, God’s calling led me to Kentucky later that fall to prepare for ordained ministry. But I’ve never forgotten my Sudanese friends and the gift their friendship was to me. I’ve carried their stories with me as I’ve made my home in Knoxville.

More Than a Race, More Than Prayer

When I began training for this race, I prayed about the purpose for this race. Was this only about a personal accomplishment, the ability to run 26.2 miles? Or could this race have a greater purpose than a personal goal? I got a clear answer in January when our archbishop, Foley Beach, wrote a pastoral letter and call to prayer to our congregations regarding recent changes to immigration policy in the United States. Archbishop Beach wrote good and wise words regarding this difficult matter, calling Christians to be people of love and prayer for immigrants, refugees, lawmakers, and government leaders.

He also called the body of Christ to be people of love in this moment. He wrote, “I encourage you…to make a special effort to reach out to refugees and immigrants in your local community. In these divisive times, we have the opportunity to demonstrate a compassion that builds bridges, and overcomes fear.”

I carried those words in my heart for a few weeks, waiting for the Lord to speak. I prayed over this question during training runs. And then I felt strongly that training for this race ought to be more than achieving a personal goal. Training runs and the race itself could be a way of supporting refugees and international neighbors in Knoxville. I want to pray for international neighbors in this city, but I want my prayer to become action, a way of tangibly supporting ministry to internationals in Knoxville.

I love that my bishop and archbishop used the language of bridges in his pastoral letter. I’m going to make a special point of praying for the nations in Knoxville when I cross the Clinch Ave., Broadway, and James White bridges. I’ll be praying that the body of Christ will build bridges in its heart for our international neighbors.

Knoxville Internationals Network

After praying about how my training and marathon race could have a greater purpose, I felt that God wanted me to support Knoxville Internationals Network. What better way to support international neighbors than raising support for a Christian ministry who devotes their full attention and energy to the international community in Knoxville? Knoxville International Network (KIN) exists to equip the body of Christ to love international neighbors in our city. They provide training for churches to support the international community through free medical clinics, language tutoring, and supporting refugees in their resettlement to Knoxville. Refugee resettlement cases only receive government assistance for six months after their arrival in the U.S. Having assisted with a Sudanese refugee resettlement several years ago, I know that these six months are barely enough time to get the basics of housing, employment, and schooling. And there are no guarantees those essentials will be in place during the first six months. Without the help of agencies like KIN and their partner churches, international families may not have a community in Knoxville to support them after these first six months.

Yesterday, I launched a Fundly campaign to raise money for Knoxville Internationals Network as they serve international neighbors in our city. I made the first donation of $262–$10 for every mile I run in the marathon. A runner’s donation for sure! The total goal for the campaign is $1,200, which represents $100 for the 120 nations represented in Knoxville. Any donation of any amount would be greatly appreciated. Together we can send a message to our international neighbors that we welcome their presence in our city and want to support their future here. Please pray about how you might international neighbors in Knoxville. And pray that I reach the finish line on the 50-yard line in Neyland Stadium!