Faithful servant

With a 107th Grey Cup blanket draped on the couch behind him in a makeshift office in his living room, Lorne Korol knows all about the highs of working in professional sports.

In case you need a reminder as to who won that game last November, Korol’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers Grey Cup champions hat, given to him after the team dismantled the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-12, is proudly displayed on an end table. So too is a Bible.

Yes, Korol, the chaplain for the Bombers, Winnipeg Jets and Manitoba Moose, is there for the players when the good times are rolling, but more importantly, he’s a trustworthy presence in their lives during the lows.

Unfortunately, this year has had more lows than highs. The Bombers were supposed to host the B.C. Lions this week in Week 6 of the CFL. Instead, they’re sitting at home and have no idea when, or if, they’ll get a chance to defend their Grey Cup crown.

Team chaplains like Korol offer Bible study to players, coaches and staff, support during major life events — whether it be a serious injury or a family matter — and sometimes prayers before and after games.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Team chaplains like Korol offer Bible study to players, coaches and staff, support during major life events — whether it be a serious injury or a family matter — and sometimes prayers before and after games.

The Jets were starting to heat up in March when the NHL had no choice but to suspend the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re only now back together again, having a mini training camp in the city before heading to Edmonton later this month for their playoff series against the Calgary Flames.

The games have stopped, but Korol’s role hasn’t. He’s been busier than ever. The only difference is he now lends his support from his East Kildonan home via Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, or whatever else happens to be the flavour of the month in the technology world.

Team chaplains like Korol offer Bible study to players, coaches and staff, support during major life events — whether it be a serious injury or a family matter — and sometimes prayers before and after games. Korol has also done funeral services, most notably for Bombers defensive line and assistant coach Richard Harris who collapsed at Canad Inns Stadium and died in 2011, and the odd wedding or two over the years.

“I think often people think high-performance athletes are like Superman, they’re bulletproof and can do anything. But they’re just like the rest of us. They have the same issues that you and I have,” Korol, 56, said earlier this week before he conducted an hour-long chapel service with the Moose and then later the Jets.

“They often don’t have anyone they can turn to or anyone that they can trust because there’s a lot of people out there who are asking them for all kinds of things and they don’t know who they can really trust. For me, it’s very, very important to develop a high trust, authentic relationship. They have to trust me so they can come to me.”

Players have been coming to Korol consistently during the pandemic as he’s led weekly chapels for the Jets and Moose. He also leads one with True North staff and is getting one started up again with the Bombers.

Players have been coming to Korol consistently during the pandemic as he's led weekly chapels for the Jets and Moose. He also leads one with True North staff and is getting one started up again with the Bombers.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Players have been coming to Korol consistently during the pandemic as he’s led weekly chapels for the Jets and Moose. He also leads one with True North staff and is getting one started up again with the Bombers.

Jets star forward Mark Scheifele is the team’s chapel leader, which is a position he took over from Mark Stuart in 2017. He works with Korol to co-ordinate a time for chapel that works for everyone.

“Some of the ones are just talking about what we’re going through,” Scheifele said, when asked to describe what chapel looks like. “A lot of the time it’s just kind of being there for each other and listening to their feelings and how they’re processing things and have Lorne put his input in there.

“A lot of the time we watch a video or read some scripture and it’s crazy, I found this ever since quarantine, that you read the Bible and it feels like every single time you read in there there’s something that applies to you in that second. That’s kind of some of the stuff I’ve learned, that that’s how God talks to you, it’s through his scripture.

“Literally every time I open the Bible, I’m like ‘Geez, this is exactly what I’m dealing with’ and it’s such a cool feeling and that’s what we do as a group. We talk about things and a lot of the times one of the other guys have dealt with something similar and you’re able to learn from each other and refer back to the Bible or refer back to what God has said and really be able to apply it to your life. It gives you a new perspective of things as opposed to being down on yourself or negative. It gives you that newfound thought.”

It’s a big adjustment to go from seeing teammates every day to not seeing them at all. Scheifele said having chapel every week has been extremely valuable as it kept guys connected even though they were away from the rink. Scheifele also meets individually with Korol weekly.

“I think often people think high–performance athletes are like Superman, they’re bulletproof and can do anything. But they’re just like the rest of us. They have the same issues that you and I have” – Lorne Korol

“We’ve actually been pretty diligent, you know, throughout this whole quarantine at meeting. Whether it’s one other guy, five guys, seven guys or however many it is, it’s been a lot of great participation by a lot of the guys on our team and that’s been great,” said Scheifele, who admitted he preferred to not talk about his faith with the media until recently.

“I’ve also been doing separate things with him. I’ve gone through this little booklet that he gave me towards the end of the year and we started working through it in quarantine. It’s been huge for me as a Christian and huge for me as a person. I’ve really appreciated that extra time that I’ve had with Lorne and talking about things that sometimes I wasn’t as comfortable talking about, and learning more about the Bible that I didn’t know. That’s been big for me.”

Back in March, the first few online chapels didn’t involve a whole lot of teachings. It was more so Korol organizing a big group discussion where everyone could check on each another.

Korol sees a side of the athletes that no one else gets to witness.

“I look at them completely differently. I’ve worked in sport for the majority of my career, amateur sport and now professional. You see them in a different light,” said Korol, who worked part-time as the chaplain for the Winnipeg Goldeyes from 2000-2008 before he got into the business full-time with the Moose, Bombers and eventually the Jets once they returned to town.

“My level of empathy increases dramatically since I’ve gotten involved in pro sports. You see them and you want to cheer for them, but you also know there’s another side of them that maybe hurts or there are certain things that are working for them and there are certain things that aren’t. You care about them so it’s hard for me sometimes to read the papers or listen to the radio because they’ll be saying some things that aren’t that good and you almost have to tune that out. There might be a side story that I know that I can’t say, obviously. You got to be understanding of that, too.”

But the athletes also help Korol, who works under not-for-profit Christian sports ministries Athletes in Action and Hockey Ministries International. Professional sports chaplains across North America are not paid salaries by the teams; they are tasked with raising their own funding.

Korol has monthly and annual supporters, but his main fundraising source is an event called Pro Sports and Faith Night. Last year’s function featured members of the Bombers and Jets in attendance for a meet-and-greet, a program where players and coaches from the teams share stories about their faith, and a silent auction that offers unique experiences such as dinner at 529 Wellington Steakhouse with the Jets’ Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton. Korol said he never has to twist anyone’s arm as the athletes are happy to help him raise some cash, but this year’s event is going to look a bit different owing to COVID-19 concerns.

It's a big adjustment to go from seeing teammates every day to not seeing them at all. Jets centre Mark Scheifele said having chapel every week has been extremely valuable as it kept guys connected even though they were away from the rink.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

It’s a big adjustment to go from seeing teammates every day to not seeing them at all. Jets centre Mark Scheifele said having chapel every week has been extremely valuable as it kept guys connected even though they were away from the rink.

“We’re doing it virtually on Oct. 3. We’re trying to come up with all sorts of fun things. We’ll have meals delivered to houses, players will come in on Zoom calls for a VIP table. You can have a player come into your home basically but via your TV. We’re doing the best that we can with the situation,” he said.

“You really have to trust that God’s gonna provide, especially now as there’s a lot of uncertainty with what the donors are going to do and what not, but God’s been faithful, like right from Day 1 in this. If you would’ve told me 20 years ago that I’d be raising 100 per cent of my salary, support and expenses, I probably would’ve said ‘Forget it. There’s no way I’m going to do it.’ But I felt God’s call in my life and I knew this was more than just about me. I’m a small component of this so I felt a call to do it and I love to do it and serve the guys.”

When you ask an athlete like Scheifele about their relationship with Korol, it’s obvious why they have no problem giving back.

“Lorne is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Such a great sounding board… He’s a guy that whether someone is going through something and if it’s just a matter of praying for them, thinking about him or talking about a certain situation, he’s always there for me,” Scheifele said.

“Having someone like that on your side means the world.”

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
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Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.

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