ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network) — Among wooden obstacles, basketball rims and weight machines there are echoes of Christian witness.
In Washington state and Northern Ireland, respectively, Kevin Nickel and Melissa Law work through Mennonite Voluntary Service assignments in the field of health and fitness, guiding others through exercises of personal fitness and team building. Using their employment, they build relationships in ways that can witness to their faith.
“You might picture us as a barber or other random person that people find themselves telling the smallest details of their life to,” Nickel said.
As a personal trainer in Hillman City, Wash., Nickel works with members one-on-one as they strive for the common goal of personal fitness.
“One family, who has been coming to (Rainier Health and Fitness) for almost as long as I’ve been here, has really become involved with the gym. I have enjoyed many conversations with them including topics of religious beliefs, politics, and daily struggles; many of them ending with everyone laughing and having a good time,” said Nickel.
After an evening at the gym, the family invited Nickel and his wife, Yvette, to join them and some friends at their home for dinner. They had a wonderful evening with great food and conversation. He believes that many of the relationships built through his work become trusting bonds that provide the word of God to be appropriately communicated.
Rainier Health and Fitness, where Nickel serves through MVS, a program of Mennonite Mission Network, provides an affordable fitness center for those who could otherwise not afford it. Nickel believes the fitness center is helping to rebuild a positive image for this community.
Gym membership is offered on a sliding scale based on income. People who earn higher wages pay more, which allows those with lower earnings to pay less for the same service. The gym was placed in an area of low income among a strongly diversified community.
“Christ did not turn away any person seeking his help and was well-known for serving the poor and disadvantaged,” Nickel said. “I think RHF resembles this characteristic of our Lord.”
Law is a volunteer instructor at the YMCA in Greenhill, Northern Ireland. She works with youth on initiative activities to encourage team building. Some groups include Catholics and Protestants who have to put aside any difference or conflict they have and work together.
“I encourage and challenge, trying to push kids to step outside of their comfort zones and rely on each other to complete a task,” she said, “God, to me, is the ultimate bridge-builder, so this inspires me to help build those bridges between people of differing attitudes, experiences, cultures, faiths and worldviews.”
On the low-ropes course the youth experience the need for each other in a way they hoped never to face. One obstacle they might face is a wooden wall 20 feet high; their objective is to get everyone over it. Lifting and pushing each other up and over the wall until everyone is safe cannot be done without everyone’s cooperation and encouragement. If the Catholic and Protestant children refuse to communicate, they will not scale the wall. Success only comes when they are willing to break society’s boundaries between the two groups.
Law said one of the groups she worked with included a couple of students who stubbornly refused to participate in the activities. On their last night at the YMCA, she was walking beside one of these students. He said Law was a favorite instructor of his: she never gave up on him but kept trying to push him.
“God every once in a while finds a way to tell me that I at least am making an impression to just one [person],” Law said.
Both Nickel and Law have made efforts to build relationships that lead to personal growth and involve a spiritual connection. They continually attempt to provide an example of God’s unconditional love to those they work with.
Melissa Law of Lewisberry, Pa., is a graduate of Messiah College. Her home congregation is St. John's United Church of Christ in Denver, Pa. Kevin Nickel of Norman, Okla., is a Tabor College graduate and member of Tabor Mennonite Church in Goessel, Kan.