An athlete at this summer's 1996 Olympic games who turns to Steve Overall at a time of great stress, personal triumph or devastating tragedy will probably never know he's an ordained Methodist minister, or even a hospital chaplain at Emory. And that's just fine with him.
Overall will be one of 37 "pastoral associates," or chaplains, who will serve the religious needs of the 16,000 athletes and residents of the Olympic Village this summer in Atlanta. But by design, the Olympic visitors won't know that Overall and other Atlantans representing nearly every faith on earth began planning to meet their myriad spiritual and religious needs before the first brick was laid in the Olympic stadium.
In early 1992, Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) President Billy Payne called upon a number of Atlantans representing many religious traditions to come together for a common cause. "Since the Olympic movement regards athletes and team officials as whole, integrated persons," wrote Payne in his invitation, "it follows that provisions should be made for their spiritual and religious needs."
Among those who answered the call was Overall, director of staff support services at Emory Hospital. He eventually became chair of ACOG's Interfaith Advisory Group (IAG), a task force that includes representatives from about 30 different religious bodies. "We gathered together under a clear mission," Overall said of the group's formation. "We were there not to proselytize, not to raise one group above another, but to provide an opportunity for all faiths to be represented."
Actually Overall's experience with the Olympic movement began much earlier, when he was part of a committee planning religious services for the 1988 winter games in Calgary, Canada. He moved to Atlanta before those games, however, and didn't get to participate in the actual event. When colleagues heard that Overall was in Atlanta, they offered him copies of their planning documents to submit to ACOG. He did, and was pleased when asked to repeat and expand his Olympic planning experience.
With support from ACOG's Community Relations staff, Overall and other IAG members began meeting on a monthly basis. Their mission was to:
* Work together to meet the spiritual and religious needs of athletes, team officials and members of the Olympic family during the 1996 Olympics;
* Provide support, places for meditation and regular services of worship in the different faith traditions and languages for athletes and the Olympic family, and;
* Serve as an Advisory Committee to ACOG on areas such as dietary laws and requirements, housing, social activities and on all matters affected by religious custom, belief and practice.
"We discussed basic spiritual needs of the athletes in the Olympic Village," said Overall. Those needs ranged from organizing religious services to having trained staff available to athletes during times of both exultation and disappointment. "Beyond the regularly scheduled times for worship or meditation, we wanted to have someone available to offer encouragement and support for athletes going through difficult experiences."
More importantly, IAG members wanted to make these services and facilities accessible and comfortable for people of literally every faith. Members took the first step toward this goal among themselves. "We tried to make ourselves aware of each other's differences and arrive at an understanding of what each faith group brings to our mission," said Overall. He also consulted with Paul Courtright, professor and chair of the Department of Religion, and Gary Laderman, assistant professor, who has edited a forthcoming book on religious diversity in Atlanta. "They were both very helpful to me in how to think from a multifaith perspective," he said.
IAG formed various subcommittees to deal with a variety of spiritual and practical issues, from the printing of religious literature for use in services to hospitality. IAG members also toured the Georgia Tech campus to select buildings where religious services or gatherings of various faiths could be held. They decided on Tech's Baptist Student Center and the Catholic Student Center, both located in areas reserved for athletes only.
By November 1994, IAG had produced a plan for religious services, which will be enhanced and refined right up to the start of the games themselves. "We believe that we have developed a good model for Atlanta and one that could possibly serve as a guide for other religious service programs for future Olympics as well," said Overall. "Perhaps the greatest contribution of our plan has been our sincere effort to address the need for a diverse resource pool to meet the spiritual and religious needs of people from different cultures and religious traditions."
IAG members hope that their work of the past four years will lead to some form of continuing dialogue among various faith groups in the Atlanta area. "Our wish," said Overall, "is that the Atlanta community will continue to grow in its understanding and appreciation of cultural and religious diversity, ultimately leading to an even higher degree of comfort and acceptance of difference."
A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., Overall first learned the value of chaplaincy as a 14-year-old when he broke his neck and spent six weeks in the hospital recuperating from surgery. "I was visited every day by Father Johnson, a Roman Catholic priest who came to see me faithfully. He never spoke of religious topics, but always had a smile and a good word. He came and showed me he cared, which was a powerful statement about my worth as a human being, and I felt that."
After his years in chaplaincy, Overall clearly relishes the different kind of challenge presented by the Olympics. "There are multiple issues ahead for chaplains as they learn how they can be useful to the athletes," he said, but he is ready. Chaplains in the village hope to have lapel pins that identify them and include their official motto: "Many faiths, one world."
-- Elaine Justice