It was a typically mild February afternoon in Bogotá when James Oilar picked up a fax machine phone and dialed the Fellowship of Christian Athletes National Support Center. Back in 2004, video conferencing services were still developing and not nearly as available in South American countries like Colombia.
Oilar sat in the office of El Camino Academy where he was teaching, coaching and evangelizing students through sports. His past experiences with FCA as a volunteer at Second Baptist Church in Houston gave him an idea. That idea led to a fateful call to FCA Executive Vice President Dan Britton.
“Do you have any ministry taking place in Colombia?” Oilar asked.
Other than the occasional mission trip, FCA didn’t have any long-term efforts taking place beyond the U.S., borders. Britton’s answer was simply, “No.”
“Would you like to?” Oilar responded.
In essence, that brief (and very expensive) conversation was the beginning of not only FCA ministry in Colombia, but led to expansion into Venezuela and ultimately laid the groundwork for FCA International Ministry that was officially launched in 2006.
“James was our first FCA International teammate,” Britton says. “He was one of the forerunners who saw an opportunity to reach the world for Christ through sports.”
The only person more surprised about the call than Britton was the man who placed it. For Oilar, the path to Colombia was a long and winding one. Although his heart for sports ministry first took root as a college athlete from Clark County, Mo., Oilar quickly found a professional passion as a health club manager. But that lifestyle left him jumping from job to job and city to city. After spending some time in Houston, he was abruptly transferred to Chicago in 2000.
Oilar admits, “crying like a little girl” when he was given the news. Much of his life was based there and it was difficult to leave. But the move ultimately opened some unexpected doors—namely the chance to take classes at Moody Bible Institute, which was in the process of starting a sports ministry program.
And then 9/11 happened. Like so many Americans, the tragic events of that infamous day had a significant impact on Oilar’s life.
“At the time I was working at a health club,” he says. “I loved it. I’d always wanted to have my own health club. But I felt like God was calling me to do something a little bit different.”
That’s when Oilar’s mentor challenged him to seek out sports ministry opportunities in the United States and abroad. During that time of reflection, he wrote in his journal that he wanted to teach, live abroad, learn Spanish, and coach basketball.
“Those were all things I wouldn’t be able to do if I was managing a sports club,” Oilar says. “I didn’t want to go up the corporate ladder and at the end have nothing to show for it.”
Oilar had several places he could go, including Spain, Italy and Ireland, but instead chose Colombia where he was able to do everything he had written in his journal just two years earlier. He was supposed to raise $13,000 so he could stay for nine months. Oilar instead decided to pack his bags and head straight for Bogotá.
In 2006, Oilar started the FCA ministry in Colombia. With only three volunteers, he worked primarily in an area known as “The Belt of Misery.” Through sports like basketball and volleyball, FCA’s influence quickly grew to over 300 students. The initial focus was on coaches and athletes in the private schools but eventually expanded into other areas of the country.
Now, Oilar is FCA’s director in Colombia and Venezuela. He lives in Florida where he spends much of his time fundraising to help support a growing staff of full-time representatives and part-time volunteers. Oilar usually travels back to the region once a month to train the locals and help run clinics and camps.
Sports ministry in both countries is very new. In some ways, that creates a great deal of interest and intrigue. But according to Oilar, there really is no low hanging fruit that can be easily harvested.
“Everything seems like it’s a battle,” he says. “There’s a lack of commitment and there are some pastors that view it as sacrilegious to utilize sports as a way to reach athletes for Christ.”
Despite the challenges, Oilar has walked through open doors in three specific areas. For instance, he and his team work with Christian coaches at the private schools or those that have their own sports clubs.
Oilar also works with community volunteers such as Alex, who works construction during the day and then each night works with over 100 kids that would otherwise be playing and hanging around in the streets. Alex accepted Christ through the FCA ministry and now receives resources to help reach those kids for Christ. Oilar and his team have given Alex and coaches like him soccer balls and Bible materials.
Most recently, Oilar has begun challenging the churches to start a sports club in their community. If a church is a few blocks away from a soccer field or a basketball court, they work with volunteers from that church to organize teams that can then collectively come together to build a Christian sports league. FCA then trains the volunteers to serve as chaplains and coaches.
Oilar also runs several camps and coaches clinics throughout the year in both countries. Last year, a soccer clinic expanded into a camp for elite level players from the local clubs. The majority that attended were not believers, but by the end of the week, 88 coaches and athletes had accepted Christ.
“There’s nothing easy about working in Colombia and Venezuela,” Oilar says. “But there are tons of opportunities. We really believe that these coaches and athletes are going to impact these countries in a big way.”
Oilar finds great irony in the fact that Dan Britton, the man he called at FCA back in 2004, is now the Executive Vice President of International Ministry and Training. Britton, on the other hand, has enjoyed watching Oilar’s vision continue to grow and expand further than either one of them could have ever imagined.
“James has done an amazing job ministering to coaches and helping them understand how to coach biblically,” Britton says. “He has set an incredible example of dedication and consistency that other FCA International leaders have been able to follow.”