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Faithfulness and Chicken Biscuits

Published on June 12, 2024

Chad Bonham

Instagram, Chick-fil-A and a public university in Southern California might not seem like the likeliest trio of factors within a ministry impact story. But for Representative Ali Malaekeh, it’s hard to imagine things coming together without them.

To fully understand the unusual nature of his story, however, you must first take a look at Malaekeh’s unique background and the journey that led him to FCA. Born in Iran and raised in a Muslim home, his family immigrated to Austria as political refugees, and came to the U.S. in 1986 for college. It was in the U.S. where he was exposed to the Gospel and accepted Christ in November 2003.

Malaekeh eventually became a full-time soccer coach at both the college and elite youth levels. Around 2014, he began experiencing discontent with his career path. At the same time, he was introduced to FCA, which he would eventually join as staff.

In March 2016, he met Orange County Director Adam Goodman, who for the previous five years had been praying for someone with collegiate experience to join the team. Malaekeh was the answer to those prayers.

“I felt that the Lord was calling me into this journey,” Malaekeh said. “I didn't know anything about how to start ministry or how to do ministry. All I knew was coaching, so everything was pretty new to me.”

A few months later, he first stepped foot on the University of California at Irvine (UCI) campus. Malaekeh was getting nowhere because, by his own admission, he was trying to do things on his own.

But then an unconventional if not divinely inspired idea led him to the_QLstG6w social media realm.

“I just felt like I needed to connect with the baseball team,” Malaekeh explained, “so I pulled up the roster and started looking at all the athletes’ bios on Instagram and one of them had a Bible verse on it.”

Turns out, that athlete, infielder Cole Krueter, came from a baseball pedigree. His dad Chad Krueter played in the Major Leagues and his grandfather, Mike Gillespie, was UCI’s head baseball coach at the time.

“Cole and I ended up having breakfast at Chick-fil-A and that’s where the idea of having chapel services for the baseball team came up,” Malaekeh said. “He talked to his grandfather about it, and I got to do two chapels in the spring of 2017. After that season, Cole felt like this was something that should be part of the DNA of the team, so he went back to his grandfather and got the blessing for me to step in as an unofficial chaplain.”

Malaekeh kicked off his efforts during fall 2017 with something he dubbed “chicken and chapel.” Built into their weekly workout routine, he brought 50 Chick-fil-A biscuits to the alumni room of the clubhouse and led the players in a time of Bible devotion and prayer.

“We were having 25 to 28 kids coming to chapel every single Monday,” he recalled. “ Whether they were coming for the chicken or for the Word of God, I have no idea, but they were faithfully attending.”

Malaekeh was just getting started. His long-term goal was to build deeper relationships through smaller Huddles and 1-on-1s. But he struggled to get any players on board with the plan.

“One of my biggest mentors is [former FCA staff and Southern Illinois University chaplain] Roger Lipe, and he always talks about the ministry of presence,” Malaekeh said. “They need to know that you care. So I started going to practices. It was just me, a bunch of Major League scouts, and a couple of dads. I did that regularly for over a year. I went to all the games. Took pictures of the kids and put them on a program 4GexeKhgI’d give the players before every chapel.”

His efforts slowly began to pay off. A year later, a handful of players approached him about forming a small group. He also had two requests for 1-on-1s. Those opportunities inspired Malaekeh to organize an off-campus Huddle on the Balboa Peninsula where most of the UCI baseball players lived. But for the following 18 months, there was no traction.

That drastically changed in 2019.

“One of the players who had been part of our small group asked about having a Huddle at his place,” Malaekeh said. “So, we had chicken and chapel going on in the morning in the off-season, game day chicken and chapel for the first game of a home series, and then we started a Huddle with about five or six guys at one of their houses off campus. It was literally the answer to every single prayer. It was all coming to fruition. I was getting to hang out with these kids and do life with them. We were having conversations. They were opening up about relationship problems and athletic performance issues. We were building a really cool community.”

Trenton Denholm was a freshman when Malaekeh started doing chicken and chapel and was part of the group that expanded to Wednesday night Bible studies. As a senior, in fact, he hosted meetings at his apartment. Now a Minor League prospect in the Cleveland Guardians farm system, Denholm recalls its impact on his life.

“We would go over different parts of Scripture, break it down and have discussions, and enjoy the company,” he said. “It was more than just the Bible study. It was about building relationships with Ali and with the other guys. It was a quality, positive environment.”

Denholm grew up in church, but competitive baseball eventually made it difficult to attend. That’s why his interactions with Malaekeh and FCA became so important to his everyday life as a college athlete.

“The Bible studies were an easy way for me to get back into it—especially doing it with guys you enjoy being around,” he said. “You never felt like Ali was pushing anything on you. The Bible studies were a no judgment kind of environment.”

During Malaekeh’s first year at UCI, he met with associate head coach Ben Orloff for breakfast and learned that Orloff held Bible studies in his room during college. So, when Orloff was named head coach after Mike Gillespie’s retirement two years later, there was no disruption in his ministry with the team. If anything, his engagement intensified.

“Ali is full of life, full of energy,” Orloff said. “He's really passionate about these kids and what he does. I think it's really cool that his background"The coolest thing is seeing how invested Malaekeh is in these kids and that he’s real. He’s not just meeting with them once a week. He’s there for them all the time. He’s out at practice. He’s at the games. It matters." 
-Ben Orloff, Head Baseball Coach at UCI
was as a coach. He’s had a really good role with the team.”

But when COVID-19 forced nationwide lockdowns during the spring of 2020, Malaekeh was faced with the biggest obstacle of his sports ministry career.

Like so many across the country, Malaekeh pivoted and adapted to the challenging circumstances. The players still wanted to meet, so they utilized Zoom and had small group meetings virtually—minus the chicken.

COVID-19 also presented a unique opportunity. The coaches had large quantities of down time, and they started their own online Huddle. On both fronts, in spite of a pandemic, Malaekeh found that ministry was expanding and thriving in unexpected ways.

As COVID-19 subsided, the core group graduated, but some younger players kept things going during the summer of 2022, which led to the renewal of UCI’s Wednesday night meetings in the fall. Malaekeh gathered with sixteen young men in one of the player’s living rooms and started a deep dive into Romans.

Above all that has transpired over the past three years, Malaekeh is most amazed that all of this has taken place on a public college campus in Southern California.

“Living in Southern California and being on a public campus, it’s very easy for doors to get shut,” he says. “It’s hard for coaches and athletes to stand up and be bold about their faith. So, I always need prayer for continued open doors and continued favor with the coaching staff and the administration because they know what I do.”

In the high stakes world of college athletics, Malaekeh is helping a group of young men at UCI understand the true meaning of success. Men like Thomas McCaffery and Woody Hadeen, players who sporadically attended chapel as freshmen but eventually grew into spiritual leaders and asked Malaekeh to baptize them in the ocean.

QkXy9zegThen there’s the story of a player named Caden Kendle, nicknamed Hog, who started attending chapels during the spring of 2022 as an angry, cynical onlooker, but by the end of the year was faithfully attending Wednesday night Bible study, challenging others to spread the Gospel, and driving freshmen living on campus to the apartment where the meetings were being held.

“Everyone was looking around going, ‘What is happening?’” Malaekeh said.

Trenton Denholm, who remains in regular contact with Malaekeh, can attest to the lessons learned during his time at UCI and how winning has been redefined.

“Nothing’s ever promised to be perfect,” he said. “Growing and learning, especially spiritually, you realize there’s ups and downs, that everything happens for a reason. If you just try to be the best you can be every single day, taking things day by day and not stressing out too much, that’s when God's plan unfolds.”

Malaekeh’s efforts have also been noticed and appreciated from within the UCI clubhouse.

“We see the team spending more time together and that shows up on the field for sure,” Orloff said. “ The coolest thing is seeing how invested Malaekeh is in these kids and that he’s real. He’s not just meeting with them once a week. He’s there for them all the time. He’s out at practice. He’s at the games. It matters. I think that’s why he has a relationship with so many guys even after they’re gone. It’s easy to trust him, because it’s easy to see that he cares.”

Even though at times it might seem like a full-time job, amazingly, Malaekeh doesn’t just work on campus at UCI. He also serves as a leadership and performance coach at Cal State University, Fullerton with the women’s soccer team, track and field team and the athletic department along with his responsibilities of leading a Multi-Sport Huddle, Team Huddles and coming alongside coaches and athletes individually to help them grow in their walk with Jesus.

As busy as he stays, however, there’s a unique bond that’s been forged with the UCI baseball players that will pay off eternal dividends for years to come.

“They look around and see that they’re more than just teammates,” Malaekeh said, “they’re brothers. It’s really cool seeing these players help each other figure out what it looks like to be a follower of Christ.”