By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — At the Olympics, it's not just the athletes who go faster, higher and stronger. So do the emotions of spectators at this vast, dramatic and often confusing event.
Amid the mayhem, a religious volunteer army is on hand to offer spiritual succor.
Roaming London's transport network in blue baseball caps are 300 volunteer "games pastors" from a range of Christian denominations. Deployed at airports and train stations, they are ready to step in for the most minor or most serious situation, from a lost contact lens to a potential suicide.
They say they are there to offer a listening ear and a helping hand, not to shove religion down anyone's throat.
"They're not giving out tracts and Bibles," said pastors organizer Mike Freeman. "They're giving out a listening ear."
From dawn until the wee hours, St. Pancras station, terminus of fast trains to Olympic Park, is full of harried, confused and lost people. The Olympics has brought hundreds of thousands of extra visitors to the British capital, many far from home, disoriented or simply tired.
The volunteer pastors, who are not officially part of the Olympics, but are authorized by transport authorities, roam the station in easy-to-spot sky-blue caps and vests.
They have done everything from help a man who had lost a contact lens — they directed him to a pharmacy — to help police calm a drunk and disorderly woman and talk for an hour with a man so consumed by guilt over his role in a fatal car crash that he was considering suicide.
"When he left after an hour, OK, all his problems weren't solved, but he had had a listening ear and went away with some hope," said Freeman.
Religions of all stripes have a strong presence at the Olympics, where Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish clerics are on hand around the clock to minister to athletes' spiritual needs.
Around the Olympic Park, Christian volunteers — not employed by games organizers — chat with Olympic volunteers and games-goers. They say they are struck by how many people want to talk.
Alan Ratliff, an American pastor with International Sports Chaplains, said Olympic visitors "are in an open mood."
"They are here to experience it," he said. "They want to soak it up for all its worth. That opens people up."
Ratliff, a lawyer and accountant from Houston, Texas, says he wants to spread the word about Jesus — but only if the person he's open to seems open to it.
"People come up and ask us why we are there, they find out what they do and suddenly they've got a story," he said. "The conversations just start from there."
Although most Britons are nominally Anglicans — and there are large Catholic, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish communities — Britain is a largely secular country.
The British games pastors said they have received little hostility, but that God comes up relatively infrequently in their conversations with people.
"Sometimes you get people who are anti-anybody of faith," said Margarita Barr-Hamilton, a retired head teacher from London. "But when you tell them what we're doing, they say 'That's a good idea.'"
Henry Playle, a retired church training officer from Royston, north of London, said the volunteers were conscious that they had to tread carefully.
"I think we've got to earn the reputation by doing the right thing," he said. "We could overstep the mark by proselytizing, which is not what people want."
The National Secular Society, which works to limit the influence of religion, said it was relaxed about the Olympic outpouring of faith, pointing out that church attendance in Britain has been declining for years anyway. A survey in 2008 and 2009 found that slightly more than half of Britons had never attended a religious service.
"Yes, they are jumping on the games, seeing it as an opportunity to reach lots of people," said secular society spokesman Stephen Evans. "But in an open and free society they have a right to do it."
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
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