KIRKSVILLE – It all started with a fundraising car wash one Saturday in July. Missouri Baptist Convention collegiate campus missionary Greg Xander and his wife stopped to have their car washed by a group of cheerleaders from Truman State University, where he does college ministry. Through talking with the coach while waiting for their car, they learned that the cheerleading team doesn’t receive funding from the university. The cheerleaders were back at school for the next week-and-a-half raising funds and practicing three times a day for competitions.
Xander saw an opportunity he couldn’t ignore. For the next ten days, he and his wife brought Gatorade and fresh blueberries to their practices. The coach was astonished. In her 20 years of coaching “we’ve never had anybody do something like this for us,” she told him.
When the cheerleaders returned for the start of the school year, Xander and his BSU welcomed them back with more snacks. This turned into a weekly pattern of baked goods, often baked and delivered by BSU students. Little by little, Xander and his students were earning trust and showing genuine care for them, to the continued amazement of the coach. “We know they need Jesus, and we love them as people,” he said.
Thanksgiving was around the corner. Xander wanted to do something special for the cheerleaders, so he invited the coach and her team to a Thanksgiving feast at the BSU just for them. Sixteen of the twenty cheerleaders, plus the coach and her husband, attended, dressed to the nines, greeted by a display of Christmas lights and a generous meal centered around a large turkey.
“We’re trying to get people to think about Jesus differently than what they’ve experienced negatively,” he says. Ironically, they found themselves also helping people – even their own BSU students – think about cheerleaders differently. “We’re trying to change the mindset. They are our people. This is our campus that we love. It’s not an us versus them.”
For one more opportunity to bless the cheerleaders before the semester ended, Xander and his wife personally bought each cheerleader and the coach a Dairy Queen gift card. They also sponsored Christmas gifts for survivors of human trafficking in the name of each cheerleader. The BSU dedicated one corner of their main lobby to the cheerleaders, complete with a 4-foot white Christmas tree. Throughout finals weeks, the cheerleaders stopped by to pick up their envelopes from under the tree, expressing their gratitude over and over. “The girls still rave about the blueberries,” Xander laughs.
“What sticks out more than anything to me is that they’re the only ones who’ve been responsive about it,” Xander’s wife says. “We’ve taken stuff to other groups, but this is the only one who’s been so appreciative and thankful.”
Perhaps their gratitude flows from the shock value – football players, for example, are used to being idolized, while cheerleaders are accustomed to being stereotypically pegged. In this way, the BSU’s actions reflect the ministry of Jesus: going to the least of these; spending time with the ostracized; elevating those who had no rights. “We’re trying to elevate God to them but also trying to elevate them,” he says. “There’s a lot of back story of them not being treated great.”
After Christmas, the coach messaged Xander asking if they can practice at the BSU building regularly this spring so they can have a guaranteed practice space. They frequently get kicked out of the gym because they don’t have practicing rights over varsity teams. Without second thought, Xander said yes. The snacks had been an unbudgeted expense, and he knew they couldn’t maintain that next semester. “It’s neat how God has blessed this to help us steward our budget but still have a context to reach them.” The BSU’s large room is a perfect for them with its high ceilings. “Now we get to be (servants) with our space.”
Xander hopes this regular contact with them will be a gateway to bring these students into their home, where they can observe their family and the gospel in action. “We want them to see us with our kids, see us ask forgiveness when we get impatient,” he says. “The goal has always been relationship.”
Adopting the cheerleaders wasn’t an avenue of ministry the BSU had planned for or expected. “You don’t know what you’re doing half the time, but God does. You just step forward in faith, and He fills in the cracks you don’t even know about.”