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Browne aiming to help others in faith as he settles into new role with Christians in Sport

 

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Former Ulster forward Pete Browne is aiming to help other players through faith with Christians in Sport

Former Ulster forward Pete Browne is aiming to help other players through faith with Christians in Sport

Perfect match: Peter Browne lives in Belfast with wife Hannah

Perfect match: Peter Browne lives in Belfast with wife Hannah

Former Ulster forward Pete Browne is aiming to help other players through faith with Christians in Sport

Back in June 1976, a group of sports people met at the Park Lane Hotel in London on the eve of Wimbledon, united by the same goal of spreading the Christian faith within their respective sports.

Over 80 attended that first meeting of Christians In Sport (CIS), led by BBC tennis commentator Gerald Williams and Wimbledon champion Stan Smith. Two years later, at the same dinner, the attendees exceeded 400.

Among their number was Leonard Browne, a former Ireland and Ulster Schools rugby player from Northern Ireland, who would go on to become a Church of England minister in Birmingham after meeting his wife at Cambridge and settling there.

Forty years on, Christians In Sport is still thriving, and when the time came for Leonard's son, former Ulster Rugby second row Peter, to end his playing career, the path was there to follow in his father's footsteps.

"Christians In Sport has been in my blood, as it were. I went to all the camps until I was 17 and then rugby took over," explains Peter, who still lives in Belfast with wife Hannah.

"That was one of the reasons I wanted to get as far as I could in rugby because I saw it as an act of worship. God gave me these gifts and I wanted to use them to glorify Him. It's not that he needs me to play well to glorify Him, it's that because of what He did for me and the relationship I have with Him, He deserves all of me. I grew up seeing rugby as a good opportunity to worship God and talk to team-mates.

"Throughout my career I was in touch with (CIS general director) Graham Daniels and there was no rugby worker then. But we kept in touch and after I turned 30 he would send me a text every so often saying 'when are you going to come and work for us'!

"You want to do something you're passionate about, and obviously I'm very passionate about faith but also sport. It's a good fit in that way, and I'm a big people person.

"When I decided to end my career, Graham knew about it and CIS were praying for me. So we had discussions about six months after I finished playing and they offered me three days a week, which I thought sounded great."

Browne spent three years at Kingspan Stadium after joining from London Scottish in 2015, making 34 appearances for the province before ending his career in 2018 on medical advice after a string of concussions.

During that time he was part of a very strong Christian dressing room at Ulster, with he and several team-mates holding a weekly bible study for anyone who wished to join.

But now that he has moved on from the playing days of his career, the 32-year-old is focusing all his energy into his new role as part of the Elite Sport Team with CIS having taken up the role in early 2019.

Browne's remit in those three days a week is working with professional rugby players across the UK, both in the Pro14 and the English Premiership, by drawing close to them and encouraging them in their faith.

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Perfect match: Peter Browne lives in Belfast with wife Hannah

Perfect match: Peter Browne lives in Belfast with wife Hannah

Perfect match: Peter Browne lives in Belfast with wife Hannah

 

Part of his work sees him organise a weekly bible study with players, both one-on-one and as a larger group on a Tuesday night, as well as liaising with players regularly, particularly those who are perhaps moving to a new place to help them find a church or community.

The spiritual purpose for CIS, according to Browne, is to challenge players what to base their life around, and pointing them to an unconditional love in Christ rather than things that can change with every week in their sport.

"With such a performance based society, we ask them where is your identity? Is it in your performance, which is something that is so up and down for athletes? Is it in your sport which, currently, you're not playing at all? Or is it in Christ? So it's pointing them to that," he says.

"There's a difference between fear and danger. If you have guys playing with fear - of playing badly or injury, or whatever it may be - then chances are they won't play well. There's always danger. There's always danger of losing a game, or not playing well.

"For us, it's about understanding that you are not defined by what you do but who you are in Christ. The aim is to point guys to Jesus and letting them see how great He is and that He is the only way to the Father, and the more you think about Jesus, the more you take your eyes off yourself.

"I played 12 seasons as a rugby player, so I know that there are nights where you're worrying if you'll get another contract or whether you'll get in the team or if an injury will be the end of your career. All those things are there.

"But if you have that perspective of I am unconditionally loved through Jesus because I have accepted him, that then changes that. Yes, you still feel those things, but it's not a fear, it's a different perspective."

Browne is one of five Northern Irish members of the CIS team, with Russell Bowers, Jenny McClaughlin, Allen McCluggage and Phil Small all carrying out important roles within the charity as well.

But Christians In Sport are doing work across the whole of the UK, currently connecting with over 450 professional athletes. The likes of former Premier League footballer Linvoy Primus, PFA director of player welfare Michael Bennett and Bowers are involved with football outreach, while former Solheim Cup winning captain Alison Nicholas supports golfers of faith on the women's tours.

The hope is that those, like Browne and Primus, who have been part of professional sport can help relate to the players they reach out to now and strengthen their faith.

"If it's player driven, then you'll see traction. If it's driven by me, then who am I? I'm a guy who had an okay career and got knocked on the head one too many times," laughs Browne, who also trains executive business people part-time.

"But I can relate to and understand professional rugby. That's the beauty of what I believe Christians In Sport are doing with their elite work is bridging that gap to where guys feel isolated. People don't get the highs and lows of professional sport, or the pressures of it, so hopefully I can relate in that way.

"Approaching guys who aren't Christians, you don't make any assumptions and you just go through the gospel. In our studies, we challenge them to look at what the bible is saying to them and relating it back to them.

"We don't want anything from them. We want them to know that this is normal. We don't tell them they have to be evangelising on TV or doing interviews and stuff, we want them to be doing it with their team-mates. The best way they can do it is by loving their sport and being examples for other people to see."

Understandably, lockdown has caused unforeseen issues, as it has for most organisations. Even so, he's seen plenty of examples of God's work during the pandemic for him to come back to once restrictions are lifted.

The organisation have set a target of '300 by 2020', which will see 121 towns and cities in the UK, 170 towns and cities globally and nine different sports reached, and Browne has already seen growth over the past few months.

"With lockdown, what this has created is an opportunity for guys to invite other players to join who I've never met, so that's been really good, it's what we want," he adds.

"We want guys to encourage each other along in their faith as professional rugby players. Football have had a lot more guys during lockdown but they're at a different stage to us.

"But God has been really good. I was able to go on furlough and it was great to see the guys were still being catered for."

Belfast Telegraph