DENVER — Best friends Jennifer Risper and Christina Wirth have given up professional basketball to become Catholic missionaries with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students' outreach to student athletes.
“It is always a wonderful consolation to see young people of such caliber decide to serve the Lord and to have a heart for reaching other athletes,” Thomas Wurtz, director of the Focus division Varsity Catholic, told Catholic News Agency Feb. 13.
The two women became professional athletes with the WNBA and in Europe after award-winning careers playing basketball for Vanderbilt University. Now, they will leave their professional basketball team in Romania to join Varsity Catholic. They will be the first professional athletes to serve as missionaries with the organization.
Wurtz said they will be “a tremendous addition” to the campus ministry.
“There is such a need for Catholics to serve and form athletes, and Christina and Jennifer will no doubt be a blessing for a number of women on campus,” he added.
Both Risper and Wirth said their decision was based on a desire to share their faith.
“I realized that God wanted to use me through sports. I know that I’ve been successful through God’s grace,” Risper told FOCUS. “I had to ask myself, ‘Do you think you’ll be able to impact other athletes?’ and thought, ‘I really think I can, and I want to.’”
Wirth said there are many Christian organizations for athletes, but Varsity Catholic is specifically Catholic.
“As much as I benefitted from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in college, I think this is really special and a great opportunity to take the Catholic faith to people, especially to athletes,” she told Focus.
Varsity Catholic launched in 2007 as a division of Focus to address the unique needs of college athletes, the Varsity Catholic website says. Twelve former college athletes and coaches presently serve as missionaries on 20 campuses through the program.
The program provides one-on-one mentoring, community-service opportunities and Bible studies that are consistent with Catholic teaching. Varsity Catholic also hosts mission camps to teach sports and the Catholic faith to impoverished youth.
WNBA teams drafted both Risper and Wirth in 2009. Wirth’s team, the Indiana Fever, played in the 2009 WNBA championship, while Risper played for the Chicago Sky. They have been roommates while playing on professional teams in Slovakia, Portugal and Romania.
Wurtz said that the two athletes’ experience in sports gives them a different perspective.
“They will definitely command a high level of respect from the athletic world, which will hopefully catapult their ability to build relationships with the athletes they will be serving,” he said. “Working with athletes can be a very challenging task, and having this new perspective should bring a great energy and dynamism that will add to the experiences of our dedicated staff."
Wirth said that American culture has expectations of athletes and puts pressure on them, but this also gives athletes a platform “that can be used to spread the Gospel.”
“I think it’s important for those athletes to have an influence in their lives that can help them personally grow, but also show them what a great opportunity they have to lead other people to Christ,” she said.
Risper and Wirth became friends when the met in college in 2005. Wirth said the two have been “just trying to grow in our Catholic faith and holiness.”
“We always say, ‘Let’s be saints together,’ and I think that has been the coolest thing — to have God give me the grace in opening my eyes to what he has for me — and, even more special, having a best friend to encourage me in that.”
Risper said Wirth helped her rediscover her Catholic faith after years in which she identified as a nondenominational Christian.
Both said they are anxious about their work as missionaries, but they are trusting in God and asking others to pray for them.