As a chaplain, Chris Wong readily talks to people he's never met. At Churchill Downs, that can get you on TV.
After last year's Kentucky Derby, Wong struck up a conversation with a woman on the grounds. She turned out to be the wife of Steven Coburn, owner of the winning horse California Chrome, and they happened to be in the background of NBC's post-race interview.
Wong, a master of divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, immediately received a text message to let him know he was on national television.
Chris Wong, a Master of Divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, delivers a morning devotional in Spanish over the intercom at Churchill Downs, April 29.
Wong laughs about it now as part of his overall Kentucky Derby experience. “To see it live and right there on the track was really exciting,” he said.
As the Kentucky Derby was held May 2 for the 141st time, the national sports media focused on Churchill Downs for just one day. But activity is ongoing at the track, and not just during the race season. Jockeys, exercise riders, hot walkers, horse grooms, blacksmiths and security staff are among the 1,000 people who work at the Backside of Churchill Downs throughout the year – 700 of whom live there.
As associate chaplain with Kentucky Racetrack Chaplaincy, Wong has ministered at Churchill Downs since January 2014. When Daniel Hatfield, senior pastor at Louisville's Audubon Baptist Church where Wong attended at the time, heard from the chaplaincy that they were looking for a bilingual minister, he immediately thought of Wong.
Wong, who is from Miami, and whose parents are originally from Peru, is a native Spanish speaker, an important part of the Churchill Downs ministry since 75 percent of residents at the track speak Spanish as their first language. Wong said he wasn't planning on a job like this but soon realized his passion for face-to-face ministry had prepared him for such a role.
“I never had the intention to be a chaplain,” Wong said. “I didn't look for this job, it just kind of came to me, and God was already preparing me for it.”
One of the chaplaincy ministries at Churchill Downs is a chapel service on Monday evenings, which attracts 100-plus attendees during the race season. Either Wong or Ken Boehm, the senior chaplain at the track, preaches for a half-hour seeking to impart the gospel to people who don't typically hear it.
The rest of Wong's ministry is interpersonal. Wong said he enjoys studying and preaching like any other seminary student, but he especially values building relationships with people.
Chris Wong prays with an employee on the Backside of Churchill Downs.
“I really love sharing the gospel in one-on-one contexts,” he said. “I don't want to discourage people from sharing the gospel right off the bat, but I think the Gospel speaks through a full-embodied life too, through the way you are, the way you look at people, the way you talk to people. They can tell there's something different about you.”
Wong arrives at Churchill Downs just before 8 a.m. each day. After praying, he gives a one-minute devotional in Spanish over the intercom, which is broadcast throughout the Backside.
He then walks through the barns, talking to anyone he can find. Since they're all working, Wong usually only manages to greet them or have a brief conversation and maybe a short prayer. Many will invite him to birthday parties for their children or other events, and sometimes, when crisis strikes, Wong is someone they'll call.
Last year, one worker was beaten up so badly in a fight that he required facial reconstruction. Wong visited him regularly, bringing meals to his apartment on the Backside, talking with him and praying. He also makes hospital visits and is always a phone call away for people going through hard times. Wong said his main goal is to have a regular presence and give a voice of hope to the residents.
“People need someone to follow, and that isn't a chaplain, that's Jesus Christ.”
Many jockeys arrive at Churchill Downs with dreams of glory and fame, but it doesn't always work out that way. One jockey called Wong just to ask why he is “always so happy.” Wong said that's humbling to hear, especially when he's upset at the time or not in a good mood. He believes he's called to be a minister of peace in their lives by pointing them to a source of lasting hope.
“A lot of people come with the weight of expectations,” Wong said. “Their dream has been shattered and their hope in life is crumbling before them. I tell them this is an opportunity to draw near to God, to see there's more to life than merely the things before you.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Andrew J.W. Smith writes for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.)