Christ UMC in Shreveport Holding Court for Pickleballers; "It’s About Making Connections"

Mark Lambert
December 07, 2022

Rev. Mark Bray of Christ United Methodist Church in Shreveport is pretty sure his congregation’s greatest act of evangelism will not be turning the gym into a pickleball court on Thursday nights.

“I don’t want to make it a bigger deal than it is,” Bray said of the church’s open invitation to the community to come play pickleball. But, as if to hedge his bet, he added: “It definitely is a ministry. It gives us exposure. People know where Christ United Methodist Church is.”

For those who haven’t been paying attention, ask Siri or Alexa, “What’s the fastest-growing sport?” Spoiler: It’s not bowling.

Pickleball is played on a smallish tennis court with an over-sized ping pong paddle and a wiffle ball. Players serve the ball underhanded, and the opponent (or opponents, if playing doubles) on the other side of the net must let the ball bounce before returning it.

The sport, created in the 1960s in Washington state, may have been named after a dog named Pickles, but the true nomenclature of pickleball is an unresolved rabbit hole. A game can get competitive, but in a friendly way. You’re unlikely to be concussed by a wiffle ball.

“People can pick it up pretty quick,” Bray said. “Anyone can play, from 13 years old to 80.”

The idea of bringing pickleball to Christ UMC started at an ice cream social, when someone suggested using the gym as a pickleball court. Intrigued by the idea, Bray called his pickleball mentor, David Fortuna, for some technical help.

“I striped the courts up for them in the gym, probably about two years ago,” said Fortuna, who, in addition to being a retired Methodist pastor, is known as The Godfather of Shreveport Pickleball.

Fortuna and pickleball go way back, about 30 years, when he was an associate pastor at Broadmoor UMC in Shreveport. A new church member asked if the gym could be used for pickleball. Fortuna had no idea what the new guy was talking about.

“At first, we couldn’t beg people to play,” Fortuna said. “But then it took off. I started playing, and I’ve been playing ever since.”

Fortuna says the culture of pickleball is different than that of tennis, where two or four friends go to the courts together with no expectation of socializing outside of the small group.

“In pickleball, you just show up. You get your paddle and go, and you play with who’s there,” he explained. “Nobody shows up as a partnership unless it’s a tournament.”
When he was assigned to Lea Joyner Memorial UMC in Monroe, Fortuna introduced the sport there. Same thing at Aldersgate UMC in Slidell, where the church even hosted a Senior Olympics event.

“I won a gold medal there,” Fortuna laughed. “It helps when there’s only two players competing.”

Back in Shreveport, Christ UMC’s experiment was working. People from the community started showing up to play pickleball.

“The first time we invited pickleball players to come, about 20 or 30 came, and they socialized with our church members,” Bray said. “There’s been one or two who come to church (services) every so often.”

Bray said the pickleball players who are not members of the church “occasionally have conversations about church and spiritual things,” but he doesn’t try to push the message too far.

“Sure, we’d like them to come, but it’s really about making connections with other people,” he said.

Fortuna agreed.

"It’s very much like basketball at a church, it can be an entrance tool,” he said. “People know where the church is, but it may not get you more members.”
Bray said that’s OK, but he hasn’t given up on turning players into followers of Christ.

“We’re meeting people from outside of the church,” he said. “I’m hoping this fall to push it a little more by offering prayer.”
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