Jennifer Risper and Christina Wirth have been friends since 2005, when they were roommates in their freshman year of college, playing basketball at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Eight years later, they are still roommates – and playing professional basketball in Romania. This May, both women will leave their careers as professional athletes to become full-time Catholic missionaries.
“I realized that God wanted to use me through sports. I know that I’ve been successful through God’s grace,” said Risper. “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.’”
Next fall, Risper and Wirth will each be working on a college campus in the United States as missionaries with Varsity Catholic, a branch of FOCUS, The Fellowship of Catholic University Students. FOCUS is a national collegiate outreach with a presence on 74 campuses across the United States. Varsity Catholic was formed in 2007 to reach out to varsity athletes on college campuses, and currently has 12 former collegiate athletes and coaches serving as missionaries on 20 campuses.
“In our experience, there are a lot of Christian organizations for athletes out there, but Varsity Catholic may be unique in that [it’s specifically Catholic],” said Wirth. “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.”
Risper and Wirth will be the first professional athletes to serve as missionaries with Varsity Catholic. After academic and athletic success at Vanderbilt University, both women were drafted to the WNBA in 2009. Wirth helped her team, Indiana Fever, make it to the final game in WNBA championship that year. For the past three years, the two women have continued their professional basketball careers as teammates – in Slovakia, Portugal and now Romania.
“The way that our culture looks at athletes, there’s a lot of pressure and expectation, but there’s also a platform for athletes that can be used to spread the Gospel,” said Wirth. “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.”
Risper and Wirth have been that sort of influence for each other since the first day they met. Together, they have been through some of the most significant moments of their lives, athletic careers and the discovery and deepening of their Catholic faith.
“Sometimes as Christians you’re the only ones on your team. Ours was pretty unique in that there were other Christians on our team [at Vanderbilt]. But it was great having someone like that as my roommate, and teammate, and friend,” said Risper. “We really try to encourage each other to live better lives, even in the small things.” Risper acknowledged that it was Wirth who helped her to rediscover her Catholic faith after years of questioning and identifying herself as a non-denominational Christian.
“It’s been an awesome journey these past couple of years together just trying to grow in our Catholic faith and holiness,” said Wirth. “ 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.”
Yes, these young women are accomplished professional athletes, but it becomes clear, even in a brief phone interview, that they are just like other young women trying to follow the will of God for their lives.
“It’s not this glamorous life that some people may think it is,” explained Wirth. “Our culture idolizes athletes, and God has really blessed my career. But at the end of the day, you want something that’s eternal. We were made for so much more than fame or power, and coming to that realization has really made me say, ‘God, you know that’s best for me and that’s what I want, too.’”
Though they both are happy in their athletic careers, they are excited for the next phase of their lives as missionaries. “You get a chance to pour into students’ lives and share about Christ,” said Risper. “But it’s also going to be a beautiful time for me to grow closer to Christ and discern my vocation in a deeper way.”
“God creates us with a purpose and whatever vocation he’s created us for, that’s where we’re ultimately going to find true fulfillment and happiness,” explained Wirth.
Though they are learning to trust God more fully and are excited to start working with Varsity Catholic, they’re just as nervous about missionary life as anyone else.
Wirth said that she often asks herself if she’ll be good at the job. “If you could design the perfect FOCUS missionary, I don’t think I fit that mold,” she acknowledged. “My fear is alleviated very quickly when I pray about it. God reminds me that He can be glorified in my weakness. I try to offer that to God and say, ‘I’m doing this because I feel like you’ve called me to it and I want to be available. So I’m going to go, I’m going to walk on campus, and ask God to go with me.”
Risper mentioned the same fears and recognized how much they will both be relying on God in as they transition to missionary life. “Please keep us in your prayers as far as what makes us nervous and what we hope God will do in us,” said Risper. “It’s something that will be on our minds, and in hearts and our prayers until we step on campus – really for the whole thing.”