The Friday Interview: The Rev in the Holy City

American reverend and basketball star Roger Powell is enjoying his time at Hapoel Jerusalem.

powell 88 (photo credit: )
powell 88
(photo credit: )
Roger Powell Jr.'s serendipitous merger with Hapoel Jerusalem is an unlikely one. Not only is Powell a devout Christian, but he has served as a preacher in his home state of Illinois. Prior to moving to Israel he was working toward advanced degrees in theology through his church's college, the International College of Excellence. Powell also heads the Roger Powell Jr. Ministries summer camps, which he runs in Illinois with the aim of developing leadership skills in young athletes through basketball training and Bible studies. But to Hapoel fans and teammates alike, Powell is the basketball pro par excellence, though with a nod to his off-court pursuits, he goes by the nickname, "The Rev." "Everybody has been so warm and welcoming. I look on this opportunity to be playing here as a blessing," says Powell, a 26-year-old forward who, in his first season with Hapoel, has helped the Jerusalem team to cement itself into second place in the BSL, averaging 10.1 ppg in 17.7 minutes so far this season. Just a few months ago, Powell was out of a job. He was released by the NBA's Chicago Bulls which he had joined in October 2008 but failed to make the final roster. However, he had absolutely no intention of hanging up his sneakers. When he was offered a contract in Jerusalem, he jumped at the chance. It wasn't the NBA, true, but to play in Israel's top league, and what's more in Jerusalem, seemed to hold out all sorts of promise. Powell stresses that he was attracted to basketball in Israel for many of the same reasons that attract other foreign athletes: The pay is relatively high, Israeli fans are dedicated and energetic, the competition is exceptional and English is widely spoken and understood all over the country. In fact, he has found that the training, coaching and play are of a relatively high level. Still, to uproot oneself and relocate to a country with a very different lifestyle is always a challenge. And all the more so when the country you're going to often has such a negative image abroad. For The Rev and his wife Terra, soon after arriving here any doubts were dismissed. The transition to living and playing basketball in Israel has been "extremely smooth - the smoothest of all our transitions" since back in 2005, when Powell graduated from the University of Illinois. That's partly because he's familiar with Jewish culture, traditions and holidays. From adolescence to his time in college, Powell has always had Jewish friends. Many of these friends put him in contact with their families and friends living in Israel. And true to Israeli hospitality, many have entertained Powell and his wife at their homes for Shabbat dinner. The Powells' stay in Jerusalem also provides plenty of spare time to further develop their true passion - community activism. Terra, who helps administer the Roger Powell Jr. Ministries, is busy developing programs for the foundation. As a graphic designer, she is also helping to build a Web site and program for the Powells' newest endeavor, Integrity Sports. While the Roger Powell Jr. Ministries selects athletes to participate in the summer leadership camp, Integrity Sports will be open to all young athletes looking to develop leadership and life skills. It is this extraordinary synergy of a man of God in the city of God that has made Powell's experience with Hapoel Jerusalem all the more fulfilling. He calls it an experience that has "helped him grow as a human being" and will, he believes, add much in preparing him for the responsibilities of becoming an ordained minister in the future. As Jerusalem is the birthplace of the three major religions, Powell says, "Living in Jerusalem - the focus of three monotheistic religions - has provided me with an overall picture of faith." Powell has found that his forays into the city and its holy sites has brought the Bible to life for him. You may come, he says, to this magical city for a certain reason, "but you're liable to come away with something completely different altogether, excitingly different."