Off playing field, Singleton devotes his life to religion

Orioles plus

Outfielder and his wife are associate pastors at church in Atlanta area

April 14, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO - For a player who earns his keep sprinting around the bases and chasing fly balls into the outfield gaps, Orioles center fielder Chris Singleton sure makes an impression when he's sitting still.

Singleton is a picture of peace before games, when he often sits facing his locker deep in thought even with the clubhouse stereo blaring tunes from Ozzy Osbourne or Pearl Jam.

After observing Singleton's demeanor over the past two months, Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston said, "He's 29 years old, but he's got the maturity of a 65-year-old man."

Baseball's little ups and downs don't seem to faze Singleton, who came to the Orioles in an off-season trade with the Chicago White Sox. Singleton spends his winters working at an Atlanta-area church, where he and his wife, LaShunda, are both associate pastors.

It's more than a hobby for the Singletons. Tony Brock, the head pastor at Hope & Life Fellowship in Snellville, Ga., credits them with helping build a large congregation, almost from the ground up.

"In a span of 17 months, the church has grown from 20 people to about 550 on Easter Sunday," Brock said. "Chris and LaShunda are a vital part of that."

Singleton and Brock met five years ago in Mesa, Ariz., when Singleton was still toiling in the minors. Brock was doing evangelical work at the time, and Singleton picked him up at the airport before a speech.

The two hit it off right away. Each had devoted his life to religion, and each had lost a brother in a car accident. Later, when the Singletons had their first child, Sydney, they picked Brock and his wife to be her godparents. When Brock decided to take over at Hope & Life, he convinced the Singletons to move with him to Atlanta.

Now, the two families are inseparable. Brock is white and Singleton is black, but they call themselves brothers. In some ways, it helps fill the void of their siblings who died too young.

"I miss my brother," Brock said, "but I really believe Chris was a gift from the Lord."

When Singleton finished the season with the White Sox last year, he returned to Atlanta and took over the head-pastor duties for a week so Brock could go on vacation.

With about 300 people on hand for a Sunday service not long after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Singleton preached about a subject he called "the power of truth."

"It was kind of a stretch," Singleton said. "But it was cool because I felt like, `What could I do to really screw up?' Part of me was saying this is a big responsibility, and it was, but the other part of me was saying all I have to do is do my best, and everything's going to work out fine."

Brock said it's not unusual for Singleton to take the pulpit, even when both are in the church at the same time. And the people usually respond to Singleton's teachings, Brock said, not because he's a professional athlete but because he puts so much thought into what he says.

"He's so grounded," Brock said. "He's the real deal. Unlike some of these athletes, you're not going to read about him doing bad things. He inspires me. He inspires all of us."

Singleton said he grew up looking at church as an obligation, and then he went through a teen-age phase where he didn't attend church at all.

His isn't a classic story of a person reaching rock bottom and then turning to religion. He's always kept a level head, but after his freshman year as a receiver on the University of Nevada-Reno football team, Singleton decided it was time to make a stronger commitment.

The decision came in January 1991, with the United States fighting in the Persian Gulf.

"I opened my eyes and realized the world is perishing," Singleton said. "It's getting worse and worse, and the question in my heart was, `Do I want to perish with the rest of this world?'

"So I started looking at scripture, and day-by-day, month-by month, and year-by-year, I've become closer to God. It's obviously the best decision I ever made."

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