Sunday in the Church with George

Eight days after he became world heavyweight champion before a TV audience of millions; seven days after he struggled through thousands of adoring fans at Intercontinental Airport; one day after he stood before some five hundred people as Mayor Bob Lanier proclaimed November 12 his day, George Foreman is back in front of his regular crowd. While some 80 well-dressed churchgoers tap placidly along to a hymn-singing guitarist, Foreman sways happily inside the church where he serves as pastor.

This box-like, utterly unadorned northeast Houston sanctuary is where George Foreman meets, sometimes four days a week, with the God he says helped him regain the heavyweight title. And in keeping with his longtime pastoring style, Foreman proceeds deftly through almost an entire sermon on the Book of Judges before mentioning his secular triumph. "This is the first time I have been in church that you all can say you're looking at the boxing heavyweight champion of the world," Foreman abruptly says, with a smile. "God showed me how to do it. Showed me how to train. Told me to run ten miles, when

I thought I couldn't do it. Told me to be like a kid. I even bought some Bubblicious gum, and I chewed it for every one of those first ten miles."

"God took me at an age when other people are giving up on themselves," Foreman goes on. "Each time I went to a doctor for a checkup after that, I'd say, 'God, make that heart tick right.' God wanted to use me for His glory ... there's no need for anybody to be doing this alone."

Slimmer, more graceful than TV conveys, Foreman paces the area at the church's front with a prayer book poised in one hand. "Last week in Las Vegas, I was nervous," Foreman comments. "Just like any other man, I was nervous in front of the unknown. I had to do something about it -- after I ate. I folded up a towel, locked myself in the bathroom, and got on my knees and talked to God. And later that night, I saw a man playing blackjack. I said, 'God, please don't let me be beaten by a blackjack player. Please don't let me be beaten by a blackjack player.'" Then in a matter-of-fact, almost professorial tone, he continues on with the day's theme. "Do you wish to participate in the gift of God?" he asks.

The tiny Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ is by no means a scene of open religious raptures. But for George Foreman, this extraordinarily plain place reflects how his personal history helped form his beliefs -- and how those beliefs in turn helped make boxing history.

Foreman founded his evangelical church 13 years ago along with a handful of friends and relatives who had been meeting for prayer at each other's houses. The original group of some half a dozen had grown enough that they needed a bigger place to meet. But Foreman and his largely well-heeled fellow worshipers purposely kept their new church plain, almost sterile. Before the raspberry-toned box in which they now meet was erected, the group met in a small wooden shack on the same site. The point, Foreman explains, was that "we always wanted to feel better than the building."

As with much else in Foreman's adulthood, that goal was forged by a poor, often shame-filled youth. "I would go into churches and feel they were too good for me," Foreman says. "You have to know what that feels like. I found myself seeking out lesser churches, churches where you didn't have to have nice clothes. Over the years, we've been tempted to get a better place or property, but we purposely have decided to keep this place very common, a place for common people."

As much as Sundays here reflect Foreman's past, though, they also show how his view of a highly personalized God helped shape him into the world's oldest heavyweight champ and newest idol of the middle-aged and unencouraged. It's a God who succors those laughed at by others, a God attentive to the smallest skirmishes of inner battle. As Foreman publicist Mort Sharnik, in attendance at Sunday's service, remarks, "George believes, 'I wouldn't have a God who wouldn't talk to me.'"

And it's a God who, so far, has kept George Foreman the celebrity the same as George Foreman the pastor. Self-deprecating in a droll, yet saucy way, Foreman this Sunday enjoys his stardom in the same spirit as the affectionate but hardly delirious crowd before him.

Following the service, James "Jody" Steptoe, Foreman's nephew and the church's assistant pastor, observed that the mood of the congregation echoed Foreman's own priorities. "It's about church, not about him," Steptoe says, then adds, "You'd think his goal was the heavyweight championship. But his real goal is to get a big Winnebago and go around the country teaching about Jesus.

 
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