Robert Stewart rests a basketball on his lap and his forearms on his knees. Size 10½ Starbury Ones peek from beneath his jeans. Tidy rows of braids line his bowed head. Stewart pulls himself to the edge of the sunken sofa and lifts his soft brown eyes. Seven fidgeting junior high and high school students — members of the youth group of Barry Christian Church in Kansas City — wait to hear from their new youth pastor, a former MU Tiger basketball player.
“Describe a time you knew God was there,” Stewart says in a quiet voice.
Then he offers his own example. After trying out for the MU basketball team four times over five years, Stewart finally made it. That’s when he started believing that God cared about him personally. “Wow. God really answers prayers,” he tells the young people gathered around him.
Then he has them settle at a coffee table where empty pizza boxes and paper cups of lemonade stood moments earlier. With scissors, paper and a shoebox of well-used crayons, they construct their own scenes of God in their lives.
Todd Eacret, 13, has gone to Barry Christian all his life. He is building a three-dimensional theater out of blue construction paper and clear plastic tape and tells Stewart about auditions for his middle school play. He knew God was with him. He got the part of a basketball player and an understudy for two skateboarders. When several of the kids mention skateboarding, Stewart, an expert in basketball shoes, has them educate him about good skateboarding shoes.
Quinn Mills, a 10th-grader at Park Hill High School and a leader in the church youth group, illustrates two scenes. One tells of God’s presence when her best friend had meningitis. The other explains her longing for God when her grandmother died in 2001. “I wish he could have made it easier to cope,” Mills says.
Stewart joins them, laying a black cross over an orange circle, which soon becomes a basketball. When they are done, he leads them in prayer, thanking God for the times he was there, and the promise he always would be. Light from parents’ parked cars streams in the glass door. Stewart’s first lesson in his new job as a youth pastor is over.
Stewart, 27, walks out of the church into the biting cold wind in his $15 Starbury Ones. He says the shoes are OK for just running around, but he wouldn’t play basketball in them. For that he springs for Starters from Wal-Mart or Shaqs from Payless, seldom paying more than $25. He has learned that expensive shoes and fancy trappings aren’t the answer. “It’s not what’s on the outside,” he says. “It’s what’s on the inside that’s going to make you be what you want to be.”
It took Stewart 27 years of hard work and painful lessons to come to that realization. In all that time, he never stopped loving basketball or God. He dreamed of himself on the court and prayed for a chance to play.
Then God answered his prayers, and Stewart had to find meaning after the dream.
in the beginning
Stewart has loved church about as long as he has loved the game, which, according to his mother, has been “ever since he’s known that there’s a thing called a basketball.” Jenice Prather-Kinsey is an accountancy associate professor at MU and has always put academics over sports. So when her oldest son, then in fifth grade, started pestering her for new basketball shoes, she thought the ones he had were just fine.
“I wasn’t all that keen about buying another pair of tennis shoes,” she says. But Robert had worn them outside to play and to cut the grass and the shoes had lost their grip. After watching her son slip and slide on the court at a game, Prather-Kinsey gave in. Robert Stewart got a new pair of shoes, all-black Nike Air Force, and saved them just for basketball.
Some of Stewart’s best memories are of playing ball with his younger brother, Winston, on their grandparents’ driveway in Kansas City, where the boys spent their summers. The basketball hoop was attached to the garage.
“Whenever we were going for a layup, we’d hit the garage door and dent it,” says Winston, who remembers getting in trouble with their grandfather.
“But they never took the goal down,” says Robert Stewart. And when Stewart wondered if he could make the seventh-grade team, it was his grandma, Bertha Prather, who told him he could play on television some day.
Sundays at Grandpa and Grandma’s
Bertha and Winston Prather influenced their grandson as much as any coach — perhaps more. They were the ones who helped shape his faith. Summers in Kansas City meant summers in church.
On Sunday mornings, the boys woke to the smell of bacon and the sound of their grandma’s voice. They weren’t allowed to come upstairs to breakfast until they brushed their teeth, folded their blankets and replaced the cushions on the couches where they slept in the basement. Their grandpa sat at the head of the half-circle table, between the boys. They took turns praying or saying a verse from the Bible before eating. “When you’re little, you can get away with ‘Jesus wept,’ but sooner or later you had to come up with a verse,” Stewart remembers. When he was about 12, his grandma helped him select a new one, from the book of Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
Their grandpa Winston, an elder, sat in the front of the sanctuary at St. Stephen’s Baptist Church. Dressed in button-up shirts and ties or that year’s Easter suits, the boys usually sat with their grandma. Sometimes she would slip them red-and-white peppermints, wrapped in clear plastic, to help the 2½-hour service pass more easily. On lucky days, they got green-and-white mints.
After the service, their grandparents talked with friends and passed out hugs. Then the family drove to Jimmy’s restaurant, where Robert ordered his standard patty melt and his brother, Winston, had his pancakes. On Sunday evenings, they’d relax as a family. Wednesday nights and Saturdays found them back at church. The boys often had to wait in the kitchen while their grandma cooked for the bereaved and the hungry. “We didn’t know it, but we’d just absorb things going on around us,” Stewart says.
This is where Stewart heard that God answered prayers. People were moving houses, needing a new car or struggling with a death in the family. They prayed about it and a month or so later things had worked out.
“God could help you with a house. Maybe God could help me with basketball,” the 14-year-old Stewart figured. He tried to make a deal with God: “If you put me on a team, I’m going to try my best to represent Christ.”
sweat, prayer and worry
Stewart took basketball seriously, so he prayed . . . and he worried.
“Every time he tried out for a team, he wouldn’t sleep,” Winston says. “All night he would keep me up, worrying, asking me if he was good enough to make it.”
Midway through the three-day tryouts for West Junior High School’s basketball team, the 10-year-old Winston discovered Robert sitting on the stairs. He had been there for hours, reliving what he had done right and wrong during tryouts.
Winston told his brother he had nothing to worry about. “When I was younger, I thought he was the best player I had ever seen in my life,” Winston says. “So I knew he was good enough to make the team.”
And Robert did, in junior high and high school.
But his stats weren’t great. At Hickman High School, Stewart averaged only three minutes and 0.4 points per game. He thought about quitting, but knew that would ruin his chances for college ball.
“He was always trying to be the best, trying to be perfect,” former Hickman coach Jim Sutherland says. Ironically, that quest hindered Stewart’s game. He tried to play like the pros and would forget the needs of the team.
“I was just thinking about what I saw on TV, but there’s more to it,” Stewart says. “I didn’t understand roles — fitting into your role, accepting your role.”
While he didn’t get much game time, Stewart did gain a reputation for his post-game prayers: Thanks, God, for not letting anyone get hurt and letting us play basketball. In Jesus’ name, Amen. A teammate once asked why he always said the same thing. But Sutherland got it: “Many times it’s the reason you say it, not the words.”
In the summer between his sophomore and junior years, Stewart started recording his prayers in a journal. He wrote about practices, tryouts, discouragement and dreams. He was honest with God, about what he wanted and his fear of not getting it.
Stewart knew he didn’t have the stats to compete for a spot at MU, in the fast-paced Division I league, so he set his sights on the University of Missouri-St. Louis, a Division II school. But a scholarship from the Summer Transition Program at MU for underrepresented ethnic minorities, and his mother’s push for him to study engineering there, won out. Two days after graduating from Hickman, Stewart started summer school at MU, where the basketball team was headlined by the stars he had watched in awe — Melvin Booker, Reggie Smith and Kendrick Moore.
In 1998, 5-foot-10-inch freshman Robert Stewart donned $100 Nike Air Metal Max basketball shoes, which he thought might give him an edge, and tried out for the Tigers. Then-coach Norm Stewart told him he was a good little guard, but he didn’t need any little guards at the time. Stewart only heard the last three words — at the time. He promised himself he would try out for the team every year until he made it.
He did everything within his power to increase his odds. He prayed. He made 300 shots a day, did defensive drills and worked on ball handling. He bought the best shoes he could find.
In his sophomore year, Stewart changed his major to middle school education and got a part-time job at Foot Locker. Employees were given a 50 percent discount, so Stewart spent his paycheck on more shoes and was well-stocked for tryouts that year. “They ran us to death,” he says. When he was cut again, he changed his training tactics. He ran sprints even in the chilling rain and dark of night. He continued to pray, but began to wonder if God wanted him to make the team.
In his junior year, Stewart developed back problems. The team was already overloaded with guards, so he skipped tryouts and focused on getting ready for his senior year. He changed his diet and ran morning and night. He shot hoops until his fingers went numb. He spent the most he had ever spent on shoes, nearly $200 for a pair of Nike Air Flightposite III. He filled his journal with prayers and petitions to God. He had his best tryout yet.
He didn’t make the team.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced disappointment like that,” Stewart says.
He sat on the couch and did not go out for days.
Stewart felt he was out of chances. Now he just wanted to graduate and get a job. Then he found out he needed to stay at MU another year to student teach and complete his requirements for graduation. No matter, he thought. He’d focus on school and spend time with his friends. No more basketball dreams.
Until his stepfather, Reggie Kinsey, cut out a newspaper notice about tryouts and slipped it next to the phone in Stewart’s bedroom.
Stewart drew on the promise he had made to himself — and his deal with God — and went for it one last time. But this time, he wore different shoes.
“I saw a cheaper pair that I liked,” he says. “And it kind of hit me that if I like them, I shouldn’t be worried what other people think.”
He tried them out at a pickup game, where he was the only player on the court not in Nikes. The other guys in the gym noticed his cool shoes. They asked where he got them.
And that’s how, wearing $25 Wal-Mart Starters, Stewart tried out for the MU basketball team one last time.
His heart said he’d made it long before then-Coach Quin Snyder did. After tryouts, Stewart got a call from Snyder to come to a practice. He geared up and, halfway through practice, Snyder sent him in to play. Stewart was asked to come back for the rest of the week. At one point, some of the other players told him he’d need to cut his hair.
Finally, a week after tryouts, as Stewart was running laps, Synder jumped in front of him and congratulated him.
“Even before he said it, there was a sense of belonging,” Stewart says. For him, the day he got his practice jersey was the day he made the team. Wearing shoes and a jersey the school bought him, Stewart looked at himself in the mirror and realized there was no other place he could have gotten that black-and-gold gear — not from Foot Locker and not from Wal-Mart.
“The only way I could get it was by praying and bleeding, sweating and crying. That’s what bought that jersey — it was priceless,” he says.
He took a picture of himself with a disposable camera.
the reality of a dream
Stewart soaked up all seven minutes of the five games he played that season. He ended his college basketball career with one defensive rebound and one turnover. He never took a shot, but he didn’t care: “Once I made it, my dream was fulfilled.”
Yet when the team went to the NCAA tournament, sadness began to eat away at Stewart. The season was coming to a close for the rest of the team, but for Stewart it was the end of a lifetime built around a singular goal.
He was scared and aimless. “I’m 23 years old and I’ve already lived my dream. So, what is the rest of my life going to be like?” Stewart says, remembering the fear.
In overtime of the second round of the tournament, MU lost to Marquette University, where current Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade was the marquee player. After the game, Stewart got off the team bus and was one of the last to pick up his bag. He couldn’t find his car keys. His future seemed as empty as the parking lot.
“I realized I was right back to the guy I was before I played,” he says. “I worked at Foot Locker, making $6 an hour. I was broke and still had summer school to go to. I was down.”
That summer he student-taught at Oakland Junior High. He found that the students didn’t care that his MU stats were so minimal — they just wanted to hear his basketball stories. He recounted the stories as much for himself as for the students. They let him live his dream all over again. And they helped him realize that God was faithful. The more he shared, the more clearly he knew it.
After graduating from MU in August 2003, Stewart went back to Hickman High School where he taught as an instructional aide and worked as a volunteer coach alongside Sutherland. But Stewart couldn’t land a full-time teaching position in Columbia. He eventually moved to Kansas City to coach and teach math to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Satchel Paige Elementary School.
coaching for God
Stewart didn’t want to leave Columbia, but it helped to have his grandma nearby in Kansas City. He’d stop by often and she’d cook up fish she kept on hand. They’d talk about anything and everything: “American Idol,” singer Beyonce’s latest attire, church. Meanwhile, Stewart returned to what was familiar in life — God and basketball. He started playing street ball in the park at Stateline court, on the Kansas-Missouri border.
He also began attending services at St. James United Methodist Church, where he met Pat Brown-Dixon, who directed the Voices of Praise choir. She saw him at a Tuesday night Bible study and sensed he was struggling to grasp the meaning of the Scriptures. She had not heard him sing but invited him to choir practice. Stewart showed up that Saturday and at nearly every practice since. Brown-Dixon says it’s not Stewart’s voice but his spirit that sings for him. “I don’t think I have ever heard him sing a note, but I would miss him at choir rehearsal if he didn’t come,” she says.
One week Brown-Dixon asked him to pray out loud for the choir. Stewart prayed about God making their cups emptier, so they would realize how much he could fill them up. “If it’s a 10-ounce cup and you’ve got eight ounces in it, you only see him filling it two ounces,” Stewart explained. “But if you have an empty cup, you see all 10 ounces God gives you.”
“It was short but one of the most powerful prayers,” Brown-Dixon remembers. “Everyone was just blown away.”
When elections for choir chaplain came around, Stewart was the easy favorite. Brown-Dixon says his prayers were only about 30 seconds long, but remarkably deep: “I’ve never heard somebody that can give you the message in less than a minute.”
Stewart is a quiet leader. At a recent Sunday morning warm-up, he walks into the choir room and disappears into a sea of flowing gold robes. He slips into the back row and hunches forward, waiting for the cue from the director. A hint of beard outlines his youthful face and tapers to a goatee. Tightly woven braids zigzag down his scalp and trail off in tails.
The choir stands to sing. Members tap their feet and clap. Stewart shifts his weight back and forth with the music, but his chocolate-brown dress shoes do not move. He holds his hands still together in front of him. His voice can’t be heard above the pounding of the piano and the joy of the other voices. It’s as if he’s singing for an unseen audience of one.
The church has brought new purpose to Stewart’s life. He is now in his second year at St. Paul School of Theology and plans to graduate in May 2009 with a Master of Divinity degree. He is on a path to reach his new goal: becoming a senior pastor.
But church has awakened another longing in Stewart. Church workshops on relationships and family have made him aware of how much he wants that for himself. “But there is no plan. I don’t know how it will all begin,” he says. “I’m kind of lost when it comes to that.”
And then he saw it. This new dream of family was just like his old dream of basketball. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” he says. He began to reread his journals and the prayers he wrote. They remind him not to worry. And two years ago, he started writing again, sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning, on his book,
Stewart doesn’t strike you as an evangelist. He still struggles with a desire to be perfect for God, but his commitment to serve, even imperfectly, wins out. When he speaks, in his simple parables and hushed voice, those around him are drawn to listen.
“Since I live alone, I’m trying to learn how to cook,” he says. “I used to put the meat in the oven, cook it, take it out, put sauce on it and eat it.” And that made it taste OK, until he learned there is another way: “If I marinate it, the flavor’s all inside the meat and the meat tastes real good.”
This is how you can live life, he says. God wants you to marinate in his word, the Bible, and spend time with him. Let him flavor every bit of your lives. Stewart encourages the choir to not settle for a superficial spiritual life, like pouring sauce on top of meat, when it could be so much richer.
Another parable is about the need to eat the word of God: “You need to digest and take in what you read in the Bible.” He uses a poster board drawing of the video game Pacman as an illustration.
“Look at Pacman as your Christian walk,” Stewart says. “The ghosts that are chasing you are bosses, your kids when they give you problems, or not having enough money.” In the game when Pacman eats a power pellet, the ghosts turn blue. Then Pacman can eat the ghosts.
“If you consume God’s word, like the power pellet, then things will turn around for you,” Stewart says. “All these things that you thought were going to get you turn from worries to blessings.”
Yet another draws its inspiration from Popeye cartoons: Popeye is much smaller than Bluto, the bad guy who is always trying to beat him up. So Popeye has to make a decision: eat his spinach or give in to defeat.
Stewart likens the can of spinach to the Bible: “When you eat God’s word, you are able to do things you couldn’t do on your own. But you’ve got to eat it. You’ve got to decide that you’re going to believe.”
Stewart also draws on stories straight from the Bible. He reminds the choir, during a mini-sermon, about God’s covenant with Abraham. Even though Abraham and his wife are too old to bear children, God promises him descendants too numerous to count. In return, Abraham promises that he and his descendents will follow God.
“Abraham had to endure and wait patiently,” Stewart says. “Endure means to continue to not give up.”
He could have told a similar story about himself.
This past year hasn’t been an easy one for Stewart. He was unemployed for six months. His car was stolen out of the seminary parking lot. He spent some time on food stamps. While he looked for a job, he used the time to finish his book “Basketball Stories.” The stories show how God answered his prayers. The book is for anyone with a dream.
Stewart still plays basketball on a city league team. His teammates see him show up on Sunday afternoons in his church clothes and know he sometimes skips games for church. But on the court they share common ground. “For 40 minutes, we get to know a little bit about each other and hopefully they’ll see the good things about me,” he says.
During a recent game, a young man strikes up a conversation with Stewart while he was sitting on the bench. He knew Stewart played for MU and wanted to know how he made it happen. So once again, Stewart tells his story.
“As I get to help people, tell people how good God is, that helps me,” he says.
Stewart also keeps a leather-bound photo album. Inside is the pictorial history of his basketball career. Across the spine, he has written “Prayer changes things.” And on the front cover, there is a cross surrounded by the words, “Dreams come true.”
Sitting in the choir loft one recent Sunday morning, Stewart bows his head. He prays about his first night leading the youth group. He prays to do his job well. God has given him his basketball story as an answer to that prayer.