By Tim Ellsworth
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (BP) — David Book didn’t have a ticket to the hockey game on Feb. 22, 1980, that earned the description “Miracle on Ice.” He lived half a mile from the arena, but it was the toughest ticket in town to get.
So, like most Americans, Book and his family watched on TV as the U.S. men’s hockey team stunned the mighty Russians in the semifinal of the 1980 Olympics. As the game ended, the Books stepped out onto their veranda and heard the cheers and chants from the arena in the distance: “USA! USA! USA!”
That game 40 years ago became an iconic event, forever connecting the town of Lake Placid with sports and hockey history. But for Southern Baptists in Lake Placid, the Miracle on Ice wasn’t the only legacy from those 1980 Olympics. That year was the first time Southern Baptists had organized a large outreach during the Olympics, and those efforts led to the planting of Lake Placid Baptist Church – a congregation that Book served as pastor for six years and a church that is still active and vibrant in a resort community far outside the Bible Belt.
“It’s pretty amazing what God has done over the years just to continue the ministry,” said Jim Koenig, the church’s pastor. “God continues to build our influence.”
Book first came to Lake Placid in the summer of 1978 to do some advance work for the Southern Baptist outreach that was scheduled for 1980. This was the first time for Southern Baptists to attempt such a ministry at the Olympics, with the Home Mission Board leading the effort.
“Almost every agency of the SBC actually participated,” Book said. “It was a massive undertaking.”
Book was working in student ministry in Kentucky when he led that advance team in 1978. He wasn’t planning to relocate to Lake Placid on a long-term basis. But after Book came home from that trip, Southern Baptist leaders in New York kept trying to persuade him to return to Lake Placid. They were hopeful that the outreach planned for the Olympics would be the catalyst for a new Baptist church in Lake Placid, which didn’t have a Southern Baptist congregation.
Book and his wife Marianne eventually relented and moved their family to Lake Placid in November of 1978, with Book serving as a missionary with the Home Mission Board. He was one of the leaders of the Olympic ministry, started Lake Placid Baptist Church and was the pastor there until 1986.
Claire Thayer was one of the first local residents to become part of the church, even before the Olympics began. A native Floridian who was saved at a Billy Graham crusade in the Orange Bowl, Thayer spent most of her childhood and early teenage years at a Southern Baptist church in Miami.
“I was very close to Jesus until I discovered alcohol and the party life as an older teenager,” she said.
After attending college in New York and traveling for a few years, Thayer eventually settled in Lake Placid where she was “deep into the party life.”
“I knew about God,” Thayer said. “I had him on a shelf, kept telling Him I’d get back to Him. But I just wasn’t quite ready yet.”
One day she was in her car alone, stopped at an intersection in Lake Placid the locals had dubbed the “Barmuda Triangle” because of bars on three of the corners. She said she heard a voice distinctly. She doesn’t know whether it was audible or not, but she knows she heard it saying, “I want you back.”
“I knew it was God,” Thayer said. “And I thought, ‘Oh no. The party’s over.’
“On the radio at that very moment came an ad,” Thayer continued. “The local radio station said, ‘Lake Placid Baptist Chapel invites you to services on Sunday.'”
Thayer couldn’t believe it. She knew there hadn’t been a Baptist church in town, but she showed up the following Sunday. “When God calls, you answer,” she said.
Thayer was the first local to be part of the church plant. Though she’s now a member of another congregation in Lake Placid, she remains “eternally grateful” to God for the ministry of Lake Placid Baptist Church.
Southern Baptist ministry during the 1980 Olympics was extensive, with dozens of mission teams and hundreds of volunteers from all over the country participating. Community engagement was one of the priorities. With heavy traffic clogging many of the Lake Placid streets, Southern Baptist volunteers helped senior citizens by delivering groceries and medications. They ran a daycare for students of all ages since schools were closed during the Olympics.
That attitude of service became part of the DNA of the church that would remain in Lake Placid long after the Olympic flame had been extinguished. Over the past 40 years, Lake Placid Baptist Church has been characterized by its outreach to the community.
A resort community, Lake Placid retains connections to its Olympic heritage by housing the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center and by regularly hosting bobsled and luge competitions, hockey tournaments, and events like the Ironman triathlon, which is scheduled for later this year. The church always provides volunteers to meet these community needs. Koenig serves as chairman of the board of directors for the local business association and has been the volunteer coordinator for many events in town because the city knows the church will help.
Koenig takes seriously the verse of Jeremiah 29:7: “Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper.”
“We have this relationship with the community that’s pretty incredible,” he said.
When the church officially constituted in 1982, it had about 20 members. Now a church of about 75 members, the congregation largely consists of first-generation Christians – people who came to Christ after high school. The church, Koenig says, has learned to be missional and to love its community in concrete ways.
Derek Spain, who served as pastor of the church from 2001-2011, said the church is a beautiful mix of people from all over the world – natives of the town and the Adirondack region, those who have been transplanted because of work or other reasons and visitors who are there for vacation or for the athletic competitions. The church is welcoming and committed to sharing the Gospel with those who are lost, a testament to the authentic faith of the church members.
“There’s a group of people there who really love Jesus and love one another,” Spain said.
For Book, as he looks back on the church that began in Lake Placid 40 years ago, he does so with a great sense of fulfillment and gratitude to the Lord. There’s no big secret to the church’s growth and endurance, he said. It’s just basic discipleship that has allowed the church to thrive.
“People living out their faith, people committed to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, people living according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” he said.
The U.S. win over the Soviet Union in 1980 may have been a miracle on the ice. For those like Thayer touched by the church’s ministry over the past 40 years, Lake Placid Baptist Church may be just as much of a miracle.
“We worked together. We played together. We did life together,” she said. “It meant so much to me, because I had no extended family in the area, so the church really was family to me.”
Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.