NORMAN — Adam Barnett was not always the college pastor at Journey Church in Norman.
Not too long ago, he was a scout teamer with coach Sherri Coale’s Oklahoma women’s basketball program. He was among a handful of young men who helped the Sooner women become the best team they could be.
It was the Stacey Dales’-era Sooners, a squad that eventually reached the Final Four, that Barnett helped prepare.
Barnett has not forgotten where he came from, and in his pastoral and mission work, which has taken him all over the world, he occasionally calls on those relationships that remain with the Sooner women. With the go-ahead of Oklahoma’s compliance department, he will occasionally receive items from the program — an autographed basketball, for example — that might help raise funds toward what all parties involved believe to be very good work.
So, one day he was in the basketball office, picking up some things, when Sooner guard Whitney Hand decided to chat him up on some of his travels. It was 2009.
“I shook his hand and talked to him about Haiti,” she said. “I’m so grateful for that.”
Since then, that handshake and conversation has changed lives — Haitian lives, old, young and infant; the lives of Hand and several of her teammates; and the lives of several Sooner football players.
When Hand and Barnett finished talking, Barnett shared a glance with OU assistant coach Jan Ross, his point person with the program. It was a glance that might as well have been its own conversation or decision, for both of them knew exactly where it was headed.
“Jan and I just sort of looked at each other,” Barnett said. “We just thought, ‘What if?’”
With that, plans were set in motion to put together a mission trip comprised in large part by Sooner athletes. It would be carried out in conjunction with Mission of Hope Haiti, a ministry and relief organization that’s been actively working in Haiti since 1998.
On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the island nation, affecting millions of Haitians and killing, by some estimates, more than 250,000 people.
Four months later, Barnett and a group that included several Oklahoma women’s basketball personnel rolled into the small country located about 700 miles southeast Florida.
A year later, another trip took place that also included several OU football players.
On Saturday, a third trip began.
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The Sooner stars have come out.
Leaving Norman early Saturday morning and arriving in Haiti by that evening was a contingent that included current Sooner women’s players Hand, Morgan Hook, Sharane Campbell, Kaylon Williams, Nicole Griffin, Aaryn Ellenberg, Joanna McFarland, Lyndsey Cloman and Jasmine Hartman and former player Jelena Cerina; as well as football players Landry Jones, Corey Nelson, Tress Way, Brennan Clay, Demontre Hurst, Trey Millard, Gabe Ikard, Michael Hunnicutt and JaMarkus McFarland.
Some are there for the second time. Some are there for a third time.
They have seen Haiti, already one of the poorest places on Earth, struggling to come to terms with a natural disaster, the likes of which has never hit the United States. They have seen things that have brought them to tears of joy and sadness. And they have experienced things that have brought all of them together in ways closer, perhaps, than a season of basketball or football could ever achieve.
Hand remembers, last year, handing candy out to young children.
“I saw the older children threatening the younger children with knives for the (candy),” she said. “But, then, I look at our own culture and wonder if we’re any different.”
Yet, if that’s an example of how difficult and violent life can be in Haiti, OU’s athletes also have seen examples of goodness and hope that rise above the very trying living conditions.
“They come up to us and say, ‘God loves you.’ That’s exactly what they tell us,” Hartman said of the children Mission of Hope helps raise.
Barnett has been doing this kind of work for several years. He’s been able to play close observer to the changes that take place among those who serve.
“There’s a lot of fruit in one week in each person’s life,” he said. “And, for me, it’s a joy to lead them and sit back and watch. It will give you enormous perspective on life. It teaches you things. It’s amazing to see the impact.”
It is a completely different way of living.
“They wake up in the morning and focus on survival,” Barnett said. “It’s not, ‘I need to do this for me.’ It’s ‘I need to do this to exist.’ I think it humbles our athletes … to see how hard they work and to see the joy they carry despite their hardship.”
Barnett remembers Sooner receiver Ryan Broyles, on last summer’s trip, over a bus ride, explaining how the trip would change his life for the rest of his life.
“You go there with every intention to serve others,” Barnett said, “and when you come home, you feel tremendously blessed yourself.”
Hand believes she gets to know her teammates — some of her best friends in the world — better than she ever could through the trials and tribulations of basketball season.
“When you’re in that environment, it’s kind of hard not to be vulnerable. And I think, from that, you start to understand people,” she said. “You get their stories. You understand who they are … Everybody has their junk, but it teaches you how to deal with it in a more constructive way.”
Hartman, like Hand, on her third trip, has been amazed by the resiliency of those she has served.
“You see a big difference, especially in the children,” she said. “Probably the best thing in my trip is to see how they’re growing. They’re making it … They have hope for what they’re doing. You can see it. You can see how much hope they have.”
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Barnett makes it very clear.
All clichés aside, he is on a mission from God.
Speaking in such terms, he warns, he is about to give the quote all other media tend to keep out of the story. It is central to his mission. It is why he does what he does.
“If they know Jesus as their savior, they have something to smile about every single day, regardless of their situation,” he said. “You walk into one village and everybody has the same level of poverty, yet half the village is really living in sorrow and the other half is living in joy and contentment. And it’s really clear to me the ones that are living in contentment have their identity in the Lord.”
But while his mission is a matter of faith in God, and trying to offer and impart that to others, it is a different type of faith that is also bolstered by these trips.
“It does restore your faith in humanity, and it also gives you this peace that people can find their hope in faith, rather than in what they have and what they do, that people can be joyful in just being people.”
Perhaps it’s all tied together.
“The amount of faith people possess, it’s just staggering,” Hand said. “I think these children are being raised the right way in Mission of Hope. I think there are people doing it the right way in Haiti, and that’s huge.”