Southern Seminary student ministers behind the scenes at Churchill Downs
As a chaplain, Chris Wong is used to talking to people he’s never met. As a chaplain at Churchill Downs, sometimes that gets you on TV.
After last year’s Kentucky Derby, Wong struck up a conversation with a woman on the grounds. That woman turned out to be the wife of Steven Coburn, owner of the winning horse California Chrome, and they just happened to be in the background of NBC’s post-race interview.
Wong, a Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, immediately received a text message to let him know he was on national television. Wong laughs about it now, saying the whole event was a unique experience.
“To see it live and right there on the track was really exciting,” he said.
As the Kentucky Derby is set to run this Saturday for the 141st time, the national sports media will focus on Churchill Downs for just one day. But activity is ongoing, and not just during the race season. Jockeys, exercise riders, hot walkers, horse grooms, blacksmiths, security staff, and countless other vocations are among the 1,000 people who work at the Backside of Churchill Downs throughout the year. Indeed, 700 of them live there.
It’s these people to whom Wong ministers as associate chaplain with the Kentucky Racetrack Chaplaincy, a role he’s filled since January 2014. When Daniel Hatfield, senior pastor at Louisville’s Audubon Baptist Church where Wong attended at the time, heard from the chaplaincy that they were looking for a bilingual minister, he immediately thought of Wong.
Wong, who is from Miami, Florida and whose parents are originally from Peru, is a native Spanish speaker, an important part of the ministry since 75 percent of residents at Churchill Downs speak Spanish as their first language. Wong said that although he wasn’t planning on a job like this, he quickly realized his passion for face-to-face ministry had perfectly prepared him for such a role.
“I never had the intention to be a chaplain,” Wong said. “I didn’t look for this job, it just kind of came to me, and God was already preparing me for it.”
One of the ministries of the chaplaincy at Churchill Downs is the weekly chapel service on Monday evenings, which during the race season attracts over 100 attendees. Either Wong or Ken Boehm, the senior chaplain at Churchill, will preach for a half-hour and try to impart the Christian gospel to people who don’t typically hear it.
The rest of Wong’s ministry is entirely interpersonal. Wong says he enjoys studying and preaching like any other seminary student, but he really values building relationships with people.
“I really love sharing the gospel in one-on-one contexts,” he said. “I don’t want to discourage people from sharing the gospel right off the bat, but I think the gospel speaks through a full-embodied life too, through the way you are, the way you look at people, the way you talk to people. They can tell there’s something different about you.”
Each morning, Wong will arrive at Churchill Downs just before 8 a.m. After praying, he gives a one-minute devotional in Spanish over the intercom, which is broadcast throughout the Backside.
He then walks through the barns, talking to anyone he can find. Since they’re all working, Wong can usually only manage to greet them or sneak in a brief conversation and maybe a short prayer. Many will invite him to birthday parties for their children or other events, and sometimes, when crisis strikes, Wong is someone they’ll call.
Last year, one worker was beaten up so badly in a fight that he required facial reconstruction. Wong would visit him regularly, bringing meals to him in his apartment on the Backside, talking with him and praying. He will also make hospital visits and is always a phone call away for people going through hard times. Wong says his main goal is to have a regular presence and give a voice of hope to the residents.
“I’m becoming much more convinced that you can’t be happy without being in a relationship with God,” he said. “People need someone to follow, and that isn’t a chaplain, that’s Jesus Christ.”
Many jockeys will arrive at Churchill Downs with dreams of glory and fame, but it doesn’t always work out that way, Wong said. One jockey called him just to ask why Wong is “always so happy.” Wong said that’s humbling to hear, especially when he’s upset at the time or not in a good mood. He believes he’s called to be a minister of peace in their lives by pointing them to a source of lasting hope.
“A lot of people come with the weight of expectations,” he said. “Their dream has been shattered and their hope in life is crumbling before them. I tell them this is an opportunity to draw near to God, to see there’s more to life than merely the things before you.”
So this year, when you’re watching the Derby and the winning owner beams on your TV screen, maybe look past all the glamor and realize that, in background, God is working in the hearts of people.