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(RNS) Setting up on the grassy area outside their dorm, grilling burgers and passing out drinks, the young men known as “College Kids Tailgate” are like scores of other Auburn students on game day — full of good cheer, camaraderie, and cries of “War Eagle!”
Their unofficial uniforms — orange jumpsuits — makes them visible, but so does the “wine” they serve, a non-alcoholic cherry-flavored soda called Cheerwine that’s popular across the South.
“Two or three of us are under 21, so (serving alcohol is) illegal,”
said Auburn junior Michael Nunnelly, one of the 15 organizers of the student-run group.
But age is hardly the only factor, he explained.
“As Christians we don’t need (alcohol) for a good time,” Nunnelly said. “There are people we know who would be uncomfortable around alcohol, so we decided not to have it. We expect our own lives to reflect our character. Being alcohol-free is only a small part of it.”
A larger part, Nunnelly explains, is fellowship provided by a welcoming — and intentionally nurturing — group. Nunnelly said the three years of sober tailgating has morphed into a “ministry opportunity.”
“We tried to get people to come who are churched, un-churched; it’s not like we’re witnessing, doing street evangelism. But we’re hanging out, meeting people, having a good time.”
He hopes the good times “will spark into one-on-one relationships,”
which might well give way to religious discussions afterwards.
“That’s the best way,” he said, “getting to know somebody first.”
Another one of the organizers, Kevin Johnson, knew Nunnelly from growing up in Birmingham.
“It has a lot to do with creating community,” said Johnson. “A lot of students don’t have anywhere to go on game day. We didn’t start out with a goal of things getting this big.”
Since the group formed with 15 students three years ago, it’s grown
twenty-fold: the group now welcomes more than 300 revelers on game day, and that surge is no accident, said Johnson.
“It’s a lesson from God,” he said, “how successful it’s been.
“We made a decision from the beginning we didn’t want tailgate to be a place where we were preaching or passing things out. My whole view of evangelism is that it comes through relationships. If we were preaching on a Saturday, it would hit you in the face and bounce off.”
Johnson said students come from a variety of denominations and all are welcome. An article in The Alabama Baptist newspaper about the group even got the attention of the Cheerwine company, based in North Carolina.
Nunnelly said the company — “Cheerwine’s like a cherry Coke in reverse,” he explained — had contacted the group about a possible ad campaign in 2010.
But for the time being, Nunnelly, Johnson and the others have their sights set on Friday (Nov. 27) for the big match-up between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers.
One aspect is already set: the Cheerwine will be flowing.
“My desire is to live my life in a way that glorifies God in every arena,” said Johnson. “It’s not going to involve alcohol. That’s a personal conviction that runs through the guys who run the tailgate.”
By Roy Hoffman
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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