By Jeff Brumley
Growing up the son of CBF missionaries got Dave Harding accustomed to seeing the hardships millions endure in the Third World. But that changed in May when Harding, 21, led nine other Duke University football players and one of their coaches on a mission trip to southern Ethiopia. Observing his fellow offensive linemen — most well over 6 feet tall and pushing 300 pounds –struggle with the harsh African poverty was powerful, he said.
“It was amazing to … see it through the eyes of a first-timer,” said Harding, an offensive guard who considers Orlando, Fla., his hometown. “You become used to some of this stuff… and forget the impact it had on you the first time you saw it.”
By all accounts, the 12-day trip had similarly awe-inducing effects on the other players and even on Harding’s veteran missionary parents, David and Merrie Harding. The result has been a deepening of faith and a sense of brotherhood among Duke’s offensive line – a predicted outcome that had the coaching staff onboard with the trip, said Conor Irwin, the team’s center.
“One of the first reactions I and everyone else had was shock,” said Irwin, a Knoxville native who’s Catholic. “It’s definitely made us closer as a unit.”
‘We sold all our things’
The desire and ability to lead such a trip began for Harding when he was 5 and his parents shared their calling to be missionaries in Jordan. David Harding at the time was working in waste-water treatment in North Carolina. Dave Harding said he was mystified by the announcement.
“I didn’t understand what a ‘calling’ was,’” Dave Harding said. “We just sold all our things, sold our cars and had a few garage sales.”
From that age to 11 he lived in Jordan with is two sisters and parents, who were helping nomadic tribes with irrigation and nutrition issues.
When they returned to the states, the family eventually landed in Orlando, where they still live and worship at the CBF-affiliated College Park Baptist Church.
As international coordinators for CBF, David and Merrie now regularly travel to Ethiopia, where David himself was born to missionary parents in 1956. Merrie also works in medical clinics as an occupational therapist.
Dave Harding said he credits his parents and church with inspiring him to go on almost 10 trips to Ethiopia since middle school. “It was a very tough experience, but one I wouldn’t trade.”
Still, it wasn’t easy for Harding, a redshirt junior with NFL aspirations, to organize the trip. He didn’t know which players to invite or when to schedule it because the football schedule is nearly year-round. But clarity came when a new offensive line coach was hired who made one thing clear to his players.
“He said he expects us to be the most close-knit group of players on the team,” Harding recalled. “That’s when the light bulb went off that I need to take the offensive line with me” to Ethiopia, he said.
During the trip, most of the work involved using a hand pump to drill a 90-foot well, then install concrete support and a platform. It was to benefit a community of about 600 who previously got water from a muddy river.
“They got winded very easily” because the location was about 5,500 feet above sea level, David Harding said about his son and his friends.
The players also had to carry 110-pound bags of concrete across two rivers to get to the site.
“You could feel your lungs burning,” said Irwin.
The emotional and spiritual impact was huge, Irwin said.
“It makes you a lot more likely to embrace your circumstances rather than ask God to change them all the time,” he said
Merrie said she was moved by the players’ kindness toward local residents, many of whom were astonished to see such large human beings. The players spent one day offering a sports camp and another visiting an orphanage.
“I have a lot of respect for how gentle they were and the fact they never complained that their beds were too short, that there was no electricity and no hot water,” she said.
‘They’ll be surprised’
Harding said he’s grateful Irwin and the other Blue Devils had those experiences. It was never his goal, or that of his parents, to convert his colleagues or even the Ethiopians to his way of seeing the gospel.
“It was to open their eyes to see how blessed we are and … plant seeds in their lives,” he said.
And he expects those seeds to begin sprouting this fall on the football field.
“I think we’ll be surprised at how much better this makes us,” Harding said of the offensive line and the team as a whole. “We were really able to see people for who they are, without the comforts of home.”