Local Episcopal priest finds spirituality both in church and while skating in a roller derby
photo by: Contributed photo
The rector of Lawrence’s Trinity Episcopal Church admits he has an addiction, but it isn’t one he’s giving up for Lent.
That’s because the Rev. Rob Baldwin’s obsession for the roller derby has opened his eyes to a different world and brought him new life, plus given him plenty of ideas for Sunday sermons.
photo by: contributed photo
Baldwin began skating with a roller derby league as a way to spend more time with his first wife. While it didn’t save the marriage, Baldwin was hooked on the sport.
Roller derby is as much of a contact sport as basketball or soccer, Baldwin said. It’s played by two teams of five members roller skating around a track, as skaters play offensively and defensively at the same time.
“It’s not really a free-for-all brawl,” Baldwin said. “There is contact, but so much more of the sport is about control and blocking people. Making openings for your own people to get through.”
Baldwin sees it as a legitimate sport — though, more often than not, a women’s sport. However, there are men’s teams and all-gender teams.
“There has been a push to gain the respect other amateur sports get and, at the same time, have fun adopting a persona and feeling good about yourself,” Baldwin said.
How it began
Seven years ago Baldwin, 47, joined the Kansas City Cowtown Butchers. He had grown up roller skating, so four-wheeling around a rink was natural to him.
On the rink he was no longer the Rev. Rob, but “Bruce Easily.” And he lived up to the name, breaking his ankle in three places during a practice.
“It was that injury that made me have to come out as a roller derby skater at the church,” Baldwin said. “I had been keeping a low profile about it because I thought there might be some push back about that from the church.”
Mostly he felt there would be concern he might get hurt. He also worried some would say it was a crazy thing for someone to do.
“I walked in with a cast up to my knee, and had to explain how this happened,” Baldwin said. He admitted to the congregation he had been part of a derby league for months.
The timing was bad. The Advent season was about to begin.
“People were appropriately dismayed I hurt myself,” Baldwin said. “Here it was the busiest time of the year and I was walking around with this cast.”
He was incapacitated for several months. He couldn’t process down the aisle or stand at the pulpit. He gave his sermons sitting in a chair.
Once he was healed he was back to skating again. But now he had the support of the congregation.
“They came to games and watched me play,” he said.
Eventually, the Butchers couldn’t field a full team. Bruce Easily was the last team member.
“I turned off the lights,” he said.
He then joined a co-ed league and changed his name to “Slam of God.”
photo by: Kathy Hanks
Baldwin met his second wife, Mandy, 37, when his new league opened up practice, and they ended up as partners in a drill. They had seen each other in passing at roller derby events, as she was a skater with a women’s league.
During the drill, she hit him in the chest with her shoulder. Baldwin grunted. He claims it was a hard hit to the sternum.
“Come on,” she told him at the time, “you’ve been hit harder.”
That statement later became a mantra for him about getting through struggles and adversity.
“You have been hit hard, but you have been hit harder and will get through this,” Baldwin said.
Destroying the body while saving the soul
While Baldwin wonders if his congregation is tired of his roller derby sermons, there is much to compare and contrast between church and the roller-rink.
A similarity is that a lot of people get into both because they are in search of something.
“They are looking to create something in their life that is distinct and valuable and nurtures them that is not part of their day-to-day existence which can sometimes be mundane and full of drudgery,” Baldwin said. “You go to church and are told you are a beloved child of God and you go to Derby and get told you are an awesome skater. You are with people who are all much like a church seeking something that is similar but unique to themselves.”
People come from all walks of life in the roller derby, Baldwin said. They are librarians, supply chain managers, doctors and nurses, teachers, even a rabbi with the skating name of Manny Shevitz.
“The derby community is diverse. And there are people who are churchgoers, and those who don’t go. But for the most part, it’s a demographic between the ages of 20 and 40, that hasn’t shown up in church very much, especially in the Episcopal Church, ” Baldwin said.
Rob and Mandy were married in August, blending their families. His son Alex, 19, is a freshman at Washburn University; daughter Abby, 16, is a sophomore at Bishop Seabury Academy. Mandy’s daughter Maura, 12, is a student at Billie Mills Middle School.
photo by: Kathy Hanks
Mandy, who works at Three Dog Bakery, in Kansas City, Mo., has just joined a new team, Capital City Crushers, in Topeka. She has experienced her share of injuries, including a broken ankle and a severe concussion, and agrees the derby is an addiction.
“It’s a love-hate thing,” she said, standing in the kitchen of their Lawrence home.
She reads a quote on her phone from another skater Bonnie D. Stroir, “Most seem to find roller derby in transitional periods. We ruin our bodies to save our souls and for some reason that makes perfect sense.”
“Everyone in the derby community understands the explicit gospel truth of that sentence,” Baldwin said.
Because of the stresses and demands of daily life, they have both come to appreciate the zen-like quality they have come to know while skating in the roller derby.
“You are skating fast, people all around you. There is no personal space in this game. You are trying to think defensively, offensively, not fall down, keep up the speed, and thinking strategy and zipping at a good clip,” Baldwin said. “It’s intense and exhilarating and at that moment everything else in the world falls away.”