Go-karts, basketball, lead to the faith

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Angelo Hunt's experience with the Catholic Church began with go-karting. Every Saturday evening, he and his neighborhood friends would head to the parking lot of Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church or the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, where a few go-karts and friendly priests would be waiting.

"I really do believe that the seeds (of my conversion) may have been planted even as early as then," said Hunt, 51, of his youthful go-karting trips. "Coming to (Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries) was actually the water I needed for those seeds."

In between his childhood interactions with Catholicism and joining John Paul the Great as head coach of the boys basketball team, Hunt was raised in Arlington with his sister, Tyra. He always loved sports and played both football and basketball at Wakefield High School.

Hunt attended Baptist Sunday school as a child, but was never baptized. As an adult, he believed in God, but didn't attend church. He described himself as "just dangling out there, unconsciously in search of (something).

"I think I was led to John Paul for a reason," he said.

Shortly after graduating high school, he joined the U.S. Army. "It really made me grow up. … Second best thing I ever did," said Hunt. "(The first was) becoming Catholic."

Hunt served three years active duty at Fort Riley in Kansas as a weapons specialist and driver. Afterward, he moved back to Northern Virginia and got a job with the federal government, where he has worked for 27 years.

His passion for coaching came unexpectedly. "I had no intention of being a basketball coach," he said, when he began helping a friend with a middle school team. "I started getting attached to the kids and began to like the coaching aspect more and more. Now, it's a lifestyle."

His first experience assistant coaching on a varsity level was at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax. He quickly moved to his alma mater, Wakefield, to serve as junior varsity coach. He coached for 10 years, ending up at West Springfield High School, before he had a head coaching interview at the newly built John Paul the Great.

Hunt had interviewed for coaching positions before, but believed the likelihood of getting a job was slim, as many schools look for teachers to coach sports. So he was excited and humbled when he was offered the position at John Paul the Great.

Though it took years to reach that goal, "I didn't mind (because) I don't think you should just be given something," he said. "It feels better when you earn it, and I think if I had been given some shortcuts I wouldn't feel the way I feel about it now."

In his eight years coaching at the Catholic school, the team has accomplished much, even being invited to play in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association state championship tournament during the 2011-12 school year. Many of the boys have gone on to play college basketball, he said. A current player, Brandon Edmond, was ranked fifth this year in 3-point field goals and 14th in points per game by The Washington Post's AllMet Sports.

But more than helping the players improve their game, Hunt hopes to teach them about life. "I like being around the kids, helping the young men become men. I take pride in making sure those guys understand that you're going to be a man out in this world, maybe a husband, someone's father, somebody's support system, so you have to be disciplined and you have to have honor," he said. "There's more to it than just coaching."

As much as he hopes to impart wisdom on the players, he has learned a lot from them, too. As he became more curious about the faith, he would ask questions of the students and staff alike. "I think a lot of people had been working on me (to convert from) behind the scenes," he said.

Many people gently encouraged Hunt on his journey of faith. Director of Facilities Don Turner advised Hunt to take his time and do his research before converting. His friend, boating buddy and confirmation sponsor, Frank Schwamberger, impressed Hunt with his character and commitment to the pro-life movement. Little did Schwamberger know, said Hunt, "(All the knowledge he gave me about Catholicism) was percolating inside of me the whole time."

The atmosphere at the school also nudged him toward God. "Being at John Paul, observing the day-to-day happiness that a lot of people exhibited, from the staff to the students. … I personally feel that there's something special about that building - I know it's God. I know every day that I'm there, I'm happy," he said.

The tipping point for Hunt came on a Sunday. As he dropped off a borrowed piece of equipment at the empty school, his eye caught a quote on the wall: "God is knocking at your heart."

"I knew immediately that I had to make this move," he said.

The next day, Hunt didn't go to his day job. That morning, he went straight to John Paul the Great and sat outside the principal's door, "like I was in trouble," he said. When Dominican Sister Mary Jordan Hoover and Father Bjorn C. Lundberg, the school chaplain, got out of their meeting, Hunt told them he was ready to convert. "They were overjoyed," he said.

Hunt came into the church this past Easter, with his mother, Barbara Hunt, and sister, Tyra Jackson, there to support him. "They were very happy for me," he said. "They've been in church for a while and were maybe a little worried I wasn't going to find a church."

Hunt chose St. Augustine as his confirmation saint, identifying with St. Augustine's later-in-life conversion. "Prior to becoming Catholic he was a bit rambunctious, and as a younger man he was a little wild, but the whole time he still had that baseline of belief in God, and that's what drew me to him," said Hunt. "He adopted it of his own free will."

Hunt belongs to St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle, and hopes to occasionally attend daily Mass near his office at Our Lady, Queen of Peace - the site of his early go-karting adventures. But in many ways, his spiritual home will remain John Paul the Great.

"Outside of the church itself, John Paul is the fuel to keep everything pumped up and going for me," he said. "I'm so glad and thankful that I got the opportunity at John Paul, because it's definitely changed my life."

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016