Feature

Pressing Toward the Goal

By Anonymous

I was pressed into a sea of West African testosterone, battling to find a seat.

The mile-long ticket line snaked along the streets outside the stadium. I swam through a police riot crew and then forced myself through a foot gate patrolled by the infamous red berets toting their usual gear and weapons. Politics, ethnicity, sports, youth, economics, religion, patriotism and passion were all at play on that soccer field. The flow of the game, the “oohs” and the “aahs” of the crowd, the growing anticipation, and finally, the climax of one goal scored thrill like no other sport in history.

This country’s chance of qualifying for its first ever World Cup (held once every four years) depended on the outcome of this match. Young patriots wearing shirts bearing their hero’s name, painted faces and sweating armpits filled the stadium on this humid August day. The hope of a nation was resting on the shoulders of its chosen 11 young men.

I stood with 23,000 singing fans in a stadium built for 17,000. A victory could provide hope and life to the suffering and the dying: respiration and a breathe of fresh air, a gulf of clean water amidst a despairing sea of death and destruction. An impoverished, suffering people dying of AIDS, malaria and tropical diseases were looking for redemption in a collective whoosh of leather striking a net. It was something to believe in.

The opposing team’s superstar drilled the first goal into the back of the net. It was as if the wind and sun had stopped, time stood still, birds stopped chirping and hopes of this nation withered. But just 15 minutes later, the home team’s captain dribbled past two defenders, looping the ball neatly over the diving goalie. A tying goal! I found myself dancing and bear-hugging my seatmates on either side: a stranger on my left from one tribe smiling, dancing, embracing; then another stranger from a rival tribe standing, high-fiving, and jumping with me.

One day over Arabic tea, with “allahu akbar” echoing from neighboring minaret speakers, I asked my café friends, “What is the number one religion here?”

“Islam, of course,” came the quick reply.

“Nope,” I retorted.

“Animism?” another probed.

“Christianity?” someone added.

Silence ensued for five seconds. “Football!” I exclaimed. “Football is the number one religion here!”

My companions erupted in laughter, nodding their heads. A simple sport bridges religions, nationalities and tribes.

We unknowingly started a soccer (football) club in September 2007 by rolling out a $3 Chinese-made plastic ball onto a poverty-stricken West African village street. Impoverished, barefoot boys aged 9 to 15 gathered to play with dreams of stardom. This is the field where we found lost souls.

Progressing from rock goalposts on the street to bamboo posts in a cow pasture and finally to metal goals on a city field, the club grew. Half times during practice games were salted with ancient stories laden with wisdom and application from the greatest book ever sold. Unfortunately, we were accused of trying to “exploit children and destroy them.” Some players were forbidden to come to practices by their fathers, who feared that the foreign coach would turn their sons from their religion of birth.

Today, we have two boys’ teams and one girls’ team. We have organized tournaments with other villages because there are no amateur leagues here. We also play many “friendlies,” including some with first-division pro teams. We use money from ticket sales to plant a potato field, with all proceeds from the harvest going back into ministry costs.

Three twenty-something Envision volunteers have come to coach the club teams, help with camps, learn the culture and share the love that Christ showed them. Alliance apprentices help follow up in discipleship. Partnering individuals and churches have come from the United States to help. In addition, Alliance Envision volunteers run a soccer store to have contact with the community, with all profits going back into ministry costs as well.

We have held summer soccer camps the last three years. In 2012 we had four camps that served 160 boys and girls. They hear “the Way” through our actions, lives and words. During the last week of one camp, a youth named Bouba said, “I am ready to put my hands into the life of Iisaa [Jesus]. I have seen what the coaches have—peace, justice, truth—and I want that.”

Bouba was willing to leave family, inheritance and land to follow Christ. There are five other players or former players like Bouba. If it weren’t for soccer camps, the reality of a living Christ wouldn’t have been planted on a daily basis in their hearts.

Our lives have become intertwined with those of players and coaches. We have held Bible studies. We go to funerals and weddings and visit sick players or their parents to share Christ and to pray with them. Our American coaches live with the people, eat with them and speak their language.

In addition to soccer, our colleagues in town run a learning center where a few of the players and many community members go.

During the day, they teach people computer skills and English. Used computers are sold with Bible software included, and Bible stories are used in English classes. The learning center building is used for church services on Sunday and three other evening church meetings (choir practice, prayer meeting and Bible study).

Each summer, we hold English camps for the youth. We also have final exam review sessions for students and literacy lessons and have cared for burn victims on our front porches. Once a month, we hold eyeglass clinics so that fuzzy vision becomes more focused. Scripture portions in their heart language are given so that they can read with their new glasses.

We have three official church partnerships: one in Alberta, Canada, and two in Ohio. National church members have partnered with us, and for the first time in history, a national church sent a missionary family to our country, supported by their church’s version of the Great Commission Fund. Our job as Alliance international workers is to work ourselves out of a job. We go to hard places where we aren’t wanted (sometimes hated) but are needed. And we leave when we are wanted but not needed.

Jesus said to the people, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t be stumbling through the darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (John 8:12; NLT). We are partnering together—through classes and eyeglasses, Bible studies and a game—to bring the love of Christ to a people living in utter darkness.

The light of Christ’s love is glowing in this spiritually dark place. We take hope in the fact that the darker it is, the brighter one candle of hope shines!

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