"I would never have thought that such genuine and heart-felt relationships could be formed with a few words and a lot of soccer."
About a year ago, I was asked by YWAM Orlando if I would be interested in co-leading the sports and fitness elective for the upcoming Fall Discipleship Training School along with my girlfriend Andrea. We both prayed about it and we felt the LORD give us the go-ahead, so we agreed to accept the challenge. I have always jumped upon any opportunity to play a sport, so the idea of combining sports and ministry seemed too good to be true. The DTS began in Fall 2016, and for 12 weeks we worked alongside two others as we lead the students through sports development, physical fitness training, as well as teachings about the human body and God’s intentions for us to steward our bodies wisely. This was all done within the context of preparing for the outreach portion of the DTS.
We left for outreach early January 2017, traveling to both Greece and Germany. Our focus was to minister to refugees, and to support the ministries that were already serving those affected by the refugee crisis. In Athens we worked alongside approximately 15 other YWAM teams who had united to make a stronger impact. Every day we engaged in different ministries; doing evangelism, sorting clothes to be given to refugees, painting houses, teaching English and serving meals.
One day we travelled to a place called Eliniko, where there was a very large clothing bank situated next to an old airport, in which there was a refugee camp. Half of our team sorted clothes while the other half played with children outside of the camp. No evangelical teams were allowed in the camp due to an incident one year before when a team had abused the permission they were given to minister within the camp. In talking to a few of the people outside, we learned that the refugee men played soccer every day at 3 pm in the old Olympic village, which was right across the road. I was very excited at the opportunity to play with them, I had brought my cleats to Europe just in case we could play!
The following week, we visited the camp once again, this time with a number of other YWAM teams. As we were not allowed inside the camp, our aim was to draw the refugees outside with worship, skits and sports. This was the first day that we were able to play soccer with the refugees; some 30 Afghani men played against a large group of us YWAM’ers. Communication was very tough, as only a couple of the refugees spoke English, but we tried our best. We went home that day fulfilled in our desire to play sports, but not so much in our desire to minister to the men. We returned just days later to play soccer with the men once again, but the result was the same: we had a good game, but relationships didn't grow.
"Communication was very tough, as only a couple of the refugees spoke English, but we tried our best. We went home that day fulfilled in our desire to play sports, but not so much in our desire to minister to the men."
That night, we asked God whether or not we should play soccer with the men again. I must admit, at this point, it seemed selfish to play soccer on outreach without seeing any fruit for the Kingdom; but much to our surprise God told us to keep seeing the men, so we returned a few more times. Each time we returned after we prayed it seemed that the men grew warmer and warmer toward us. They greeted us with smiles and were excited that we were joining them to play. We came to know the men who spoke some English, and with their help, slowly developed relationships with a large portion of the Afghan men, most of whom spoke no English.
As our time in Greece was coming to an end, we returned to the camp for a final visit, equipped with cookies to give to our new friends. At this time, we no longer played YWAM’ers versus Afghani’s, as we previously had, but we all felt comfortable enough to intermingle. Somehow the act of playing soccer with these men had opened the door to friendship, much to our delight.
After the game, we presented the men with the cookies we had brought and began to say our goodbye’s. Discontent with simply saying goodbye, the men invited us into the camp to host us for tea. Initially, we resisted because we knew that no evangelical groups were allowed in the camp, but eventually, swayed by their persistence, we followed the men to the camp to ask the manager for her permission. I followed two of the men into the manager’s office, nervous, but praying fervently for a door to be opened for us. The men told the manager the situation; that they had made friends with a group of Americans, with whom they played soccer, and that they wanted to host us for tea. Without hesitation, the manager accepted their request and allowed us into the camp.
As a group, we followed the men up the stairs into the old airport; a walk that no evangelical groups had been able to make for a year! The men scrambled together some chairs, and seated us around a table. A couple of the men prepared tea, while the others stood around the table talking with us. One man brought his baby daughter so that we could meet her; another described his escape from a terrorist group who were hunting him down in Afghanistan, and yet another shared his plans to travel to Germany (all of course with the help of our new translator–friends). The raw humanity in the room was palpable. These men opened their home to us, and served us the best of what they had.
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They served us dates, halva (a Middle-Eastern desert) and traditionally-prepared tea; it was beautiful. I have never experienced such heart-felt hospitality; nor have I ever seen people give so much with so little. As we sat there, in the old airport, which was now littered with tents spread across a hard floor, there was a real sense of holiness; God’s presence smiling down on us as all we hung out together.
As time came for us to leave, the men pleaded with us to stay longer, but we had to join the rest of our team. They accompanied us as we walked down the airport stairs, escorting us back to the tram station. There, as a large group, we prayed for one another, Christians and Muslims together, without even the slightest hesitation. We blessed one another, and parted ways with a deep sense of connection.
Looking back, I must admit, I am truly shocked how much came out of a few games of soccer. I would never have thought that such genuine and heart-felt relationships could be formed with a few words and a lot of soccer; but they really can! In human terms, we really didn't do much other than kick a ball and be friendly, but in the Spirit, God was at work behind the curtain, growing even the most unexpected relationships. Sports truly are an universal-language; they are a medium in which people can connect; but more than that, they are a tool with which God can build His Kingdom.
Alastair Cuthbertson | YWAM Orlando Staff
Alastair and his wife, Andi, did their DTS in 2015 and now help lead our sports and fitness ministry efforts.