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Belarus children hear of Jesus at Baptist basketball clinics

BOBRUSK, Belarus (BP)–Wearing a cap with the name “JESUS” written across it, pastor Peter Ryzhkov wiped a tear from his cheek as he approached a group of children eagerly awaiting answers to their questions. “Who was Jesus and when did he die?” a girl asked. “Who was Jesus’ father?” a boy wanted to know.
Smiling widely, Ryzhkov patiently answered each question before asking who was ready to accept Jesus Christ as Lord of his or her life. About 40 raised their hands.
Ryzhkov led the children in a prayer to accept Christ. Afterward, he shared the time and place of Sunday school in Safe Harbour Evangelical Christian Baptist Church in Bobrusk, Belarus. Several of the children said they would plan to attend.
“I asked if any of them wanted Christ in their hearts, and most of them were very excited about it,” recounted Baptist volunteer Tricia Alberts, 25, a member of Concord Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo. “You could see the joy in those kids’ eyes.”
Through a translator, Alberts and fellow team member Denita Ratcliff of Russellville, Mo., had summoned “Pastor Peter” to share with the children.
The children, ages 6 to 14, were nearing the end of a three-week summer stay at the Forest Fairy Tale Camp outside of Bobrusk. The camp was one of three “pioneer” camps visited by a Missouri Sports Crusaders team, which taught basketball basics and shared Christ. Earlier in the week, the Sports Crusaders led a clinic at the Kobrin Camp in the Brest region of Belarus.
During an opening assembly attended by more than 200 children at Forest Fairy Tale Camp, Sports Crusaders team leader Bobby Shows explained how to hold and shoot a basketball. Later, in a devotional time, the young people heard the plan of salvation.
When asked who in the group had heard of Jesus Christ, only about a third raised their hand.
“It was a dramatic moment when God showed us visibly why we were there,” said Shows, a member of the missions education and ministry team of the Missouri Baptist Convention. “There we were, sharing Christ at a government camp which was once a place where the youth of Belarus were taught to hate Americans .… Now they were learning about Jesus.”
During one camp, a 13-year-old girl, Lena, walked up to Shows and asked in broken English, “I do not know who Jesus is. Can you tell me?” “It was the first time in my life that I had a person say to me that she had never heard of Jesus Christ,” said Shows, a veteran of many overseas missions trips. “I’d heard stories, but never heard it with my own ears.”
In all, the gospel was presented to more than 800 children in camps during the week, Shows reported. “It is doubtful without basketball in hand that we would have been welcomed to all but the Kobrin camp,” he added.
While basketball is far from a popular sport in Belarus, children and leaders at the camps were curious about the sport nonetheless. Soccer, or “football” as Belarussians call it, is the number one sport in the former Soviet republic.
Shows, a former Mississippi State University basketball standout who is 6 feet, 8 inches tall, was an instant hit as he climbed out of a van that ferried the group to each of the camps. While sharing with the groups, he answered the obvious question on the minds of campers. “I know you want to know how tall I am. I stand at two meters,” Shows said, as the crowd laughed.
The trip was the first effort by Missouri Baptists to share Christ using basketball, or any sport, as an evangelistic tool in Belarus. Planning started more than three years ago, and the project looked as if it would not take place many times, Shows said.
Visas for the group were not issued until a week before the team’s departure on August 9. An invitation finally came through the National Belarussian Sports Club, clearing the way for the visas. While the director of the sports club was open to the team’s visit, a club committee voted not to sponsor the group while in the country. “They were afraid we would be too evangelistic and that other religions would complain,” missionary Ron Cansler said.
Quick action by Cansler and Ryzhkov two days before the team’s arrival resulted in clinics being set up at Kobrin and at the three Pioneer camps near Bobrusk.
“This was a great beginning for the sports work in missions in Belarus,” said Cansler. “We saw the openness of the camps to let us come and share the sports ministry and to give invitations to come to Christ, as well as to give out Bibles.
“This was the first time that a sports team has gone in and used sports and the teaching of the game of basketball as the door opener. I feel it was very effective.”
The Sports Crusaders visited two other government-run camps near Bobrusk — the Pomawka, or “Daisy” camp, and the Mechta, or “Dream” camp. At the Dream Camp, director Leonid Sychov said after receiving a Sports Crusaders team cap, “We welcome Americans as if they were our relatives.”
Basketball skills taught during the week of camps in Belarus included shooting, dribbling and passing. Additionally, each member of the Sports Crusader team shared his or her testimony and led in devotions with children at the camps visited.
“God reinforced my belief in what he can do with sports,” said Derrick Michaud, 21, of Memphis, Tenn. “We shared with so many people who might not have heard the gospel if not for sports,” said Michaud, who attends Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau.
“God used what we have come to affectionately call ‘the little round sphere’ to do a mighty work,” said Stacy Ousley, 35, of Jefferson City and member of Concord church. “Sports is the international language.”

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  • Tim Yarbrough