JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (BP)–“I will never be the same,” said João Batista from Brazil. “I will go back a different person. This has changed my life.”
A Brazilian volunteer group, 200-strong, has traveled to South Africa to minister during the World Cup. Their outreach, representing 25 denominations, has been coordinated by Brazilian Baptists’ International Mission Board toward sharing the Gospel through soccer and health clinics; puppets and plays; and arts, crafts and sewing classes.
Batista is helping out at the health clinic in Zandspruit, a settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
Volunteers from Atletas de Cristo (an organization of Christian athletes) are among those helping conduct soccer clinics in underprivileged neighborhoods. Boys are divided into three age groups and taught accordingly. The fundamentals of soccer, such as how to pass and control the ball, are taught through practical exercises. The boys then form a circle and volunteers tell them of parallels between soccer fundamentals and spiritual principles. The love of God and the Good News about forgiveness in Christ are then shared with the children.
José Lopes, a Brazilian pastor who brought his puppet “Ronaldinho” to help him connect with South African children, also has a heart for Muslims. After serving for several years as a missionary in northern Africa, Lopes returned to Brazil. He has been concerned with the growing Muslim population in the country and hopes to encourage and train more Christians to share the Good News with them.
“There are 14 million Arabs in Brazil — 1 million of them in [the city of] São Paulo,” Lopes said.
Lopes helped plant the first Arab Baptist church in São Paulo. So it is no surprise that he is intent on finding and reaching out to Muslims while in South Africa. According to what he has learned, 600 mosques and 400 Muslim schools are in the Johannesburg area. As Brazilian volunteers went out to visit in a neighborhood, Lopes came upon a number of Muslims and was able to share the Good News with those who showed interest.
Marcos Grava, who is leading the group of Brazilian volunteers, is the sports evangelism coordinator for the Brazilian International Mission Board and the Brazil coordinator for the International Sports Coalition. He prays that the Brazilian church will wake up to the evangelistic opportunities at international sports events, where people from many nations — including those closed to the Gospel — flock to see their team compete.
In 2014 the world will turn its attention to Brazil for the next soccer World Cup and two years later it will do the same for the Olympics — each abounding with evangelistic potential that boggles the imagination. But right now, Grava’s attention is on the efforts underway in South Africa.
“When we do this kind of outreach during Olympics or World Cups, we don’t focus only on the tourist,” Grava said. “We focus also on the local people. In this case we have concentrated our efforts and resources, energy and time on the African people. But we also go in front of stadiums.”
Grava said security is tighter in South Africa than recent past venues in China or Rio de Janeiro. Even the “fan zones” (designated parks where fans can watch matches on big screens) are tightly controlled. The volunteers were unable to distribute bottled water and gospel tracts in a fan zone during Brazil’s match against North Korea. They were also prohibited from performing some of their street dramas for fans near a stadium.
Despite the barriers, Grava said he is encouraged by the fruit of the Brazilian volunteers’ efforts.
“If we consider the weather — very, very cold; people were walking fast and trying to get into the stadium as fast as they could — and if we consider the security — very tight, not allowing us to do many things — I would say it was very, very positive, because people from my group could meet people from everywhere, and talk in English, Spanish and Portuguese, even in Arabic, and share some things. So it was an amazing time.”
Ricardo Green is a writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board based in South America who is on location at the World Cup games in South Africa.