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Small church makes giant impact with Upward Basketball

OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. (BP)–Players shooting and dribbling balls. Whistles blowing. Fans cheering. These are all sights and sounds from a typical basketball game. But nothing is typical about the first season of Upward Basketball and Cheerleading at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Ocean Springs, Miss.

Emmanuel, a church that averages 100 people in Sunday School, started an Upward Basketball ministry with 380 boys and girls on 37 teams, 85 cheerleaders and 85 coaches. Each Saturday, about 1,000 people attend the games, which are played from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

How does a church this size run a program this enormous?

For Emmanuel, it all started two years ago when Pastor Hal Selby caught a vision for what a gym could do for a church. Selby watched neighborhood children play on the church’s basketball court and come into the church building for water. He thought about the Living Water the church could offer the children and, ultimately, their families.

Selby then put his vision into action. Last year, he contacted Myrna Gregory in Brandon, Miss., to get an overview of ministry possibilities. Gregory is a Mississippi consultant for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Members at Emmanuel learned they needed a gym and someone to direct an Upward Basketball outreach. God provided both.

As the pastor talked about Upward Basketball, a church member who is a builder committed to donate the profit from the sale of four houses to the project. Another builder, who is not a member, put his construction crews on the work site free of charge. He now serves as a coach.

While the church was looking for an associate pastor for education, youth and recreation, God then provided Alan Broome, who had worked with Upward Basketball for seven years in previous churches. He joined the staff in August 2004.

When Broome came to the church, the gym was under construction, but the church had no budget for Upward Basketball and no organization in place. But Broome said the members’ faith has grown as a result of the months of preparation — the group effort — that led up to the launch of the season Jan. 8.

Church members worked long hours on the building during “pray and paint” sessions, when church members of all ages gathered for prayer times followed by painting sessions. Local officials granted the church occupancy of the new facility, which includes additional educational space, three days before the basketball season started.

God also provided ministry partners for Emmanuel. First Presbyterian Church of Ocean Springs provided coaches and St. Paul United Methodist Church provided a second gym and coaches.

Local schools and media also became partners. When Hurricane Ivan brushed the Mississippi Gulf Coast last September, the city gyms were damaged, while Emmanuel’s new gym was not, so the schools and local paper promoted the new Upward Basketball league to the community.

Individuals in and outside the church also became partners. Donations came from as far away as Texas to create a $3,500 scholarship fund for children who could not pay the necessary fees.

Donations also have paid for the league’s budget and various incidentals, while proceeds from a concession stand during the Saturday games will pay for the awards program at the end of the season. Volunteers staff the concession stand.

With all of the miracles involved in the church’s venture into Upward Basketball, Broome said the greatest blessing is to see what God is doing in others.

“The highlight for me is to see our laypeople love on children and get excited about the ministry,” he said.

“I’ve also been blessed to see young couples that have not previously held leadership positions in the church plug into this ministry, and for the new families who have begun attending our church.”

John Garner, consultant for recreation and sports ministry at LifeWay Christian Resources, said Emmanuel Baptist Church is a perfect example of what Upward Basketball and LifeWay are about. After VBS, Upward is second in finding prospects at any size church, he noted.

“Upward and LifeWay are two Kingdom entities that are about the same things — reaching people who do not know Christ and discipling those who do know Him to be multipliers of the Kingdom.”
For information about Upward sports ministries, visit http://www.upward.com/information.htm and request a free information kit.
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  • Tanya Dawson*