PRETORIA, South Africa (BP)–On a wintery day in Pretoria, South Africa’s women’s national soccer teams scrimmage with a squad of female soccer players from North America affiliated with Athletes in Action.
Concentrating on the movement of the ball and working as a team, the South African and AIA athletes must control the ball’s direction despite an uneven field and strong crosswinds. During one drill, a defender has her eyes glued to her attacker’s feet as they cross, fake and drive the ball toward the goal. As the attacker moves forward, the players appear almost as if they are locked in a dance, as one attempts to glide past the other.
When the scrimmage is finished, the players make their way to a conference room for refreshments and a morning session of prayer and testimony as the AIA women teach soccer strategy and minister to the South African women during a weeklong camp.
For a number of the South Africans, their athleticism masks hurt and abuse they have experienced in life, leaving them struggling with the concepts of forgiveness and love. The AIA women share their testimonies with the South Africans in an effort to help open up their hearts to tell their own stories. “One thing that touches other people’s lives is testimonies,” says Simphiwe Dludlu, a Christian South African athlete who is vice captain of her squad.
After the North Americans finish, small groups move outside and the South Africans begin to share. One player asks, “How can I love this person when he has shown so much hurt in the past?” It is through questions like this that the AIA women are able point to God and His redeeming love.
Slowly the stories and tears come. The women share their pain from physical and emotional abuse, exploitation, suicide attempts, grief and confusion about their sexual orientation.
An abyss of pain is captured in their eyes as they process and talk about what they have gone through. For many, this is the first chance they have had to talk to someone about their struggles and try to grapple with what has happened to them.
When the stories finish, the Christian athletes offer the hope and healing that can be found in Christ, and a number of them accept him into their hearts as Lord and Savior, embracing the hope and healing that is offered to them.
“Even if it’s 11 of the teammates are not believers, if one [becomes] a believer, that’s something,” Dludlu says. “If I pray about it [salvation for others] and someone else starts praying, it means something.”
Lauren Beachy, a soccer player from the United States, reflects, “What they’re experiencing … is just really hard to believe,” yet God “has opened up each of their hearts. … It’s been awesome to see their surrender.”
Evelyn Adamson is an intern for the International Mission Board’s global communication team covering competition and ministry related to the World Cup tournament in South Africa.