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Upward Soccer camp meets kids’ needs

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (BP)–It’s not your typical Africa.

Kids — many of them Caucasian — run across a grassy soccer field, practicing their dribbling and goaltending skills. The wind is so cold it causes teeth to chatter and eyes to water. The hot chocolate at break time garners great anticipation.

The children, grades 1 to 7, are participating in an Upward Soccer clinic, a popular outreach held at many churches in the United States.

But this isn’t suburbia USA. It’s suburbia South Africa.

The kids are playing soccer in Edenvale, a residential area to the east of Johannesburg. The city — home to 10 million people and one of the 50 most economically influential in the world — reminds many international visitors of Europe or the United States.

Edenvale is a middle-class area full of tree-line residential avenues, neatly tended gardens, corner grocery stores and early morning joggers. About 80 percent of the population is Caucasian.

Also, the problems faced by children in Edenvale are the same as those in any industrialized nation like the United States.

Richard van Lieshout, youth pastor of Edenvale Baptist Church, which hosted the Upward clinic, said children and youth in the community face stress from school work and peer pressure. Yet they often don’t get much support on the home front.

“Families these days have to work long hours, they sit in traffic for hours, so [the kids’] parents leave them at like 7 in the morning and get back like 8 at night,” van Lieshout said. “Parents are cranky because they’ve sat in traffic for hours, and so these kids don’t get a lot of quality time with their parents.”

Edenvale Baptist Church is working to reach out to these families. In the past couple of years the church has grown significantly, particularly with young families. The Upward Soccer clinic, timed to coincide with the World Cup competition in South Africa, was one of many efforts to meet the needs of these new attendees, along with others in the community.

Warren Wakefield, who coordinated the skills training portion of the clinic, said the ultimate goal of the soccer outreach is to “connect with their parents more, and hopefully invite their parents to … a social event at the church and just get to know them and build relationships with these kids and also their parents.”

Van Lieshout said that of the 190 children who attended the clinic, only 40 of them go to a church of any kind.

“The kids need just love,” he said. “Love and just hugs [and] affirmation — affirmation after affirmation after affirmation. … We watch our coaches [and there’s] not a single word of any kind of putting the kid down.”

During the clinic, the students learned soccer skills like defending, passing and shooting. They also met in small “huddles” with a coach to talk about Jesus, learn memory verses and receive awards and encouragements.

Ten-year-old Cole van Rooyen, who does not attend church, said he learned “about God and how He is wise.”

Austin Kemsley, 12, said, “We’re learning that He gives us wisdom, understanding, knowledge, basically everything. He gives us everything.”

The combined message of sports and Christ is exactly what Wakefield hoped to convey.

“My belief about sport is that sport is never to be by itself,” he said. “… I really do believe that it needs to come with a message. And what better message than the only true message, and that’s the truth that Jesus loves you.”

He added, “I’m just happy if kids walk away from this and they know that Christianity isn’t about a religion, it’s about, ‘Hey, Jesus loves me, and He wants to have a relationship with me.'”
Melanie Clinton is a writer for the International Mission Board’s global communication team.

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  • Melanie Clinton