Editor’s note: This story is the second in a three-part series. Find the first installment here.
COVINGTON, Okla. (BP) — It was never in Laura Neel’s plans for her house to become a second home for numerous young men, some with American accents but most without, for her washer and dryer to work so hard, for her kitchen to feed so many.
Then again, for those college basketball players in northern Oklahoma, so far away from where they grew up, Neel’s house surely wasn’t in their plans either.
First Baptist Reydon on the west side of the state had shared space with First Baptist Covington at Falls Creek Conference Center for years. During that time friendships grew.
In the fall of 2015, First Reydon member Tyler Bowman was set to begin college in Missouri and asked Neel if she and her husband, David, would mind their home being his midway travel point to and from home. When plans for that school fell through, Neel pointed out Northern Oklahoma College in Enid.
“It was only about 15 miles away, so I suggested he go there and take some of his basic classes,” Neel said. “He applied and got in, but they didn’t have a dorm room available for about the first three weeks, so he stayed at our house.”
The Neels had two grown stepchildren out of the house and a 3-year-old grandson living with them at the time. Having someone college-age in the house was a new experience, and about to go to a different level.
“After a couple of weeks, he called me and said, ‘Mom, the laundromat is really expensive. Can I come to your house to wash clothes?’” she recalled. “Then while he was here, he said, ‘Are you making supper? Can I stay for some?’
“I told him of course.”
The next week Bowman called again about another laundry visit (with the possibility of supper). This time he also had a friend he’d like to bring, a suitemate who was from Senegal and a Muslim.
Before long there were other friends making the trip representing the Republic of the Congo, Croatia, Belgium and Nigeria. All but one were on the basketball team.
“Tyler was 6’3”, and all these guys made him look short,” Neel said. “They were around 6’10” or 6’11”.
She and David lived on a farm, while she also worked as an electrician and he as a plumber.
“When I got home from work on Fridays sometimes, I had no idea how many kids would be there,” Neel said.
Bowman, now out of school and working at a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities, told BP about the Neels and their influence.
“It was definitely a home away from home, and a great place to relax and get a good bite to eat” he said. “Laura and David would give you the shirt off their back if you needed it!”
The Neels’ faith, central to them personally, extended to the young people around them.
“Laura has opened up her home to several people over the years,” said Phillip Gregg, pastor of First Baptist Covington. “That is something she feels the Lord has called her to do, and one of Laura’s requirements of anyone that lives with her has always been that they attend church on Sunday.”
In all, 20 kids and young adults from basketball, youth and even returning from overseas military deployment have spent time with the Neels during the week or over weekends. A half-dozen lived with them for at least six months, with some overlapping in their stay.
The multicultural atmosphere brought the opportunity for new experiences. Saladine Ganda, from the Republic of the Congo, would help Neel shop in attempts to make dishes from the guests’ home countries.
“That was very interesting, because English wasn’t easy for him,” she said. “He was already starting college when he came over while the others were in high school.
“We would go over homework and then go shop for recipes from their home. Saladine helped us make these amazing dishes with peanut sauce. When he comes home to visit, I have to make him my homemade Alfredo, and he has to make the peanut sauce.”
That didn’t mean various palates wouldn’t have their limits. The overall spiciness of Senegalese dishes was a little too much for Neel. Breaded meat, like chicken fried steak, and casseroles were unusual for her African guests. Biscuits and gravy were a general meeting ground everyone could accept.
Several of the students had Christian backgrounds, but not all. Bowman remembers times at the Neel home as well as getting into pickup basketball games in Covington with his friends and others in the community.
“It was very important to me to invite my friends to church and witness to them” he said. “As some were from different spiritual backgrounds, it was a priority to invite them to Laura’s for fellowship but also as a possibility to hear about Christ for the first time.”
In the summer of 2017 two boys – ages 13 and 15 – came to live with the Neels. Brought to America and exploited for their basketball prowess, they needed a home and had connected with Neel through Ganda, who at that time was playing basketball for a college in California.
Their names were David and Gloire. David was 6’10” as a seventh grader. Gloire was a cat-quick point guard valued for his leadership on the court.
Strong believers, their faith had nevertheless been tested during their short time in America. In Covington, however, they would find their footing as well as a calling. Baptist Press will publish the final installment in the series Tuesday, Feb. 13.