A Season in the Slammer

“The Lord gets His best soldiers out of the highlands of affliction.”  -Charles H. Spurgeon

When I used to think about things that were holy, pure, and lovely, my mind never drifted to prisons.  I never associated the love of God with a criminal or a place of worship with a jail cell bathroom.  My distorted understanding of purity and holiness revolved around vintage church pews, slow organ music, and priests who wore funny outfits that looked like tablecloths.

Then God broke my heart and renewed my perspective.  My hands and my feet first needed to get dirty and sore before I could experience love in it’s truest, purest, and freest form. He had to send me to some dark places in South Africa to finally wake me up to the truth of the gospel, and one of those places happens to be a venue where freedom isn’t supposed to exist.

One of my favorite sayings as of late is, “Hey, sorry friend, I can’t hang out today because I’m going to prison,” and then I savor the look of surprise and concern on their face before I explain why.  I love going to prison.  I love it because it makes me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable.  I love it because every time I am willing to get in my car and drive 40 minutes to meet with the boys, God goes before me to pave the way for something amazing.   I love it because I’ve gained a bunch of new brothers to do life with, and I love it because even though I go with the intention of teaching and pouring out my own wisdom and knowledge, I am the one being taught and poured into by the boys.

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When I spend time with the guys, I am surrounded by so much love to the point where it’s almost overwhelming.  I get to witness changed lives, freedom from past mistakes, and hope.  Hope Academy (the name couldn’t be more appropriate) is only one small section of Drakenstein Prison, and before I am able to go into the boy’s room where we do bible studies and life skill sessions, I have to walk through another section of the prison first.  It’s usually in that place where I am faced with some loud whistling and hollering by the other boys who aren’t staying in the Academy.  But once I cross over into where our team stays, I am greeted with respect, gentleness, and kindness.

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The boys in Hope Academy are a part of the Ambassadors Football program.  They teach and uphold important values that focus on Faith, Football, and Future.  Most of these guys know Jesus, and when I walk into their room, I can feel it and see it in the smiles on their faces.  I get to leave that prison each afternoon with a full heart because it’s a place where grace and forgiveness reign supreme.  I am humbled to have the privilege of building relationships with men who were once known as murderers, robbers, and gangsters, but are now godly warriors and men of integrity.  Playing football (aka. soccer for the Americans) with them twice a week on their rocky and uneven field in the back of the jail is an honor and a joy (even though I can barely keep up with them).

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I have been asked by a few friends if I am ever afraid to go into the prison, and my answer is always the same.  No, I’m not afraid because love always casts out fear.  If love is present, then God is present (because God is love), and that means there is nothing for me to be afraid of.  I think it’s so cool that someone I might have feared or steered clear of in the past can now be called my South African brother (from another mother).  It’s beautiful, it’s redemptive, and it’s eye opening.

The team of guys at Hope Academy remind me that no one is beyond the reach of our God.  No one is too far gone to be healed or forgiven.  No one is too broken, too dirty, too sinful, or too guilty to be known and loved by the Creator of the universe.  And I’ll be honest, that truth punches me in the gut every now and then because I can be so quick to judge others for their mistakes.  Not only am I hard on others, I can also be incredibly hard on myself.  So, lately, I’ve asked God to strip me of my judgements, my stereotypes, my criticisms, and my generalizations.  I have asked Him to help me see the world (including myself) through His loving and perfect eyes.

And I must admit, so far … He’s been faithful every step of the way.

And They Will Know We Are Christians By Our … Slidetackling?

Sports will always play a significant roll in my life.  Whether it’s bonding with my family over some Publix subs before a Miami Dolphins football game, or being coached by my dad on the sidelines of a stressful soccer match

… sports will always have a special place in my heart.

I love it all; the competition, the passion, the hard work, the determination, the adrenaline, the teamwork, the winning, and the sacrifice.  When we were kids, my sister Melissa and I would turn anything and everything into a sport.  For example, when Mom wanted us to put the dirty laundry away, you can bet your bottom dollar that we would roll those clothes into tight balls and see how many hamper “shots” we could make by the time the buzzer went off.

However, sport can also bring out the worst in someone.  I’m sure one way or another, we’ve all experienced it.  I’ve heard plenty of football fans curse and condemn their home teams after a big loss (and too many beers), I’ve listened to parents and coaches fight with a referee because of a terrible call, and I’ve personally witnessed one of my teammates getting tackled by an ill-intentioned opponent during a soccer game (which led to her having a torn ACL).

Having said that, I am no saint either.  I’ve made quite a few “questionable plays” on the field, I’ve cursed at a ref (under my breath because I didn’t have the guts to do it to his face), and, yes, I’ve even cheated by pretending that my team didn’t kick the ball out of bounds when we totally did. Whoops.

So, as a Christian athlete … where does Jesus fit in?  How can I love like Christ and play a sport at the same time?  I think the key is examining the heart.  The Bible says that man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.  The heart is the “why” behind everything we do.  It’s where our motivations and intentions begin to take root and flourish.  So when I play soccer, why do I play?  Do I play to satisfy my own ego or do I play for a greater purpose?  Do I try to set an example in love and truth on the field or do I leave my values and integrity on the sidelines?

I’ll be honest with you guys.  I can’t sing or play guitar, but I can kick the heck out of a soccer ball.  I can’t dance or paint with watercolors, but I can surely sprint down a field as if my life depended on it.

I know that when I step out onto the field, Jesus steps out there with me.  He doesn’t get banned from the bleachers, He doesn’t get left in the car, and He doesn’t disapprove of my love for the game (unless it becomes greater than my love for Him).

So, when I go in for a 50/50 ball, you will never see me cringe in fear or apologize for using my body’s strength to fight for possession.  I will face my opponents head on, and I will play with passion, vigor, and intensity.  When a teammate messes up, I will show grace and mercy because no one is perfect and we all make mistakes.  When my teammates succeed, I will build them up and affirm them because I am called to be an encourager.  When an opponent fouls me, I will shake her hand with sincerity, and I will show her forgiveness because I am commanded to love those around me.

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My faith and my competitive spirit do not have to contradict each other.  God can be glorified in any setting if I simply invite Him into it.  It’s my choice whether or not I want to represent Him.  I can give in to the many pressures of the “mainstream sports culture,” or I can decide to stand firm in who God created me to be as His daughter. (His loud, energetic, aggressive, competitive, compassionate, silly, kind, faith filled, and athletic daughter.)

As a captain or as a bench warmer, I have purposed in my heart to love, to serve, and to play with the best of my ability.  Will I screw up? Definitely.  I’m bound to make a bad tackle and eventually lose my cool on the field.  I’m human, so that stuff will happen, but God is big enough to take even those messed up moments and turn them into something beautiful … and I love Him for that.

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The FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) has a Competitors Creed that sums up my thoughts in this blog post quite nicely, and I stand by it wholeheartedly.  Check it out by clicking this link:

http://fcaendurance.com/the-competitors-creed

Part of A Team

Cloetesville, South Africa

It’s an area full of colored, afrikaans speaking South Africans.  It’s an area that is saturated with alcohol abuse, poverty, school dropouts, and pregnant teenagers.  The average person doesn’t have much of a job or an education, let alone a loving and supportive family.

But you know what, the kids LOVE futsal.

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Walk into an open field with a ball and some cones… and kids will show up out of nowhere.  It’s a beautiful sight.

Within this country, well-known for its history with segregation and racism, you’ll find training4changeS.  A nonprofit organization made up of: some radical americans desiring to impact the lives of kids through sport, a white south african girl with a heart for discipleship, a black xhosa speaking man who can preach and lead the youth with zeal, a colored afrikaans speaking man who just so happens to be the former head coach of the Futsal National team in South Africa, and a colored afrikaans girl who has a passion for changing the world around her in a big way.

We are all very different.  We come from different cultures and we speak different languages.  We are different ages, we are different genders, and we have different opinions and perspectives.

But… we all have the same passion and we all have the same heart.  Our heart is to break the stereotypes within South Africa and to impact the lives of young boys and girls through sport (futsal).  Our overall goals are to love, to teach, to mentor, and to lead.

It’s a beautiful example of the “body of Christ” aka the church in action.  Many parts combining with different strengths and weaknesses to accomplish something amazing!  1 Corinthians 12:18, 21, and 22 say this: “But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where He wants it…The eye can never say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you,’ and the head can’t say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you’…In fact, some parts of the body that seem the weakest and least important are actually the most necessary.”

If we were all armpits or feet…we wouldn’t get very far (some parts of South Africa smell bad enough as it is so we really wouldn’t want that).  Luckily for us, we are a variety of “parts” that are working in unison, striving to create a movement.  Our hope is that this movement will shatter the existing expectations of what “life” is supposed to look like for these young South African kids.

The weather in Stellenbosch is hot, the apartment is finally decorated, the coaching meetings have begun, there are mountains outside my window (take THAT Miami), my Afrikaans is improving (hallelujah), and my best friend enjoys making fun of my strange American habits (like precutting my meat so I can put my knife down and how I put “too much” ice in my drinks).  I love it all.

School starts for the kids next Wednesday, and that’s when the real fun will begin, so pray for loving and honest relationships to be developed between the coaches and the players.  Pray for opportunities, growth, patience, grace, and for language barriers to be conquered.  Pray for no injuries and no expectations!  Finally, pray for the training4changeS team, that we will be united on this journey.

The Team.

Ecclesiastes 12:4 says: A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.

Ready, Set, Wait?

Waiting.

It’s a tough thing to do.  Like for example, waiting in line at the grocery store, waiting for the work day to end, or even waiting for your favorite TV show to start it’s next season.

But what about waiting to leave the country to begin an adventure of a lifetime?  Yeah. That’s really hard.

About a year ago, the Lord used close friends, scripture, and prayer to reveal to me a new and radical mission for my life.  It was a mission that I never would have dreamed up on my own.  To be honest, I was scared to death.  God was calling me to become a missionary.

I have aways had a passion for soccer, and I loved being able to play it as a kid and coach it as an adult.  In college, majoring in Sports and Fitness, I was given the opportunity to partner with the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) on a summer missions trip called IMPACT.  The first time that I attended the trip I was a student, but I knew God was calling me back so I returned the following summer as a co-leader.  This was the first time the thought had crossed my mind that maybe the Lord was calling me to become a full-time missionary.  We learned about using sport to share the gospel and how it can be used to impact the lives of people around the globe.  Daniel Thomae, a current missionary in South Africa and partner with IMPACT, approached me about joining his nonprofit “training4changeS,” and he invited me to come alongside him and his wife Kendra as a coach for the young girls.  Daniel’s mission has been to open a futsal academy for the local primary school kids in the Western Cape of South Africa.  He has wanted to raise up young leaders and coaches to impact the nation, which he hopes will help to prevent the cycles of poverty, fatherlessness, and violence from reoccurring amongst the people.

My heart felt right at home.

I have this dream to help young girls all over the globe realize their worth and value.  I want them to know that they are loved beyond measure by a Heavenly Father who will never let them down or disown them.  I want them to develop life skills and values that will change their lives and their families lives forever.  I want to share the grace and love of Jesus Christ by teaching them about the Bible and using the sport of futsal to do it. (By the way, futsal is a 5-a-side version of soccer that is played on a hard court without walls, using a smaller ball than regular soccer and a standard match consists of two 20-minute halves.)

The crazy part?  The Lord has blessed me by giving me an opportunity to do it.

The journey begins now, by spreading the word of this mission, by raising support, by prayer, and by letting the Lord lead the way.

The wait is almost over, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Join me on this adventure.

Donate to the cause at: http://ssmfi.org/missionary/samantha-stokesberry/

Learn more about training4changeS and their mission at: http://www.training4changes.org/

Psalm 27:14 “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

Habakkuk 1:5 “Look at the nations and watch – and be utterly amazed.  For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.”

 

– Sam