By Dave Maurer
Pastor, Bethel Mennonite
During the evenings of July 27-30, 2015, Bethel Mennonite Church in West Liberty, Ohio, hosted its fifth annual soccer camp for the community. The camp, which took place from 6 to 8 p.m. each day, was done in partnership with the West Liberty Soccer Association, which helped the congregation get the word out about the camp. The Association also set up goals for the camp to use in West Liberty’s Lion’s Park where the Association plays most of its games.
You may wonder, “Why would a church host a soccer camp for the community?” Well, a few reasons come to mind. First, there is a strong community soccer presence for children, but many adults know little about the needed skills to be able to teach their children. This creates a natural opportunity to be the church in the community. Second, our congregation has a number of people in it that have played and even coached soccer. We have a gifting that matches an opportunity (perhaps need?) in the community.
Third, we live in a sports-crazed culture, but unfortunately in the midst of this there are many children who are belittled and denigrated by their peers and even their coaches. Because of this, soccer becomes a medium for demonstrating the gospel and planting the seeds of Jesus’ love in the lives of children, some of whom have no other contact with a church. Fourth, coaching the camp creates space to learn names and build relationships with people outside of our church. In a small town like West Liberty, these relationships create long-term informal connections with people that one bumps into at the grocery store or the ice cream parlor.
Fifth, by charging a modest registration fee (with family discounts and scholarships available), the camp allows us to provide each child with a fair trade soccer ball and a camp shirt. This means that right before starting the fall season, each child has his or her own size-appropriate ball to take with them to practice. And through the camp we support local outreach but also Third World economies. All the balls that we purchase are certified, fair trade balls. Plus, people who do not even attend our church wear their Bethel Soccer Camp shirts around town throughout the year.
All this may leave you wondering how the camp was structured. We began each night with stretching and individual ball skills to get the kids warmed up. Then we divided the 42 children into relatively even groups in age and number. Four head coaches each ran a station four times each night focused on a particular skill for the night: dribbling, passing, defense, or offense. Each group then had a designated assistant coach who served both as assistants during the station time and as group guides as the children moved the group from one station to the next. After two 15-minute stations, we took a 10-minute snack break for icy pops. The children then each rotated through the remaining two stations. We ended each night together with a brief review, a devotional and a closing prayer.
Our last night began by taking a group picture in the goal with everyone wearing their camp shirts. It ended by handing out certificates of appreciation to each child and ice cream for the players and families. We also extended an invitation for everyone to come to our church Friday evening for a community pizza and movie night. For this event we heated up our wood fired pizza oven behind the church and baked about 40-45 medium-sized pizzas. About 50 people came, and about half of them were from our congregation. This created space for social interaction between people who attend Bethel and families of the children who participated in the camp. We then showed one of the Chronicles of Narnia movies in our sanctuary. We had planned to show this as an outdoor movie, but the weather did not cooperate with us.
We are very thankful to the Ohio Conference for the grant in 2013 that assisted us in building the pizza oven. We also appreciate Friendship Mennonite Church and their willingness to donate used bricks from their dismantled grill at Friendship Retreat. Some of these bricks have been incorporated into our oven and continue to serve the Kingdom in a different space and way.