Home of Wheaton Bible Church's Quarterly Magazine
By Dave Thomson
“I come in on Sunday—my mind’s already geared to praise and worship—and this little four-year-old girl or boy comes running up out of nowhere and just says, ‘Hey, Coach!’ and gives me a hug. You kneel down to their level, and they talk about what they’re learning, what they did last week, what they’re doing in Sunday school.” This Sunday-morning greeting represents a big part of why Frank Gomez is involved in Iglesia del Pueblo’s Sports Ministry, Ministerio de Deportes: kids are playing soccer and coming to church along with their families.
The focus of the ministry is to glorify God through sport—developing a healthy body and a strong soul through fellowship—by providing fun, safe and affordable soccer practices and camps. “This year,” Frank says, “we adopted a motto taken from 1 Timothy 4:7, “Ejercitate para la piedad! / Exercise yourself for godliness!”
As the most popular sport in the world, soccer is something that many people within our diverse church and community have in common. It provides a lot of opportunities for people within the church to get better connected and offers a unique outreach opportunity for kids and families.
Iglesia’s soccer ministry began back in 2001, a shared vision of Iglesia Senior Pastor Al Guerra and Roberto Hurtado, affectionately nicknamed “Vaquita,” who had been part of a similar outreach—shortly after he accepted Christ at age 18—at his church in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. When Vaquita came to the US in 2001, Pedro Bustos, a friend he trained and played soccer with in Bolivia, invited him to attend a service at Iglesia del Pueblo.
Growing out of their vision, the soccer ministry has created many opportunities to share God’s love down through the years, outside of the church’s walls, often with those who may find visiting a church intimidating.
Frank, who now co-leads the Iglesia Soccer Ministry with Doug Miles, shared another story of how God used the ministry to bring a family to the church. “We were training at the Carol Stream Outreach Center, and as we came upstairs my wife, Aurie, and I saw a woman standing at the door with a boy who was maybe three or four years old. So, I opened the door, and I introduced myself. She said they were there to sign up for the Head Start preschool program. I was going to help her try to find someone to help, but she asked what we were doing. I told her about our program and she came downstairs and her son was going to play soccer with us! She had never heard of Iglesia del Pueblo or Wheaton Bible Church, and so Aurie and I shared our experience with her and extended an invitation.
“The following Sunday, she was at church, and she’s been there ever since. Today, she serves in our children’s ministry, and the family is active in the church.”
TWO SEASONS A YEAR
The ministry has three parts: two seasons and a summer camp. The winter season begins the first or second week in February and takes place indoors. For several years, the ministry rented a gym at the Community Outreach Center in Carol Stream, but this year moved to Currier Elementary School in West Chicago, where they have even more space for their program.
Saturday practices are split into two sessions. The first, from 9:00 to 11:00 am, offers two groups: one for fours and fives and one for six- to eight-year-olds. The second session, from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm, also has two groups: one for ages nine through eleven and one for twelve- to fourteen-year-olds. An average of 60 to 70 kids attend each week.
The ministry takes a break in April, because so many other activities, such as spring break and Easter, occur then. The summer season begins in late May or early June and runs through the second week of August.
Frank explains that each practice follows a pattern. “We open up with some fellowship and a prayer circle. Then we do stretching and talk to the kids about how to treat one another, about what vocabulary is allowed, and about keeping emotions in check.
“We want to make sure that’s covered before,” he adds, “because it sets the stage for what’s acceptable behavior. Then we begin some drills that develop balance and stamina. Those lead to some ball drills, where it gets a little more challenging. The kids and their partners are engaging with the ball, moving around obstacles and cones, and developing speed and agility with the ball.
“Toward the end of the session, probably the last 30 to 45 minutes, we divide into two groups. We put on jerseys and set up goals, play something close to a full soccer match. That’s what the kids—even the four-year-olds—enjoy most.”
PUENTE DEL PUEBLO CAMP
The summer camp is the newest addition to the ministry. The volunteers, families, and kids say the camp is the highlight of the year. It is held in partnership with Puente del Pueblo (an outreach of Wheaton Bible Church) and Iglesia del Pueblo, which serves the residents of the Timberlake (formerly Westwood) Apartments of West Chicago. Most of these kids are hard pressed to afford traditional soccer camps, but they are able to participate in ours.
The camp always creates a lot of interest just on its own. “We are open to people who happen to walk by the soccer fields, are automatically attracted, and come to us asking questions. We get them signed up and playing as soon as we can,” Frank said. “It was Pastor Al Guerra’s idea that our soccer ministry not only conduct the two seasonal sessions for those already connected with Iglesia, but that we also reach out to the community. The choice of where to go and what to do was easy, because Puente del Pueblo touches so many kids and provides a chance to offer skills-based soccer training and, even more important, creates such a natural opportunity for sharing the Gospel.”
The camp has been offered for four years now and draws 60 to 70 campers every night from 6:00 to 8:00 pm. This year’s camp took place at Reed-Keppler Park, which is close to the Puente office and an easy walk for the kids living in Timberlake Apartments.
One of the many miracles of the ministry? After discussing our program with the West Chicago Park District, the park was provided at no cost .
VOLUNTEERS ON AND OFF THE FIELD
One of the keys to this sports ministry’s success is its volunteers, and one the strongest sets of volunteers is the coaching staff, which has impressive soccer experience. Although the Sports Ministry is not a soccer club or academy—and the emphasis is on having fun and learning rather than on competition—the coaches, Frank says, “are at the highest level. Their ability to work with kids, and the encouragement they constantly give them, is inspiring.”
With four head coaches on the field—one for each group—plus an assistant coach for each, there are enough adults to give kids the attention they need throughout the camps. Each devotes a short fellowship session during the cool down period—usually the last 10-15 minutes of practice—tailored to their age group. Sometimes they read from the Bible or share a personal testimony, other times they just get to know the kids at little better. In those moments, kids open up, because someone cares, and they see God’s love flowing through caring and nurturing adults.
Off the field, Doug and Erika Miles handle the administrative aspects of the camp, which includes everything from snacks and water to registration and making sure there’s a record of who’s in and who’s out. They also communicate with the families by either text messages or e-mails to let them know of cancellations for weather or other reasons.
Another couple, Dagoberto and Lourdes Rodriguez, take care of printing of the T-shirts, and also make it a point to establish personal connections with the families.
“On the weekends, when the families are there, they and others talk to the parents,” Frank said. “They share with them and discuss the ministry. They break the ice with the parents, talk about our church, and sort of extend that initial invitation.”
He explains, “The ministry doesn’t want parents showing up and going off in a corner or dropping off their kids and leaving. Some parents just want to show up and watch their kids. Others begin to chat and they begin to learn about us, about the program, and about our church. That’s a perfect opportunity to let them to see what we’re doing and help them understand our mission—and invite them to join us.
“When kids participate, we see a lot of the families at church,” Frank says. “Through the winter and summer sessions, almost all the families are regular attenders. They feel the pull, the draw to the Word and to the message.
The Soccer Ministry gives kids an opportunity to be with other kids, and for the parents, Frank adds, “it opens up the door for us to share. It’s a good experience for everyone.”
The camp is also beginning to draw the attention of young volunteers from WBC’s English-speaking congregation. Seven helped this year. “I think that’s beginning to tie us together—collaboration between our congregations,” says Frank. “And this is laying important groundwork for future ministries.”