by Mark Hunter
On just about any given Saturday, the spacious ball fields at Istrouma Baptist Church are crowded with hundreds of boys and girls playing flag football, T-ball, softball, baseball, or soccer, or they’re indoors playing basketball or participating in “extreme sports” training in the church’s newly renovated gym.
They also hear a gospel message and earn extra points for their team by memorizing a weekly Bible verse.
Hundreds of parents and grandparents cheer the kids on during the games and then attentively listen to volunteer chaplains who present the Gospel of Jesus Christ at each game’s half time.
“About 90 percent of these kids don’t go to Istrouma and about one-third don’t attend church that we know of,” said M.L. Woodruff, Istrouma’s sports minister during a late October Saturday morning football session.
More than 1,200 children and adults were on the church’s campus, located off Airline Highway just south of I-12. The kids, ranging in age from 4 to 14, played on 30 flag-football teams with pro-football team names like the Ravens, Packers, Colts and Titans.
The six acres of groomed grass was chalk-lined into smaller fields with names like the Georgia Dome, Heinz Field, and the Superdome. During the morning, nearly 300 boys and girls played more than a dozen games supported by 250 volunteers, including 70 volunteer coaches.
The cheers of supportive adults rolled across the campus as the kids, all wearing bright orange, tear-away “flags” on belts below their team jerseys, chased each other up and down the fields. The blasts of referee’s whistles punctuated what one coach described with a laugh as “organized chaos.”
“A lot of kids like sports, [and] they like to play sports; their faces light up when they get the opportunity to play sports, and our sports are all about the kids,” said Woodruff, who in a previous career was the legendary baseball coach at Parkview Baptist School. “When they get a chance to get out and run around they forget about themselves – they become selfless – so we use the sports to talk about how the Light of the World – Jesus Christ – comes inside us and transforms our lives.”
And for the hundreds of adults, “This is a bridge to give people who don’t normally come to church an opportunity to come and check it out,” Woodruff said. “We’re attractional – where we have people come to our campus – but our goal is to be missional where we go out into the community and start gospel centers of sports ministry to transform the communities for Christ.”
BATON ROUGE SPORTS INITIATIVE
Each year, ISO sponsors what is called the “Baton Rouge Sports Initiative,” where the Istrouma church coordinates a community-wide, one day sports event partnering with many other local churches, EBR schools, the BRAVE anti-crime initiative, and the BREC sports programs at BREC parks around the metro area, especially in north Baton Rouge.
On April 12, 2016, an estimated 1,000 kids will attend sports clinics for baseball, football, basketball, soccer, “and whatever else we can dream up,” Woodruff said. Dozens of high school and college student athletes will volunteer to coach the kids in the various sports, and everyone gets a nutritious lunch prepared by local church volunteers.
At each clinic site, sports equipment like baseballs, bats, and gloves will be given to the students/participants. All of the equipment is donated. Donations can be dropped off at the church office, a former bank located at the western edge of the Istrouma campus along the Airline Highway frontage road, until the end of March.
“We’d like to have new equipment – we’ll take used equipment, but we don’t want folks to clean out their garage and bring us baseball gloves that are 20 years old,” Woodruff said. “We want to give the kids good stuff they can use.”
GAMES BRING FAMILIES TOGETHER
Carson Bankston is an assistant coach for the Colts, a team for the 3rd grade age group, and his family attends Graceworks Church in Prairieville. He said he appreciates the program because the whole family is involved as his wife, Laura, and their 3-year-old daughter, Ella Jane, watch and cheer for their 8-year-old son Parker James.
“They’re having a great year,” Bankston said about the team. “I think its really good for the dads and kids to have time to be together, have some good times together, and also have some conflict and try to work through it.”
Bankston encourages Christian Life readers to find out more about the program and get involved because, “they have a lot of fun, they get to play and they get to build some skills.”
Larry Singleton is head coach of the Titans, a team for the 1st grade age group, and attends Healing Place Church.
“It’s all about the kids,” Singleton said as his son, Tahj, 6, stood nearby. After each game the coaches present their players with award cards for various teamwork skills then huddle with them for a prayer.
Tahj clutched a colorful award card for “best listener.” When asked about the just-finished game he answered, “it’s so fun!” with a big grin.
Singleton said they live nearby and are planning on coaching and playing basketball later this year.
“It’s all about the kids,” Singleton said again. “We want to make sure they are prepared for life both spiritually and to be able to play together.”
Jason Whitehead is the Titans assistant coach. His family attends Cross Point Baptist, and his three sons Jacob, Caleb, and Noah were also playing.
“The game provides us an opportunity to see what life is like – they learn about emotions and thoughts and feelings that are going to come out in life and deal with them in a Christ-like way,” Whitehead said. “Istrouma Sports’ theme is to do sports a different way – at the end of the game – you still have a desire to win but its not us against them – we are striving together.”
WHY A SPORTS MINISTRY?
“Istrouma’s sports ministry provides the entire community with a wholesome atmosphere for children to develop,” said Istrouma’s Lead Pastor Jeff Ginn. “Not only are the kids learning fundamentals about sports, more importantly, they’re learning fundamentals about life. Biblical principles are instilled through weekly memory verses and devotionals.
“Even the parents and grandparents are influenced by what happens on our fields,” Ginn said. “We’re helping to change the world one child at a time.”
For more information visit Istrouma’s web site: www.istrouma.org