Agape Project: Jesus + football

Nicole James | Brazil

The first season the team lost every game.

But by the second year, the boys had improved their football skills. They had also learned about Jesus.

Agape FC, the football club in Brazil’s Jardim Telespark, started over two years ago as a way for former professional player and OMer Mafe Campos to share Jesus’ love with the community. Today, the project provides tri-weekly trainings for around 150 six- to 17-year-old boys. A volunteer shares a devotion at each practice.

“Since the beginning I told them that the only reason I was there was to talk about Jesus,” Mafe emphasised. She explained to the boys, “We want to share with you things that have changed our lives, transformed our lives…Jesus can do this here as well.”

Agape trainings alternate between two courts, both located in a gritty neighbourhood. The area is nearly a favela, or slum, Mafe said, but a mix of wealthy families also live alongside those who can’t afford food. During practices, drug dealers occasionally congregate near the court.

“This is the reality that some of the kids have here,” she stated. “We just try to show them another way. We try to show them that God can change their lives—not where they live but how they deal with all of this.”

Prayer and Bible study

During initial trainings, the boys squirmed around during the prayer time on the court. After a few months, however, some of the younger players started volunteering to pray.

At the first practice of the club’s third season, following an energetic warm-up, the 13- to 19-year-old boys huddled together to pray, illuminated by tall lights, bright against the darkening sky. Acknowledging God’s work in their lives—now a natural part of practice—has extended beyond the football court.

Many of the boys come from a Catholic background, but most grow out of the religious activities parents mandate for younger children, Mafe said.

Last year she and another volunteer started an off-the-court discipleship group at a nearby church to study the Bible. That boys showed up “was a surprise for me,” Mafe admitted. “They come [to the court] and listen to us reading the Bible, but afterwards they know they’re going to play, so there’s a lot of motivation. But when I saw they’re just going to church to learn about God, this is what we want.”

The discipleship group covered different topics than the boys had learned through their early experiences at the Catholic church. “They had a lot of questions,” Mafe described. Despite the community’s strong denominational background, the Agape volunteers did not encounter resistance.

One of the mothers told Mafe, “My son doesn’t like to go to the Catholic church with me. I have to beg him to go. But every Monday, I see him getting his Bible and going to this Bible study with you. I like this. I thank you [for] what you are doing for my kids.”

Michael’s story

Michael, 19, was one of the first boys to join Agape FC.

There’s not a lot to do in the community, he said. “I grew up in a really hard environment with drugs and alcohol…but I never wanted to be involved in all of that.”

So, when Mafe started kicking balls around the neighbourhood court, Michael recognised the football programme as a positive place to spend time.

“I learned a lot with Agape,” he shared. “I learned about God, I learned with the boys. I learned about life and how to respect others, no matter if you are rich or poor, white or black.… I learned about Jesus and how to be firm [in my faith] and to give a good testimony to my family.”

“It’s been really great to see how God’s working in his life,” Mafe enthused. Through the football and discipleship programme, “he became a Christian, got baptised, and now he’s one of the teachers. He’s helping us a lot here, and he’s from the community, so it’s kind of an example for the other boys.”

Michael’s wish for Agape this year? “To win tournaments,” he answered without hesitation.

He also wanted to learn more about God and share the changes in his life. “I want to focus on Jesus more,” he said.

Commitment and change

To join Agape FC, the boys need to sign a contract of conduct, which includes no swearing. They also have to commit to showing up for trainings and staying on top of school work. “If they’re not doing well [at school], they don’t play games with us,” Mafe explained.

Everything else—balls, clothes and transportation—came from donations. “We are trying to get another donation to buy balls and bibs,” Mafe said, gesturing to the well-worn balls gathered along the chain-link fence edging the dusty blue-green court. In between plays, the boys pass off torn jerseys haphazardly held together with an assortment of knots.

One of the most recent donations, a pair of neon soccer shoes for every boy, showed less signs of use. Only two-thirds of the boys wore them to training, many preferring to play barefoot instead.

“We have seen God do a lot of miracles here,” Mafe stated. “It’s a good testimony for [the boys]. We share everything with them. ‘We didn’t have [something], but now we have because God touched someone’s hearts to give to us. God is looking [out] for us.’”

To get to weekly tournaments during the five- to six-month season, Mafe and another volunteer arranged (and sometimes financed) transportation. Last year, a particular tournament’s high entry fee would have prevented the Agape team from participating, but the parents pitched in to pay. “They are getting involved in this as well. It’s really nice to see,” Mafe noted.

This year, Mafe is passing off Agape leadership to a church member and football enthusiast from the community. His church embraced the project and subsequently started a new church plant in the community as a result of Agape FC.

“I know this project has helped us build a bridge to share with [the boys], to be with them. It’s amazing, to see what God is doing,” Mafe said. “I’m dreaming that they have a different life than their families and get to know Jesus, be transformed by Him and find life and purpose in Him.”

Agape FC started as an OM Sportslink ministry in 2015. In 2017, a local church took ownership of the project. Mafe will train the new leader through the transition. Pray for God to continue to provide needs for Agape FC. Pray for the new leadership of the project to be sensitive to God’s voice and continue His work among the boys. Pray that the new church started in the neighbourhood will develop into a vibrant community of Jesus followers that will change their surroundings.

Nicole James is an international writer for OM, passionate about publishing stories of God’s work among the nations and telling people about the wonderful things He is doing around the world.

Published: Friday, 23 June 2017
Credit: Nicole James
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