From the early days of the sport brought by working class immigrants to Louisiana in the 1850s, to intramurals in Ashe Gym, kicking the soccer ball is a universal sport that draws people of different backgrounds and descents to the field. Chattanooga Sports Ministries (CSM) recognizes this potential and promotes racial reconciliation and gospel-living through the soccer ball.
Started in 2006, Pastor Randy Nabors of New City Fellowship (NCF) experimented with the soccer ball to reach out to at-risk youth in Chattanooga’s economically-challenged neighborhoods during the summer.
“At that time, teenage pregnancy was on the rise. Research had just come out saying the more involved in a team sport girls are, the less likely they are to engage in unhealthy lifestyle choices.” Katelyn Newsome (‘13), Program Director of CSM said.
Nabors, along with other members of NCF, were inspired to start a sports ministry: a program that uses sport as a way to connect and share the gospel in the communities of East Chattanooga where NCF is located.
At that time, soccer wasn’t a common sport, at least in urban America. Other sports such as basketball and football were popular, but soccer would level the playing field.
“Soccer was new enough that kids were just beginning to learn the sport and it made it less intimidating for kids who had never played before to join a team,” Newsome said.
Soon after the program was started, boys were added to the equation. CSM now serves and brings together a diverse group of kids from the Chattanooga community, including Latino, African American and Caucasian families. The mission of the program is, unabashedly, to connect kids and their families to the local church and to build relationships with them. Soccer is a platform for discipleship and a connecting point to foster friendship. It brings opportunity for racial reconciliation, and unifies some of the most disconnected parts of Chattanooga.
After all, “soccer is the language of the world,” Newsome said.
CSM had soccer seasons that run throughout the year. The largest program is in the summer, where 16 teams from four neighborhoods are formed under a coach and an assistant coach for each team. The neighborhoods CSM works with are East Chattanooga, Highland Park, Eastlake, and Emma Wheeler Homes, with two guys and two girls teams from each neighborhood. The teams practice twice a week, go on outings on Fridays, and compete on Saturdays.
Coaches are usually college students, while assistant coaches are high-schoolers, girls and boys who have graduated from the program previously.
For the spring and fall, teams and volunteer coaches come together once a week on Saturday mornings to practice and play.
CSM uses a curriculum called “Whole Life Coaching,” incorporating life skills and character development while playing soccer.
The organization has not received much resistance from the community towards sharing the gospel with the children.
“Parents are happy to have their kids involved with activities that are productive and fun. CSM has a reputation in the community to be a safe, affordable and a positive environment for kids during the summer.” Newsome said.
The age CSM serves, 8-14, is right around the age when gangs recruit.
“A lot of the reason kids join gangs is to find community and a place to belong,” Newsome said. CSM provides a community for kids to feel supported, loved and accepted.
Head coaches follow-up with the kids, visit them, and invest time in their lives.
“Outside parental influence, a coach has one of the most influential voices in a child’s life,” Newsome said.
Newsome, who grew up in Nagoya, Japan, said that her experiences growing up shaped and prepared her for the job. At the turf soccer fields in Highland Park, Highland Park Commons, 20+ countries are represented on a weekly basis, playing pickup soccer in the evenings. Newsome’s experience of growing up in a different country helps her relate to Chattanooga’s diverse community.
Newsome encourages Covenant students to join the ministry as paid coaches during the summer, or as volunteers during the spring and fall. Applications are up on CSM’s website (chattsportsministries.org).
Chattanooga Sports Ministries is connected closely to New City Glenwood and Eastlake, as well as other churches around the city.