JACKSON, Tenn. – June 9, 2011 – As they walked through a Brazilian prison, players and coaches from Union’s men’s soccer team noticed some distinct differences between the front and back of the facility.
The front of the prison, where they entered, was dirty and grim. The inmates were rough, and the atmosphere was dark.
“At best, I could describe it as a nice concentration camp,” said Assistant Coach Michael Lee.
But as they made their way to the end of the complex, they came to the part of the facility that housed the churches. The mood was better. The men were clean and wore clean white shirts. The church had elders, deacons and exercised church discipline.
During the worship service that the players and coaches attended, they encountered inmates whose hearts were full of praise to God.
“Although they were in prison, they were really very free,” Lee said.
That encounter at the prison was just one experience the team had on its recent mission trip to Rio de Janeiro. During its stay in Brazil May 22-31, the team worked with a local church -- Igreja Batista de Laranjeiras (Baptist Church of the Orange Trees) – to minister to the impoverished and share the gospel.
About 10 years ago, the church was struggling and about to close down, Lee said. Church members decided to devote themselves to prayer, and for the past 10 years have held prayer services at the church three times every day.
“Every day, they pray,” Lee said. “They were constantly praying, and praying with fervor and passion.”
The church is now a healthy congregation that is active in ministering to its community.
“The whole point (of the trip) was to partner with the church in its ministry,” said Clovis Simas, the team’s head coach. “It gave us the opportunity to serve, to see the situation in Brazil and also to play some games with them.”
That’s what the team spent most of its time doing – playing soccer games with local youth teams. The Union team members played against teams from poorer communities called “favelas.” They played against one local college and even against a deaf institute.
“This church had been trying to get to this institute for a long, long time and never had access to it,” Simas said. “Because of us, they finally opened the door to the church to come in.”
The intention of the soccer games was to open a door for the gospel, with every team member either sharing his testimony or preaching at some point during the trip. The Union soccer team also donated uniforms and cleats to some of the youth teams they played against.
“My favorite part of the trip was when we would go into the favelas,” said Cooper Rawls, of Cordova, Tenn., who will be a senior at Union in the fall. “It was really eye-opening to see just how blessed I am personally, and to see some of the conditions that these kids are living in. Even though they’re living in these horrible conditions, they’re so happy about everything.”
Rawls also said he was blessed to worship with people from another country.
Simas, a native of Rio de Janeiro, said he was encouraged by how receptive the people were to the gospel. He also said the trip allowed him to get to know some of his players better, and that his players benefited greatly from the experience.
“All of them said they want to go back,” Simas said. “A few demonstrated interest in an internship with the church. That tells me they really enjoyed what we did over there.”