Here comes El Faro!

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Soccer team connects community and church

by Myra Holmes

The neighborhood teenagers were just plain disruptive. During services of El Faro Community Church, a small Hispanic Mennonite Brethren congregation in Reedley, Calif., the boys would scream, curse, throw rocks and slam doors to get attention. They had grown up in the neighborhood and knew those attending the church, but showed no respect.

The El Faro congregation wanted to reach out to these teens, but didn’t know how. So they simply asked the boys: Was there some positive activity they would rather pour their energies into?

The response? They wanted to play soccer.

Immediately, a deal was struck: If the boys would gather enough players for a team, the church would sponsor them in a league.

That was in June 2010. Just over a year later, the El Faro congregation can worship in peace. But the transformation has been much more far-reaching. “There has been a huge change in the players’ character, in their relationship with the members of the church and even in the neighborhood,” says Silvia Rios of the El Faro congregation.

El Faro members Ignacio Cuevas and Max Rios, Silvia’s father, coach and manage the team of about 20 players ages 14 to 17, including one girl. Committing to coaching a soccer team was no small thing for them, since neither was familiar with the game. In fact, they didn’t even particularly like soccer. But that’s what the teens asked for, so Cuevas and Rios learned—from the players, from other coaches, even from referees at games. Now Cuevas finds himself eagerly watching professional soccer on television.

At first, the team lost consistently and badly; a 14-0 thrashing was not unheard of. But something happened as the team continued to practice and improve, as coaches continued to model sportsmanship and character.

“Teams started to recognize that this is a tough group; they really are determined to win,” Silvia says. Instead of thinking of the team as “that little group from the church,” opponents began to say, “Here comes El Faro.”

The El Faro team participates in various leagues in the area so that they are always practicing and playing soccer. The team practices several times each week and usually plays twice a week. It’s quite a time commitment for both players and coaches. “I can tell you,” Cuevas says, “having a team is like having an extra family!” But the time commitment is part of what’s been positive for the teens. Simply put, they’re too busy and too worn out to get into much trouble.

Even better, each moment spent together becomes an opportunity for coaches and volunteers to build relationships, share about Christ and model Christian values. Coaches pray with the team before each game, but it’s often the in-between moments that become most influential. Silvia says, “It’s while they’re out on the field, it’s while they’re being driven to the games, it’s while they’re practicing that they’re being talked to about the Lord, and they are making (good) decisions.” Several players have improved their grades at school and eight have made first-time commitments to Christ.

The El Faro congregation has embraced the soccer team as their own. Volunteers help with transportation, raise funds to buy equipment and uniforms, bring snacks and food to games and, most importantly, pray for and build relationships with the teens. Before the team formed, interactions between El Faro members and neighborhood teens were often filled with animosity, swearing and disrespect. Now interactions are more likely to include a friendly greeting, a hug and a prayer. “They have become part of the El Faro family,” Silvia says.

In June, the congregation planned a dinner to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the soccer team.

The transformation in this neighborhood has been dramatic enough to catch the attention of the local police. The coaches were recently invited to a meeting at a local elementary school in which the chief of police publicly recognized a change in the community, thanked them for their work and encouraged them to keep making a positive difference in their neighborhood. Cuevas remembers, “He said, ‘You guys have done more in one year than we can do in years.’”

Cuevas hopes the changes they’ve seen are only the start for these teens—that they’ll be encouraged to finish school, get an education, dream about a better future. In an environment filled with the influence of drugs, violence and gangs, that couldn’t be more critical. “We want something better for them,” Cuevas says.

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