For missionary Ricky Sanchez, faith and basketball have always had a special connection. “In a way, basketball brought me to Christ,” Sanchez says. As an incoming college freshman, Sanchez received a full ride basketball scholarship to Fresno Pacific University. That’s where he came to know Christ.
“Lord, I don’t know everything about you, but I need you,” Sanchez remembers saying as he kneeled in his dorm room.
Sanchez also met his wife, Karen, at FPU. In 2000, they joined three other families to serve in Thailand with Multiply, the North American Mennonite Brethren mission agency then known as MBMS International.
“There were 16 of us altogether, counting the kids,” he says. “We were like the circus in town. We lived in areas where there were few other foreigners.”
Twenty years later, Sanchez serves as president of the Thailand MB Foundation and works in church planting, leadership training and recruitment. Karen is the founder and director of Abundant Life Home, an orphanage for HIV-positive children, and works with Standing Strong, a project for women coming out of the sex trade.
Given the impact basketball had on his life, it’s no surprise that Sanchez sees potential for the sport to open doors to ministry. Within a year of arriving in Thailand, Sanchez suggested forming a basketball team that would travel around Thailand and share the gospel. However, the group decided it would be wise to first learn the language and adjust to the culture.
“We don’t even know if they like basketball,” Sanchez remembers one person saying.
“They’re gonna like basketball!” Sanchez replied. And he was right.
In 2009, Sanchez’s dream became a reality and the first Action Basketball team—a men’s team—arrived from the U.S. The popular, fast-paced game proved to be a great way to attract people to hear about Christ.
After the first year, Action Basketball expanded to have both women’s and men’s teams, which went out every odd-numbered year (2011, 2013, 2015, etc.). The two teams take a total of 40 individuals, which includes 10 players, a chaplain, trainers and coaches. The past two summers, teams have also gone out to the Philippines.
Skill and heart
From the start, one of Sanchez’s goals has been to utilize competitive athletes—many recruited from college basketball programs—whose skills would draw people to hear the message of Christ. Most of the players range in age from 18 to 24, although he also welcomes what he calls “The Legends” (players who are 40+) to serve as trainers, mentors and coaches.
The program is about much more than great basketball, though. Not only have many national people come to Christ through the program, but those on the team have been discipled and have grown in their faith.
Before going overseas, the teams meet in California for a four-day training. During this time, they practice basketball, get to know one another, have extended devotional time, receive leadership training and learn to share their testimonies. This preparation time allows team members to take a look at their own lives.
“A lot comes out,” Sanchez says. “Hidden sin, past brokenness. We’re teaching these young people how to share their faith, and it starts with their own lives and believing God is real.”
On the day before they leave California, the team goes to a beautiful spot in Yosemite National Park for sunrise worship.
“We have a great time with the Lord and hike up to one of the falls,” Sanchez says. “It’s always a highlight.”
Once in-country, the teams lead basketball camps and play exhibition games, sharing about Jesus and serving the church whenever they have opportunity.
One of Sanchez’s favorite stories involves his daughter Sierra and Zoey, an all-American player for Azusa Pacific University who came on the 2017 trip.
One day the team went to a school in Chonburi, Thailand, to conduct a basketball camp for junior high and elementary-age children. The school was an unlikely ministry site as it didn’t even have basketball courts. But the team set up five stations to teach basic skills. Zoey noticed a group of eight girls huddled together and asked if Sierra would interpret so she could talk to them.
For a few minutes, Zoey and the Thai girls shared about their lives, back and forth. Then Zoey asked, “Have you ever heard of Jesus?”
“No, we haven’t,” the girls replied.
Zoey shared the gospel with the girls as Sierra interpreted, and all eight of them accepted Christ. Afterward the whole team surrounded the girls and prayed for them.
“This was an area in our town that we had never reached out to,” Sanchez says. “But we had a pastor from our church there to do follow-up.”
Because Thailand is a Buddhist nation, deciding to follow Christ is difficult.
“You go home and tell your parents, and they’re not happy,” Sanchez says.
Many new converts fall away. But because of the follow-up from the local church, Sanchez knows that some of those girls are still part of the church three years later.
A new day
Last year, the Action Basketball program celebrated 10 years. The trips have made an impact on national people and the local church, as well as the nearly 200 players who have participated. Sanchez has watched these students go deeper in their faith and become spiritual leaders on their campuses and in their cities.
Sanchez was recently named global sports ministry director for Multiply.
“I laugh when I think about it,” he says. “It’s my dream job. It really fits with my giftings and with what God’s called me to.”
In the coming years, he hopes to expand the program by going into some of the other 20 countries where Multiply has a presence, including Myanmar and Laos. He has hopes of adding a soccer team.
“It’s a new day,” he says. “COVID-19 has given me a lot of time to pray and plan. I’ve had ample opportunity to reach out to the participants. We’re looking at 2021, hoping to make that something fresh and new. Still keeping Thailand in there, because that’s our heartbeat—that’s where we live.”
Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is the co-author of “Grit and Grace: Devotions for Warrior Moms.” Her husband, Kevin, is a pastor at Bridge Bible Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Bakersfield, California. They have four young children.