Mission trip teaches football players about need, wealth and joy
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"Caballito! Caballito!" the children shouted. The sound of their laughter floated through the window and into the sanctuary.
Outside, in the sun-drenched courtyard, muscular young men were horsing around, shouldering two or three children at a time. The boys and girls loved it. "Caballito!" they kept insisting. Roughly translated, they were asking for horsey-back rides.
Inside, the cool sanctuary offered welcome shade from the heat of the day. A local pastor and I sat face to face, with a translator between us. He told me about answering God's call to come and live in "La Mosca," or "The Fly."
We were in one of the poorest urban neighborhoods in one of the poorest countries in the world, the Dominican Republic. With so many flies buzzing around the church doorway, it was easy to see how the community got its name. The neighborhood was defined by the insects that swarmed the city dump and surrounding community.
We had come to assist — in some small way — the ministry of local churches that fed hungry children and preached the gospel to the poor, as Jesus commanded. And we were doing this as a partnership of Wheaton College staff, alumni and student athletes.
Each year the Wheaton Football Ministry Partnership sends some 60 college players to communities of need around the world. Each ministry team travels during spring break to partner with alumni who played football at Wheaton and now serve in full-time, cross-cultural ministry.
This year we sent teams to a youth ranch in Tennessee and to ministries in Macedonia, Senegal and the Dominican Republic.
As a college president, I like to connect with student experience whenever and wherever I can. So when defensive line coach Jeff Peltz invited me to go on a trip with WFMP, I jumped at the chance. I took my 12-year-old son Jack, too, in the hope that he would see how wealthy he is, and how joyful it is to serve people in need.
I was impressed by the work that our alumni are doing in the Dominican Republic: planting churches, sponsoring sports academies, running Christian schools, reaching out to refugees, and feeding hungry children in the name of Jesus Christ.
I was impressed by our student-athletes, too. One local foreman leaned on his shovel and watched in amazement as our team dug through difficult terrain to open up a four-foot trench for the foundation to a medical clinic.
"They never stop working!" he said.
Our players worked in some difficult, desperate communities. Before visiting "The Fly," they spent a day in "The Hole" — an infamous neighborhood at the bottom of a small urban valley. Each place we visited was different, but there were commonalities, too. The children were hungry for affection, and they always jumped at the chance to play games and share the joy that shines through their material poverty.
Our student-athletes are still processing the things they witnessed. Each night we spent time talking about the day's experiences. Team members listened to one another generously as they told stories, asked questions, shared convictions, and tried to understand their personal privilege in the context of world need.
This kind of experiential learning is a critical component of a Wheaton education. One of our goals is to produce graduates who understand the world, want to improve society, and are able to communicate their faith across cultures.
These goals take far more than a week to accomplish, of course, but WFMP has a transformational influence on our student-athletes. The bonds of their friendship are strengthened, which gives them deeper relationships (and also makes them better teammates). And they return to campus knowing some of the ways their gifts can make a difference in the world.
One of our freshman wide receivers is going back to the Dominican Republic this summer. He was touched by the lives of the people he met. He wants to learn more about the work of the medical missionaries he observed on his WFMP trip. And he is ready and willing to play "caballito" when called upon.
• Philip Graham Ryken is president of Wheaton College. His column appears quarterly during the school year.
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