By Natalie Tristan
Special to Inside The Pew
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – It’s safe to say that Rio will be the most famous city in the world for the next two weeks. Hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to Rio for the 2016 game to watch the world’s best athletes compete. Six members of the Southwestern Assemblies of God University (SAGU) men’s soccer team will also be in Rio. However, they will be there to minister to the local communities surrounding the Games.
Juan Herrera, Juan Ramon Cardenas, Mike Havdra, Felipe Melo, Renato Martin and head coach Clem Oancea are helping throughout impoverished areas of Brazil, as well as partnering with Street Child United who is working to bring hope and love to the homeless children of Rio.
The SAGU team arrived in Brazil on July 26 and they were quick to get down to business. The first favela (Brazilian shanty town) they visited is called “Vaquemquer,” which means “go if you want to.”
“As you can see from the name it is a very scary place,” explains Coach Oancea, “The locals and young boys have been telling us that it is a dying favela and it has been called ‘go if you want to and leave if you can,’ but the Lord has been reaching souls not only on the soccer fields but also in the street evangelism.”
SAGU’s main objective for Brazil is to spread the love of Jesus through the game of soccer. Early in the mission’s trip, the boys experienced a heartbreaking day that would be a lasting memory. The team visited with a Brazilian girls’ soccer team that had lost one of their teammates in a motorcycle accident earlier in the day. They spent time talking with the girls and gave them soccer balls. Given the circumstances they decided not to play a game. However, after the boys shared their testimonies, the girls changed their minds and challenged the boys to a game.
That small match is just one of the many visits Coach Oancea will never forget, “Our boys have been touched by the
Lord in so many ways. The up and coming players coming from Brazil said to us, ‘coach you came to Brazil to show us a Brazil that we never knew.’ I’m so humbled by the lives changed, and not just the locals but ours as well.”
Captain Juan Herrera is quick to agree with Oancea, “I will not see life the same way ever again. This experience is incredible and indescribable! We often say we shouldn’t take life for granted, but being here has made us realize that having a pair of shoes is a true blessing.”
In addition to teaching soccer to the street children, SAGU team members are organizing evangelistic meetings at soccer events, holding leadership seminars to help empower the local churches in serving their own communities. They will also visit and serve families through repairing homes and giving food packages, as well as praying with them.
According to UNICEF, estimates suggest that 30 children and adolescents are murdered daily in Brazil. More than one in three adolescent deaths in the country is a result of murder, compared to one in 20 deaths among the total population. During a major sporting event, children are at an even higher risk of atrocities including murder, sexual abuse and child labour.
While partnering with Street Child United for parts of their trip, SAGU will be committed to making a difference for the children of Brazil who literally call the streets home. Street Child United uses the power and popularity of sports to provide a global platform for street children to be heard and seen- on a level playing field.
There is no doubt that Brazil will be bustling with people this August. Despite the dignitaries and famous athletes, SAGU’s Juan Ramón Cárdenas is humbled to serve the street children, “There is so much this great country has to offer the rest of the world. I am overwhelmed by the people’s passion to live life to the fullest every day. Their hospitality towards visitors, deep national identity, and their fervent longing to please the one and only true God is undoubtedly contagious. It is my sincere desire to take and share those Brazilian qualities’ with my brothers & sisters back in the USA.”
The SAGU six will arrive back to campus on Aug. 10. They will immediately jump into preseason training. The Lions first official game is Aug. 22 against Paul Quinn College.
Six members of the Southwestern Assemblies of God University men’s soccer team are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the 31st Olympiad. (Photos courtesy of Natalie Tristan)