Bible lessons are being conducted in South Africa—not in classrooms or Sunday schools, but on the football fields.
As well-meaning pundits question the fate of South Africa with the dissipation of the World Cup hype, another group has long sought to capitalize on the nation’s significant assignment as host to arguably the biggest global event of the year.
Through the Ubabalo eAfrica Whole Life Football program, launched in August 2006, youth are being taken off the streets and given football coaching, but more importantly, they are being taught biblical values and life skills that will equip and empower them to be a new generation of leaders sorely needed in a fatherless continent that is mired in poverty, sickness and violence.
To start off, the demographics in Africa make fertile ground for sports ministry—the average age in Africa is only 19.5 years old. Many of these young people are orphans of war, HIV/AIDS, promiscuity, crime and poverty. “Fatherlessness is the key word,” says John Yip, a global facilitator for Ubabalo eAfrica and missionary from Malaysia. With most issues plaguing the communities being traced back to the lack of leadership in the family unit, there was a need to reverse the fatherlessness in Africa and reinstate the father figure or role model first into the family and then to society.
Coupled with the fact that Sub-Sahara Africa is probably the most evangelized continent in the world (470 million believers make up about 21 percent of the world Christian population), there was a strong church structure to support the Ubabalo initiative. The on-going challenge is to expand the impact of the church into society. “The young people are not going to church because they feel the churches don’t speak their language. So, if they are not in church, where are they? They are on the streets and in the sports fields. To reach out to them, we need to speak their language. And that language is football.”
In 2005, a small group of sports ministry leaders and high-level football coaches gathered to brainstorm on ways to develop a post-WC2010 legacy. In that process, they discovered that each technique and skill has a related value. For example, short passing illustrates the value of staying connected to one another. Shielding a ball in order to protect it is related to the value of respect, be it the Word of God, authority, creation, or one’s purity, and the technique of heading a ball teaches the players the value of courage, in facing one’s fears, in the face of adversity, and many others.
With that, the team of pioneers, which include leaders from the South African Sports Coalition (an initiative started by predominant church leaders representing a large constituency of churches in South Africa) and the global sports network, formed the Ubabalo eAfrica (ubabalo meaning “grace” in the IsiXhosa language) program.
Master trainers, of whom Yip is one himself, then partners with local churches in equipping their members who are coaches or who desire to be trained as coaches. Supplied with a football training manual as well as a Bible-based leadership and life skills manual, they, in turn, recruit or adopt football teams, with players ranging from 6 to 19 years old. The coach will meet his/her team for a football season. After one season, the youth would have gone through 60 sessions of leadership and life skills coaching in addition to soccer coaching. It is within this relational context between the coach and the player that discipleship takes place, as the coach becomes a spiritual father and mentor to the youth.
The 259 life skills taught include how to deal with winning and losing, superstitions, witchcraft, giving respect, service and sacrifice. “Everything follows the experiential learning methodology. We want these kids to have a redeemed worldview and grow up to lead the next generation.”
In South Africa, the aim is to mobilize a network of 100 hub churches and 100 Master Trainers, who will then multiply the same process with 10 partner churches each. This effectively creates an exponential effect of leadership building across the nation. Ultimately, the aim is to raise up 1.3 million young leaders for a better Africa.
| PHOTOS COURTESY OF UBABALO eAfRICA WHOLE LIFE FOOTBALL
Going Into All Nations
One of the biggest challenge, says Yip, is in keeping up with the phenomenal, exponential growth of Ubabalo. From just two countries, Ghana and Kenya, in January 2008, the life coaching training and concept has now spread virally to 31 African countries and 60 countries around the world. It has been expanded into 11 sports. In addition to football, and translated into 16 languages. “Open sourcing” is the name of the game—while training materials are freely shared without any royalty charge, various organizations and churches have also hopped on the bandwagon to co-develop products and enrich resources for discipleship and training, including distributing Bibles and sending mission teams.
In the coming months, the Ubabalo Master Trainers will be conducting trainings in Cameroon, Kenya, Fiji, Burkina Faso, and Madagascar, and it is telling that even developed nations like USA, Germany and Holland have indicated growing interest to utilitze the concept of Ubabalo whole life coaching. It now seems that fatherlessness is not a felt need that is limited to Africa only.
Having been based in South Africa over the last four years, Yip has a much broader appreciation of the gospel and the Kingdom of God to impact lives. “I see the realities of the human condition and the ravages of sin, and I believe that all of us are called to act—this is not a clergy initiative. We all need to get involved to become change agents in a fatherless world.”
Brothers Hilton and Dylan were abandoned by their father at a young age, only to be left again by their mother in their early teens. At age 13 and 10, they were taken in by foster parents. As with any child who had gone through emotional trauma, they were at first difficult to handle—stealing, fighting, taking and selling drugs. But as a church pastor took them in and formed a soccer team with them, they started to experience authentic love and care, and learned to make better life decisions through the on-field life coaching. They duly gave their lives to Jesus and in witnessing the dramatic life change, the foster parents also surrendered their lives to Jesus. Over the past three years, both brothers have now been molded into youth leaders from street gangsters, and they in turn, have influenced their friends. Hilton has recently started coaching a team of 9 to 10 year olds. Ubabalo is no longer only a pipe dream for community transformation, as it witnesses up to three generations being impacted.
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