Basketball gives entrée to inner-city's young men
The young men didn't know the visitor was Ray Sydnor. A former Philadelphia Eagles player, Sydnor's status went unrecognized -- but the crowd took note of the free food and cold drinks that soon arrived.
Harold Phillips, pastor of Pleasant View Baptist Church in Port Deposit, Md., and a team from his church carried in large containers with several hundred hotdogs already in the buns, chips, condiments and lemonade to share with the hungry players.
The evening was the first of a five-week basketball league that Mentoring Academics Athletics in Partnerships (MAAP), founded by Sydnor, launched June 22 in partnership with the Baltimore Baptist Association, Upward Basketball and the Maryland Bible Society.
The outreach is part of a prayerful effort in the community following the death of Freddie Gray -- within two blocks of the basketball courts -- while he was in police custody, an event that sparked riots and unrest in the city last spring.
"Do we have to pay for those?" one young boy asked as he checked out the food while wiping sweat from his head with a T-shirt.
"No, they're free," someone answered.
"We don't have to give you any money?" he probed again, shocked but happy.
Additional basketball players soon arrived in cars from various churches. After Phillips blessed the food, players and bystanders chowed down and emptied the lemonade in less than a half-hour before hitting the courts. Sydnor organized the guys into teams, each led by a "coach" -- a pastor, church leader or one of Sydnor's ministry associates.
Each week, different churches, including The Garden Church and Colonial Baptist Church, hosted the games, providing food and inviting local sports figures to lead a devotional time. The league encompassed more than a dozen teams of youth and young adults from both the inner city and surrounding communities.
"Stuff like this is a big deal for these kids. They don't have a lot of opportunities for organized sports," said Joel Kurz, pastor of The Garden Church that meets about 10 blocks from the courts.
Kurz said the basketball league gives him and other church leaders an opportunity not only to interact with the teens hanging out at the rec center, but also to bring neighborhood teens to the games. Some of the guys they brought on the first night, Kurz said, already knew local teens at the courts.
"We take a relational approach," Kurz said regarding sharing the Gospel. "We live in the neighborhood and volunteer at the school and the rec center. We play basketball with the guys and build relationships."
The partnership is the result of a friendship between Sydnor and Phillips. Sydnor, who was raised in Baltimore, was a rising football star in the early 1980s. In fact, when the Eagles went to the Super Bowl in 1981, Sydnor was a rookie tight end, thrilled with the excitement. But he didn't get to play. The day before the big game, Sydnor smoked crack cocaine, part of a habit he developed as a teen along with alcohol and marijuana. His career spiraled down and ended a few years later. For two decades he struggled with his addictions before committing his life to Christ in 1998.
Now Sydnor ministers to teens and children to help them seek Jesus and avoid decisions with potentially devastating consequences. When Baltimore erupted in violence after Gray's death, Sydnor wanted to do something to help. Through his organization and his friendship with Phillips, he met with BBA director of missions Bob Mackey and his staff to organize the league.
Though the Gospel was shared each week, Phillips said the league's long-term goal is to provide an opportunity for local churches to get to know the young men, build on those relationships and ultimately share not only friendship but also a solid relationship with Jesus.
Mackey added, "Observing these young men play basketball with respect and appreciation for the league and those leading it gives rise to hope and encouragement for so many through Jesus and fun in Baltimore."