Thursday, May 24, 2012

Flag Football and Peacemaking

“Man, I don’t want to fight. I wanna stay in the League!”

Right now, I am sitting in the dining room of the hospitality house of the Simple Way, the monastic community begun by Shane Claiborne and friends. Don’t let the name fool you. This is about as complicated a monastic system as you could create. There are more or less permanent members of the community who live I houses in a part of Kensington in Philadelphia. There are temporary members of the community, interns, as it were who stay in one house also; currently there are three of them, but there can be as many as five. Next, there are people who live outside of Kensington but work at the Simple Way, who do everything from publish a magazine called Conspire to arrange Shane’s speaking schedule. One of them splits his time between the Simple Way and Pittsburgh!

And, of course, there is the neighborhood. In a sense, everyone in the neighborhood is a part of The Simple Way because, it is the neighborhood that is the reason they are in this part of Philly. And everyone in the neighborhood knows the people of The Simple Way. Remarkably, the reverse is pretty much true as well; as I walked through the neighborhood with Brett, a former Vineyard pastor from South Africa now staying at The Simple Way with his wife Valerie, I was amazed at how many people he knew by name.

So where does the quote above come from? I overheard it at a flag football game. A few years back, The Simple Way decided to respond to the drastic statistics of minority boys dropping out of school. Only 45% of African American males get through high school, and only 43% of Hispanic ones do. 

Yes, they offer tutoring like many groups do. But they also created a flag football league called Timoteo, Spanish for Timothy. Now, imagine football played where any act of aggression is a penalty. There is no tackling or pileups. Next, imagine teams of boys ages 13-19 showing up at a field to compete in a sport that, as they have seen it, is dependent upon aggression. Six games are played on Saturday, two at a time. Brett, Valerie, and I were watching one game, a blowout sadly. A few members of the losing team started getting frustrated, mostly with the inadequacies of their own quarterback. The coach told them firmly to hold it together, that they would discuss it after the game.

It was another young man behind us, however, who delivered the winning line I quoted at the beginning of this piece. I never even saw the young man who said it, but that was not important really. We didn’t know what prompted him to say it either, but the message was loud and clear. Staying in this league was more important to him than some perceived slight or momentary frustration.

Timeteo teams are sponsored by various congregations in the Kensington community, though you would not know by looking who sponsors who because they congregation names are not plastered all over the shirts. The coaches commit to being involved in the lives of their players. Unlike school sports, you do not have to keep up a grade point average, or, for that matter, be in school at all. You just have to be responsible to your team and not fight. 

And it is working. They started with just four teams a few years ago. Now they have expanded to a second adult league, and men who have aged out of the original league are also providing referees. 200 hundred boys are learning a new way to interact and are being mentored by men who are willing to give time.

Now, this is creativity in the name of the Gospel! There are no Bible thumping sessions, no coercions to go to church, just a real show by churches to be involved in the lives of the community, to share Christ’s love for everyone. 

I once asked Shane Claiborne how it was that folk at The Simple Way all seemed so creative. His response was that when you have little or nothing, you get creative. You see that in poor communities all the time, he said.

Lots of congregations feed the poor, provide clothes, build schools in Latin America, and volunteer at shelters. For most of us, that still means going home to comfort at the end of the day. Not many of us can say we practice peacemaking by playing football.

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