Breath, strength, focus, endorphins. The physicality of sports and play offers a unique sense of bodily achievement that is difficult to recreate elsewhere. Jen, Servant Partners staff in Johannesburg, realized this soon after joining her team in South Africa. As she exercised on her own and with other women in the community, Jen began to understand how the physical changes in her body altered the way that she felt about herself and about her openness to change elsewhere in her life. She also became acutely aware of the lack of opportunity and safe space for women to exercise in her urban settlement context.
Jen catalyzed a group of women from their church and community who were interested in forming an exercise group together. As the women met with increasing regularity, they named themselves Kaofela Retlakgona Ladies Health Club, meaning “Together, We Can Do It.” Kaofela Retlakgona uses exercise as a platform to engage its members in pursuing holistic health physically, emotionally, communally, and spiritually. Simultaneously, Jen’s teammate Trevor found a similar response from men in the community as Legadima Cycling Club began to take form and take off. These exercise-focused groups became a way to gather women and men around something fun that created a disarming way for people to build relationships and experience positive transformation together.
Globally, the Servant Partners Learning & Collaboration Department identified the immense potential that sports and play had in community transformation work. As department director Shabrae recognized similar movements emerging in our work around the world, she brought together Jen and other international staff to coordinate a Sports for Change Training in late April. The group consisted of SP staff and local leaders from Nicaragua, the Philippines, South Africa, and the United States who gathered to learn, collaborate, and imagine new possibilities for sports and play in their own contexts. They explored how sports and play are powerful tools for connecting people in deep ways that transcend language, culture, and class.
Joker, a young man from a squatter community in Manila was one of the trainees in attendance. Having never before flown on an airplane or visited another country, so much of the experience in South Africa was new to him. Nevertheless, Joker dove right into the cross-cultural setting with enthusiasm, contributing his unique gifts. Joker excelled at being conscientious of the needs of others and at stepping in to help where needed. He quickly connected with Thabo, a new member of the Legadima Cycling Club. As Joker and his training team explored the universal applications of sports and play programs for developing people, he eagerly began planning how to bring this same training back to the young adult leaders in his church in Manila.
The week-long Sports for Change Training in Johannesburg, culminated in a day full of engaging activities led by the Sports for Change participants. During one game, a few dozen community members and twice as many hands extended to each other to form a Human Knot, one that intertwined people of varying ages, languages, and nationalities. The group was large and diverse, but they were up for the challenge of untangling the knot without breaking any handholds. After pushing through and not giving up, everyone was surprised to find that they had actually formed two independent loops. They celebrated together, energized with that unique sense of bodily achievement.
New opportunities for community transformation through sports and play are emerging and maturing around the world: Zumba in Philadelphia, Ultimate Frisbee in Manila, cycling in Johannesburg, and football in Nicaragua. SP staff and local leaders are partnering in new ways, gaining momentum through the energy inherent in sports and play ministries. Just as Jen learned for herself years ago, engaging minds and bodies can have a significant impact on one’s outlook on life and sense of achievement. Sports and play prove to be a fun and engaging launching point for deep and holistic community transformation.