Ministry takes faith to hoops Annapolis church reaches its flock with basketball

January 25, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

A gym might seem a curious setting for a sermon.

But to Gerald Simms, the thumps and grunts of a basketball game at Bates Middle School in Annapolis make a perfect backdrop for God.

"Jesus went wherever the people were, and that's what we want to do," says Mr. Simms, 27.

Mr. Simms' church, Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal, is one of 20 congregations from Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties that have joined the Washington Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Basketball Ministry.

The conference was started three years ago after a bishop challenged Christian men to get involved in more activities.

The churches hope the teams will promote pride among black men and evangelize the community, said Mount Olive pastor, the Rev. Ricky Spain, whose church joined last year.

About a dozen young men form the core of the Mount Olive team; a handful play occasionally.

As he shoots hoops, Mr. Simms talks about God. Or he reads from the Bible, as on a recent Friday night, when he chose the first 10 verses of the book of Genesis.

"God gave us day and night. We tend to live godly during the day, but in the night, there's a lot of violence, crime, drugs, immorality," the 27-year-old told the young men assembled for practice, encouraging them to keep their evenings as righteous as their days.

"We're trying to minister in ways other than going to church on Sundays," explained Mr. Simms. "We want people to see that church is more than sitting there on Sunday and then leaving [your faith] until the next Sunday. We're also trying to get young men off the street."

Finding nurturing relationships can be difficult for men in today's society, said Mr. Spain, and "meshing faith with sports is a natural solution. The team allows men to get together in a Christian manner."

Team members from the church have also started getting together for group studies and prayer breakfasts, hoping to encourage one another during the week, Mr. Simms said.

Group unity helps young men develop self-esteem, he added. "Once you develop a stronger sense of self, you can grow in other ways."

For example, Marco Tongue, not a member of Mount Olive, says he joined the team for the friendship it provides. "It's great the way the guys come together and fellowship. I'm seeing that you can praise God in different ways instead of just praising God inside church," he said.

At a recent practice, the team prayed before the game began, and it seemed to work. No one lost his temper, no one cursed or shoved.

"We don't have that kind of stuff," said Bryan Randall, 32. "We want this atmosphere to be different."

The team is open to anyone at no charge, with weekly practice at the school and games every Saturday. Teen-agers and young men age 15 and up are invited. On Mount Olive's team, the average age is 21, though ages range as high as 50 throughout the conference.

Prospective players are asked to participate in some religious service, such as the Bible studies Mr. Simms often holds before practices. The Mount Olive Men's Club pays for the church's membership in the conference.

Slowly, those outside the church are getting interested in the team, as members invite friends and acquaintances, who pass on the word to their friends.

As the players joined hands to pray after the practice, Mr. Randall said he's glad for the chance as a black Christian to do something positive for others.

"We have a good time, but our main goal is to bring people to Christ and grow, to help them change through God and do better," he said. "This isn't a basketball league, it's a basketball ministry."

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