The following article originally appeared in the March, 2004 issue of Sharing the Victory, then the print publication of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
By Christin Ditchfield
From the hills of Minnesota to the mountains of Guatemala…
It was an opportunity they just couldn’t pass up. When Coach Tom Goehle invited the Hills-Beaver Creek Huddle (Minn.) to join him on a mission trip to Central America, the answer was a resounding “yes!” High school juniors and seniors, plus a few college students—all of them basketball players—made up the 18-member team. Together, they would spend 12 jam-packed days traveling through Guatemala and El Salvador, using basketball, dramas and personal testimonies to share their faith with those who had never heard the Gospel.
With the help of Jaime Lopez, a missionary already established in Guatemala City, Coach Goehle made travel arrangements and set up a schedule. In addition to local and national basketball teams, Lopez had identified a number of clinics, orphanages, prisons and hospitals that would welcome a visit from the American players.
Once in Central America, the boys’ and girls’ teams competed against the top men’s and women’s teams in both Guatemala and El Salvador. They won a few games; they lost a few. For most of the Huddle members, it was exciting just to play against athletes of such a high caliber, even if it meant they were overmatched. But the greatest thrill came after the game, when they took turns sharing their testimonies and inviting the other players and coaches to receive Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Ten players responded after one game. Some, who had a religious upbringing, rededicated their lives to the Lord. Others made first-time commitments. The Guatemalan Women’s National Team coach was one of these. Originally from Cuba, she knew very little about Jesus. Her daughter had recently begun reading the Bible and praying—something that mystified her. But after hearing the players’ testimonies and the interpretation of a simple gospel presentation from Jaime Lopez, she joyfully embraced the Truth.
As the team traveled from town to town, they couldn’t help but be inspired by the natural beauty around them. Cassi Tilstra says, “One evening, we were having a Bible study outside when it started to rain, so we moved inside…Tom read Job 37:1-5 out loud and when he got to ‘He (God) thunders with His majestic voice’—it thundered really loud! It sent chills up my spine. I could really feel God’s presence.” The team sat in awe and wonder as they read, “He unleashes His lightning beneath the whole heaven”—and watched lightning fill the sky.
Everywhere they turned, team members found another opportunity to reach out in Jesus’ name. When a basketball game was unexpectedly canceled, they walked to a nearby park where they were invited to join a soccer game. Though none of them knew much about soccer, they saw this as a chance to connect with local teens. After the game, four of the teens prayed to receive Christ.
The team also visited an orphanage that housed 98 boys, ages 10-18. After the gospel presentation, more than 40 of these boys invited Jesus to live in their hearts. “It was the experience of a lifetime,” recalls Tyler Bush. “It’s not every day you can feel and see the Holy Spirit working through you like we did.”
There were many miraculous moments, but Coach Goehle points to one in particular that had an enormous impact. “The entire experience in the juvenile prison was absolutely life-changing for all of us. Jesus and only Jesus could pull off something like that!” he exclaims. There were 200 boys ages 14-19 being held at the detention center. All of them had been tried and convicted as adults and would be transferred to an adult facility on their twentieth birthdays. They were gang members, drug dealers, murderers—some of them sentenced to more than 150 years for their crimes.
These teenage prisoners understood guilt, sin and condemnation. They realized just how desperately they needed a Savior. They felt the power of forgiveness—the freedom that comes from knowing Christ. Says Coach Goehle, “To see the prisoners’ passion, their love for Jesus, the joy on their faces—it was all so real!”
During the worship time, every one of the 200 prisoners “danced, jumped, bowed, prayed and sang praises to Jesus with all their hearts and minds and souls.” Afterward, they gathered around the Huddle members to thank them for coming and to pray for them! “It was as if a choir of angels had descended upon us and were strengthening each of us in prayer,” Goehle says.
Team member Ashley Bosch explains, “When we went to the jail, I went there thinking I would change their lives and bring them closer to Christ. But when we got there, we realized that their faith was greater than our own. You could see God in them. I will never forget how they changed my life.”
Ever member of the Hills-Beaver Creek Huddle agrees: they went on a mission to touch hearts and change lives, but they are the ones who were changed. “Getting to know our group so well and seeing the Lord work in so many ways, He brought me the most joy I have ever felt,” says Kala Menning.
Reflecting on the incredible experience, Tom Goehle says, “Our faith in God has grown tremendously because we have seen firsthand what He can do. Our hunger to want to be a part of His work as come about because He has given us a taste of what it’s like to give ourselves fully to Him. We no longer see our school or our job or the people around us the same way. We really believe we have a purpose for today, and that purpose is to make Jesus’ love and salvation real to those around us.”