Jesus Ball in Slovakia
A number of years ago, as leaders at GoodSports International Camp finished off the last of the pizza and headed for a church service in the small Slovak town of Devinska Nova Ves, one camper tucked himself in among them. The other kids had left for the day, but not Roman Mozsi. Yet when the service started, Roman lit out like a shot, disappearing into the dusk.
"I didn't think much of it at the time," says camp director Tom Johnson. "I just assumed it was all a bit too much for him, because he wasn't used to it."
As it turns out, Roman preferred hanging out with the crowd of contented Christians over returning to the chaos at home. His father frequently wandered away from the family for weeks at a time, only to come home drunk and looking for a fight.
Back at the church, as camp leaders were in the midst of prayer, Johnson looked up and was surprised to see that Roman had returned. He stood solemnly in a clean white shirt, which replaced the baseball T-shirt he had worn all day.
"He had run home to change," says Johnson, shaking his head at the memory. "He told us he didn't think what he had on before was good enough to be in a church where people were praying."
Roman's parents had grown up under Communist rule, which had little tolerance for religious practice, public or private. So when Roman's mother began bringing him to GoodSports, she wasn't looking for salvation for her son, only a port in the storm. But Roman found much more than that.
Continuing An Old Missions Tradition
Sports ministries have blossomed in the past century. Today, there are hundreds of international sports ministries, ranging from niche ministries (Motor Racing Outreach, Christian Bowhunters of America) to those with a broader vision (England's World Sports Ministries and Singapore's School of Sports Ministry). One leading international sports ministry is Athletes in Action (AIA), a Campus Crusade ministry formed in 1966. With a presence in 85 countries, AIA's goal is to "build on society's great love of sports and utilize the platform given to the athletes to reach the world for Jesus Christ."
GoodSports finds its sports niche in Slovakia, and works with about 120 kids annually. It is housed on an unremarkable side street in an unremarkable town. Remarkable are the ruins of Devin Castle a few miles up the road where, in A.D. 862, saints Cyril and Methodius embarked on their legendary missionary work, which spread Christianity throughout Central Europe. In the post-Communist era, Slovakia's constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Sixty-nine percent of Slovakians identify as Roman Catholic, 4 percent as Eastern Orthodox, and 10 percent as Protestant. According to Greater Europe Mission, of Slovakia's almost 3,000 towns and villages, only 153 have an evangelical church, and only about half of the Slovak population sees the church as trustworthy. The country of 5.4 million is still a large mission field nearly 1,200 years after Cyril and Methodius's missions.
The Johnsons are carrying forward the mission, using the language of sports to spread God's love and lead children to Christ. They have come far from their Minnesota home, far from their old lives, where Johnson was a relief pitcher for the Twins in the 1970s. After five years in the majors, an injury left him out of the game and with few places to turn.
"This was at a time when athletes didn't make big money," says Johnson. "It was a low point in my life, because I had three small kids and no future." He opted for divinity school and the pastorate, leading the Church of the Open Door in St. Paul.