This article originally appeared in the World Orphans Spring Insight Magazine 2018.
In January, a concerned friend forwarded me a travel advisory from the US Secretary of State that shared the following warning:
“Guatemala, Level 3: Reconsider travel to Guatemala due to crime. Violent crime, such as sexual assault, carjacking, armed robbery, and murder, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics trafficking is widespread, particularly in the border regions. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”
I was not gripped by fear or shocked by the words on the screen in front of me. I was not surprised to read this about the country in which my family and I choose to reside. Unfortunately, this is a well-known reality for the children, youth, and families we serve in Guatemala City.
The city streets of Guatemala—with few green spaces and most of those infested with negative influences—are not a welcoming place for childhood play. Growing up in Guatemala can be a dangerous and lonely experience, leading to high dropout rates, drug addictions, gang involvement, criminal behavior, unwanted pregnancies, and many other issues. My heart breaks as I recognize the contrast between what God desires for our world and the reality of what is. As much as it grieves me, how much more devastated must our Heavenly Father be when he bears witness to sexual assaults, carjacking, armed robbery, and murder? In John 10:10, Jesus said, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Thus, in the face of these daunting obstacles, we lean into God’s vision of abundance and his desire to redeem and restore all creation to the Creator, and we hear ever more loudly the call to care for vulnerable children and families. Our objective is to provide wholistic care that helps these families spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically. One of the platforms through which we do this work is by providing opportunities to play sports.
Friday afternoons are early dismissal days and a highlight for many young people in La Verbena, our partnership school run by AMG. These afternoons are often filled with outdoor play like soccer and baseball. Although far less common than soccer, baseball provides the unique opportunity for Guatemalan youth to learn something new. Along with my son, Emmet, and daughter, Arianna, I have had the opportunity to teach America’s favorite pastime—baseball—to a handful of struggling Guatemalan youth. Equipped with a few bats, balls, and gloves, we began to teach them about the sport, equipment usage, and some rules of the game. Although we may never produce a Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth, we have seen much fruit come from teaching and playing baseball together.
Oftentimes the best part about baseball, though, is how it makes the children laugh. On one occasion, I was pitching a bucket of balls to Pedro. It was a slow start, but I was hopeful that Pedro would see some progress that day. I saw many swings and many misses. I would throw the pitch, hoping that each one might be his shining moment, but he’d swing at the air. Though he tried his hardest, he could not hit a single ball. And then something marvelous happened. He didn’t hit the ball, but he erupted in laughter—a laughter so contagious that it spread, and with each pitch, our sides began to grow sore, and the laughter only escalated further. He eventually hit the ball that day, but I don’t remember much about it because the laughter was seemingly the most important part. For children like Pedro, playing baseball helps them be children again, restoring them to innocence and leading them to laughter.
Sometimes, though, children discover abilities they didn’t know they possessed. David’s life has not been an easy one. Growing up without a father and with a negligent mother has contributed to behavioral issues, difficulty learning in a classroom setting, and significant challenges in developing deep, healthy relationships. As I began to teach David baseball, his talents and ease with coordination became evident. While other children struggled with the basics of hitting and throwing after several practices, David saw success with very little effort. As his ability to handle a baseball has developed, so has his confidence and his ability to build friendships. David is now one of my son’s dear friends. He has a long road of healing and growth ahead of him; however, simply learning baseball has been transformational in David’s life.
Perhaps the most significant impact of baseball in Guatemala has been the ability to build trust with the young people during our time spent together. The majority of these children come from broken families with no role models. As simple as it sounds, the time spent throwing and batting provides opportunities to encourage these young men and women when encouragement is desperately lacking in the majority of their lives. Their faces light up as we use these opportunities to speak words of truth, hope, and life.
I will never forget the day we gave each of them a jersey bearing their last name on the back. The joy was palpable as the children paraded around with a sense of pride and belonging. Suddenly, it was clear. They were part of something much bigger than themselves. And that is what we all crave, is it not? We long to have a place where we belong. Through the simple act of playing baseball, I have watched children find their confidence and be given some sense of belonging.