A group of ACU students took their soccer skills and a desire to love their neighbors to Poland this summer to conduct a soccer camp for Ukrainian refugee children who have resettled there.
Dr. Jason Morris (’96), director of the Lynay program and founder of Play4More Soccer, led the trip along with Leah (Carrington ’90) Andrews, Lynay program director.
The experience proved to be a mix of emotions – joy, sadness, despair and hope, said Andrews.
“Seeing the living conditions of some of the refugees and hearing their stories was heartbreaking,” she said. “These children have experienced significant loss and disruption. Their mothers are weary and worn. We hear news stories about refugees, and it is easy to compartmentalize them and think of them as numbers. But we met them, we played with them and prayed with them, and our perspectives radically changed. These beautiful people are no longer numbers, they are God’s loved children.”
Now, to Andrews, the “refugee” is a little girl named Dasha, with bright blue eyes that light up during crafts and music, and a little boy named Vova, whose green eyes dance when watching construction equipment outside the window and whose pent-up energy levels tell how he misses running and playing outdoors.
“Refugee” is a mother named Liubov who teaches at the Love Does School. “She traveled with her three young children for days to escape the terrors of war and yet prayed the most moving prayer over us, our team, as we left,” Andrews said. “Although we did not understand her language, her love was evident and brought us to tears.”
Andrews took special delight in witnessing the ACU students grow.
“Watching our students blossom and embrace their own gifts, using them to love and share God’s heart with these children, was breathtaking,” she said. “The world is full of hard things, and it’s easy to get caught up in worrying about the future, but the love and joy shared on this trip tell a story of hope. These ACU students are strong and loving young people. I am more confident in a future with them in it.”
Lynay, which stands for Love Your Neighbor As Yourself, is a select and ethnically diverse group of students from all majors that meets weekly to develop insights and sharpen skills as community servant-leaders. One of its members, Annie Escobar Andrade, junior biology major from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, said she joined the trip hoping to extend healing to the Ukrainian refugees.
“Growing up in Honduras, I experienced safety concerns and political unrest,” she said. “Through these difficult circumstances, soccer emerged as an escape and a beacon of hope for many in my country. This beautiful sport has the unique ability of providing a source of enjoyment while also fostering trust and connections.”
The trip was transformative for her.
“Through this experience, I was able to understand that God can work and use people in many ways,” she said. “Our primary objective was to bring joy and comfort to the kids in the refugee camp through soccer. So it was hard to do the traditional approaches in Christian mission work. It was through our deeds that we truly manifested God. We found that by immersing ourselves in play, offering love and bringing laughter to the children, we became the reflection of God’s love and compassion. I also learned that there are no barriers in God’s work. Even with the language and cultural barriers, we received the prayers of teachers and parents from the camp.”
Before the trip, she joined team members for a 1-credit course on working with displaced persons co-taught by Morris’ wife, Dr. Heidi (White ’98) Morris, associate professor of marriage and family studies, and Susanna (Drehsel ’05) Lubanga, deputy regional director of the International Refugee Committee.
The idea for an international camp emerged from an effort by the Morrises to engage local refugee children. For several summers, they have led a camp in Abilene with the help of ACU soccer players and other volunteers. Inspired by its success, Jason began looking for other ways to use the popular sport to positively impact lives. The result was a global initiative known as Play4More that provides free soccer balls – designed by refugee children in ACU’s Maker Lab – to underprivileged kids worldwide.
The camp left an indelible mark on both the students and the refugee children they served.
“I witnessed our students be the hands and feet of Jesus in a traumatic time,” Morris said. “I think this experience opened the eyes of our students regarding the plight of people impacted by war and forced to flee their homes. In turn, it was impactful to see the children we served respond to human kindness and see how the game of soccer connected us to one another. We aimed to bring light and love into the darkness that was forced upon them through the war, and I think we accomplished this goal in a way that glorified God. I don’t think any of us are the same after this beautiful experience.”
– Robin Saylor
Aug. 3, 2023