This story appears in FCA Magazine’s July/August 2018 issue.
On August 14, 2017, massive mudslides near Sierra Leone’s capital city of Freetown caused tragedy on a devastating scale for the West African country. More than a thousand people died, while another 3,000 were left homeless.
Yatta Samura, a 20-year sports ministry veteran who had recently been named FCA Director in Sierra Leone, witnessed the devastation firsthand. He knew he had to jump into action.
While delivering food supplies to a displacement camp, Samura and some of his ministry colleagues noticed a teenage girl sitting alone, crying. Together, they went over to encourage her and pray for her. But long after Samura returned home, he couldn’t shake the image of that 16-year-old girl—nor the countless other children in his country whose lives had been turned upside down.
Four months later, when his dream of hosting the region’s first FCA Camp came to fruition, Samura made sure that girl (along with many other kids affected by the mudslides) could attend.
“I deliberately decided to get some of those children into the camp,” Samura said. “I just wanted to give them encouragement, love and acceptance.”
Of the 183 campers in attendance, that teenage girl was one of the friendliest and most popular. And more importantly, she made a life-changing decision during the three-day event.
“She was one of the 23 campers who gave their lives to Christ,” Samura said. “Yes, she and the others made friends and learned to play sports, but most importantly they were impacted by the gospel.”
• • •
Three years earlier, the idea of a wildly successful sports camp in Sierra Leone wasn’t even on the radar. Sure, FCA International had been steadily expanding throughout Africa since 2013, with active ministry taking place in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, but it took until 2017 for the FCA Camp concept to take root.
Samura was working for a separate ministry called Sports Life International when he reached out to FCA via email, inquiring about assistance. Up to that point, he had been operating with virtually zero outside support. Soon, Vincent Asamoah, FCA Global Regional Coordinator for West Africa, and Silas Mullis, FCA Director of International Field Support, made the trip to Sierra Leone to see what Samura was doing.
That trip opened up a larger conversation about pioneering FCA Camps in West Africa. By the summer of 2017, six African leaders visited FCA’s Support Center in Kansas City to put the wheels in motion, and Samura found himself outlining his vision on a whiteboard.
“I was so inspired as he drew up his camp plan,” said Dan Britton, FCA Executive Director of International Ministry. “His vision was so clear. It was so big. When he drew it up on the whiteboard, you could just feel that it was going to happen.”
Samura then attended an FCA Leadership Camp in Jackson, Mississippi, where he met FCA Multi-Area Director Kiel Higginbotham, who encouraged Samura to “watch us run this camp from a bird’s-eye view, and I’ll tell you why we do each of these things.”
Samura soaked up everything he could.
“I wanted to see a camp in action,” he said. “Kiel showed me everything I needed to know about sports camps. I came back with a vision to start doing camps in my home country.”
Samura had held sports camps in Sierra Leone before, “but it was not like the FCA Camps. They’re more organized and more constructive.”
One specific idea: Use volunteers as Huddle Leaders.
“That was a big change for him,” Britton said. “He realized he needed to get a good group of volunteers. He needed to develop a camp team to help carry the vision with him. He made sure he got the right people to help run the camp with him, and he trained those leaders before doing a camp, and there was great impact as a result of that dedication.”
Camp Huddle time.
Higginbotham had long had a desire to support FCA’s global efforts, so the timing of him meeting Samura was providential. During his week-long mentoring session, he wanted to show Samura that camps have a very focused vision to take student leaders and stretch them in their faith and send them back encouraged, equipped and ready to impact their campus for Christ.
“For Yatta, that meant taking local leaders who have influence and giving them tracks to run on,” Higginbotham said.
But the backbone of all of it, he continued, was the relational connections forged during the week.
“We’re brothers now,” he said. “The personal relationship is the biggest part of it. We worked hard during the week we were together, but it was such a joy for our entire staff to get to know and fellowship with Yatta. As a result, our Mississippi staff even rallied around him to help financially fund his first camp. Without us spending a week getting to know each other and developing a new friendship, I’m not sure that happens.”
Higginbotham hopes his relationship with Samura will serve as an example for other FCA leaders moving forward. Britton agrees.
“We work hard to connect with people when they come to the country,” he said, “but we don’t want to just sit them in a classroom and be trained. We want to send them out so they can walk with someone to see it firsthand.”
• • •
Samura’s first FCA Camp took place in December 2017. It featured competitive sports like soccer, volleyball, and track and field, along with several team-building activities and ministry time for the campers to hear the gospel.
The camp was a smashing success. Samura has a ton of contacts from his time spent working in the communities and schools, so many folks wanted to be a part of it. Unfortunately, though, limited finances placed a cap on the number of campers who could attend.
“We should have had more campers come,” Samura said. “We had to stop inviting people. In the future, if we have the resources, we’ll have the opportunity to reach more people.”
Britton was not surprised when he heard how popular Samura’s first camp had been. After all, he’d been there to witness Samura’s inspiring whiteboard presentation in Kansas City.
“When I heard Yatta’s vision and how he was going to take his time to get the right people together and do his own training, I knew he realized this wasn’t just an event,” Britton said. “This wasn’t just going back and trying to do a camp and seeing if it worked. He saw this as a significant ministry strategy for his country. He was going to make sure all of the pieces were put together before trying to accomplish it. I knew something significant was going to happen just because of Yatta’s intentionality.”
It also helped, Britton added, that Samura has been doing sports ministry since 1998.
“We don’t want to just sit them in a classroom and be trained. We want to send them out so they can walk with someone to see it firsthand.”
-FCA Multi Area Director Kiel Higginbotham “He’s a veteran,” he said. “He’s not a brand new guy. He has a lot of relationships, and he leveraged them. But the camp concept was something brand new for his country. People were intrigued. Was it an overnight success? I’d think it was more like a 20-year success.”
Also in December, FCA West Africa held a three-day softball camp in Ghana. It was led by Asamoah, who learned about softball while attending Baylor University and brought the sport back to his home country as a unique approach to his ministry efforts there.
Asamoah utilized the skills of several local physical education teachers to run the camp, where 150 youth participated. He had previously been holding one-day basketball camps every Saturday through his area public schools. In both circumstances, the gospel message is a vital part of the presentation, but bringing other elements to the table—such as food, water and a meaningful activity—is the initial draw.
“The opportunity for people to come together is an attraction by itself,” Asamoah said. “Sometimes young people are left on their own. They would love to have something to do. They really love sports and appreciate the opportunity. When they come, we give them a snack, and we give them water to drink. The temperatures are always high in the 90s. Every 45 minutes, we give them a break to drink water. When we finish with the training, we give them snacks to eat before they go home. That’s an attraction for them—getting to play and getting food to eat—and then we share the word of God with them.
“It’s one thing to teach someone to play sports. It’s one thing to give someone food and water. It’s another thing to show someone the love of God. You can’t get any better than that.”
Like so many FCA staff, Drew Beard, FCA Vice President of Field Ministry for the Southwest Region in the United States, has enjoyed watching the ministry steadily grow throughout West Africa. His region is aligned to serve FCA’s ministry development in the region.
“They’re not just doing a camp and celebrating the rewards,” Beard said. “We’re getting reports of young people who are getting saved and then becoming engaged in a local church. They’re raising up disciples, and that’s our mission. In a lot of ways, we’re seeing our mission take hold internationally quicker than we see it happen here in America. The model is very clear to them, and they’re working the plan everyday.”
• • •
FCA International’s camp efforts abroad represent a unique opportunity for global sports ministry leaders to utilize methods they haven’t always conceptualized.
“That’s a newer concept to other parts of the world,” Higginbotham said. “There are tons of sports, and sports have the same impact everywhere, but there’s not a lot of leadership training and development of sports ministry. Sports can get you into a country.”
Conversely, working with African leaders like Asamoah and Samura has taught FCA staff in the U.S. some new ideas on how to most effectively assist their global partners.
“It was a paradigm shift, and I think this is where our whole ministry is headed,” Higginbotham said. “Instead of sending a whole bunch of people to run a camp, how much better, how much more cost-effective, how much greater impact you can have if you find a need there and fill it with someone who has influence in that community. Instead of bringing 20 American kids to lead those camps, it’s better to find 20 people in the community and raise them up as leaders. It produces a more stable ministry.”
“Instead of sending a whole bunch of people to run a camp... how much greater impact you can have if you find a need there and fill it with someone who has influence in that community." -FCA Multi-Area Director Kiel Higginbotham
Beard believes this new model takes the best ideas from FCA’s traditional playbook and adjusts them to the unique opportunities in places like West Africa.
“We are just giving them a chance to see how God has been doing it here for so many years, and they take it and make it their own,” Beard said. “It’s a simple discipleship model. It’s a testimony to the people who have been called to do the work in those nations. Every leader who understands leadership is looking to mobilize leadership—to be able to have things happen when they’re not around.”
Moving forward, Britton is convinced the work being done in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Kenya will catch fire throughout the entire continent.
“Once one African country has success and sees how it can work, then those leaders can train the other leaders,” he said. “Instead of the ideas coming from the U.S., it’s a peer-to-peer mentoring opportunity. A lot of our leaders in Africa are helping other leaders start their camps. They’re each making an investment to encourage them and show them that it can work.
“The hardest camp to do is the first camp. You think no one is going to show up. You do all this hard work and worry that it won’t reach the level of success you hoped for. But when you see the kids show up, it’s no longer a question of how many coaches and athletes are going to show up, but a question of if there are enough resources and enough volunteers to facilitate enough camps.”
As far as Beard is concerned, FCA International already has the greatest resources it will ever need—the dedicated men and women who are passionate about reaching their nations for Christ through sports ministry.
“FCA has been positioned to empower these sports ministry leaders to serve God where they are,” he said. “The Lord has really blessed us with some great partners in West Africa and across the globe.”
Photos courtesy of Yatta Samura.