Churches spread the word through sports, teaching area children how to play baseball, football, soccer, basketball _lowres

MET photo by mark h hunter, Jaelyn Fields, 7, steps into a pitch thrown by Chris Reid, 18, a senior at St. Michael's High, during Sunday's Baton Rouge Sports Initiative held at Anna T. Jordan BREC Park, and three other area parks.

Hundreds of children in four underserved neighborhoods around the metro area spent Sunday afternoon learning how to play a variety of sports and were given some free sports gear, heard a message about God’s love and chowed down on grilled hot dogs at the first Baton Rouge Sports Initiative.

Hosted by Istrouma Baptist Church’s Sports Outreach program in cooperation with BREC and a dozen other churches from several denominations, the children, ages 6 to 14, learned about baseball, basketball, soccer, football and cheerleading from experienced and enthusiastic high school and college athletes.

“The premise of Baton Rouge Sports Initiative is what can we do together that we cannot do alone,” said M.L. “Coach” Woodruff, Istrouma Baptist’s sports director. “The initiative is a movement of God using sports as a bridge to help transform communities with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a movement from within these communities.”

Clinics were held in the Gardere, McKinley, Capitol and Scotlandville areas at BREC’s Elvin Drive, Anna T. Jordan, Gus Young and Brooks parks and at McKinley Middle Academic Magnet School’s gym.

“We’re trying to bring the community together,” said John Green, BREC’s Anna T. Jordan center supervisor. “Once we get the community involved, it can do nothing but help.”

A dozen white, Hispanic and African-American churches provided volunteers, food and sports equipment such as baseball gloves, bats and balls, footballs and soccer balls, and a variety of uniforms and hats as well.

They included Faith Chapel, Iglesia El Aposento Alto, Chapel in the Oaks, New Ark Baptist Church, First United Methodist of Baton Rouge, Chapel on the Campus, Star Hill Baptist, Grace Baptist Church, Community Bible Church, Abounding Love Ministries, Glen Oaks Baptist Church and In His Hands Baptist Church.

Valerie Butler, of Community Bible Baptist Church, was organizing the Anna T. Jordan Park events and said she was glad to see the cooperation among the churches, especially to benefit the children.

“We all worship the same God, but we still have some divisions among us. With this Sports Initiative — it lets everybody see that blacks and whites can work together,” Butler said. “Kids love sports, and this is a way to get the kids involved in sports and hear the Gospel message that Jesus loves them.”

Out in a soggy field — not the baseball field because it was too wet — members of the St. Michael’s High baseball team were teaching children how to hit, throw and catch. Chris Reid, 18, a senior who will play for LSU next year, was softly lobbing a rubber ball to the children slow enough that they hit it most of the time.

“We’re doing this to give back to the kids,” Reid said. “We’re trying to teach them the fundamentals and have fun with them.”

“It was fun,” declared Jaelyn Fields, 7, who hit the ball more than he missed.

At McKinley Middle School, about 50 children and at least that many volunteers from several churches were there to play football, soccer and baseball — but sporadic rain drove them into the school gym, where a dodgeball game broke out.

“This is an opportunity to bring kids into the churches,” said Victor Hollins, a deacon of New Ark Baptist Church. “We’re using the sports to bridge that gap between churches and reach out to the people who don’t attend any church.”

Alex Byo, of First United Methodist, a former Tulane player who played in the Diamondbacks farm system, said the event was a good way for the adults to be role models for the children.

“I think it’s cool that we have churches of different denominations coming together,” Byo said. “We all have the same belief in God.”

Brian Chapman, 12, a student at Westdale Middle School, attended the football clinic.

“I’m a running back, a quarterback and a defensive back,” Chapman said. “It was good. It was a good experience.”