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Baptized in their soccer jerseys

A group of Korean students, immersed after Bible studies last year, visits Christian schools in the U.S. for some friendly competition.

OKLAHOMA CITY — They came to America in search of victories on the soccer pitch.

But the battle for their souls was already won.

The men’s soccer team at KC University in Seoul, South Korea, journeyed across the U.S. recently, touring schools associated with Churches of Christ and scrimmaging against fellow soccer players.

KC University players scrimmage at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City. (PHOTO BY MORGAN BOLING)

“The American players are big and strong,” Head Coach Koo Daeryung told The Christian Chronicle during the team’s visit to Oklahoma Christian University. “Instead, we tend to focus more on techniques and skills.”

More important than the competition, however, was the chance for the Korean athletes to interact with brothers and sisters in Christ, Daeryung added.

“They are soccer players, but at the same time they are Christians,” he said. “It is important for them to be more committed to their faith, not just to soccer itself.”

A prayer at the DMZ: See our feature on Churches of Christ in South Korea, including a visit to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea with evangelist and ministry trainer Sang Yang. 
Congregations including the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood, Tenn., helped found the school, formerly known as Korea Christian University, in 1958. Now most of the university’s 1,300 students do not claim Christianity as their faith.

The university offers Bible classes. Last year, after studying with the campus chaplain and other staffers, 18 of the team’s 22 players asked to put on Christ in baptism. So did Daeryung and another of the team’s coaches.

It happened on May 29, 2016. There weren’t enough baptismal robes for 20 new souls, so the teammates went into the water in their soccer jerseys.
They brought those same jerseys to the U.S. for the two-week tour, organized with assistance from Missions Resource Network, a nonprofit supported by Churches of Christ. Last year the university and the nonprofit formed a partnership to serve as a Global Launch Site, said Mark Hooper, the ministry’s director of Asia missions.

KC University soccer players participate in a devotional before their baptisms in 2016. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY MARK HOOPER)

The goals of the partnership, Hooper said, include reaching students on campus who are not followers of Christ, working with international students who may return to their homelands as disciple-makers, writing a missions curriculum for the university’s Bible department and working with churches in Seoul toward increased involvement in missions.

Hooper, along with Missions Resource Network President Dan Bouchelle and board member Joyce Hardin, a former missionary in Korea, witnessed the soccer team’s baptisms.
Dan Bouchelle speaks during the Pan American Lectures in Costa Rica in 2011. See our Dialogue with Bouchelle about the changing roles of the global church. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
“Most people, especially those from highly communal cultures, don’t typically make major life decisions alone,” Bouchelle told the Chronicle. “Too often, we look to lead individuals to the Lord when we need to think bigger and focus on families and larger social groups. This is what we see happening in the New Testament with extended families and communities coming to Christ together.

“Being present on the day the KCU soccer team put on Christ felt like being in the middle of the Book of Acts.”
At Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., the Korean team played their counterparts to a 2-2 tie. The Koreans were talented, competitive and exceedingly respectful as they played the NAIA Division 1 team, which finished in the final four of its conference with a 10-6-1 record, said Head Coach Kyle Beard.

“They were all hard-working kids,” Beard told the Chronicle, “and the staff was very driven in the match. But before and after, they were enjoying every person they met and every experience they came upon.”

A player from the KC University squad visits with a young soccer fan at Faulkner University. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY FAULKNER UNIVERSITY)

From Faulkner, the team headed north to Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

“The Korean team was a well-organized unit that was clever on the ball and had the ability to cause us problems with their fast speed of play,” said Lipscomb assistant coach Stephen Lunney.

Still, the NCAA Division 1 school handed the Koreans a 5-1 loss.

To motivate his team, Daeryung put the players’ cell phones in a bag and promised to return them when they won another game. That happened at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., where the Koreans shout out the NAIA Division 1 squad in a 7-0 victory.

More impressive than their soccer skills, however, was the Koreans’ story of faith, said Freed-Hardeman head coach Jason Elliott.

“It impresses me that a group of young people would all be open to hearing the Gospel, despite growing up in a background where that has to be very foreign to them,” Elliott said. “It shows great courage.”

After the game, the Korean players attacked the bag of cell phones like hungry piranhas, Daeryung said.

The team worshiped with the Germantown Church of Christ near Memphis, Tenn., before traveling nine hours west to Oklahoma Christian. The Eagles, an NCAA Division 2 squad, took a 2-0 lead before the Koreans connected a long ball down the field to score. Late in the second half they scored again, tying the game 2-2 — and escaping the threat of additional phone confiscations.

“I was honestly a little surprised at how aggressive they were,” said Oklahoma Christian freshman soccer player Landon Pope. “Coming in, I figured they’d play more of a finesse game.

Soccer players from KC University take a group photo with their Oklahoma Christian University counterparts. (PHOTO BY MORGAN BOLING)

“It was an amazing experience,” he added. “I never thought that I would be able to play a team from an Asian country, so to have this opportunity was unreal.”

Before returning to Seoul, the team traveled four hours to scrimmage with players at Fort Worth Christian School in North Richland Hills, Texas.
The Koreans, in only their second years as a competitive team, hope to use the experience to help them succeed in their 80-university division. In addition to learning from the Americans’ physical style of play, Daeryung said he was amazed by the size and quality of the athletic facilities he visited.

But part of soccer’s unifying power is its simplicity, Elliott added.

KC University students scrimmage at Faulkner University. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY FAULKNER UNIVERSITY)

“You don’t have to have money to play — just a ball,” the Freed-Hardeman coach said. “Several of our guys immediately hit if off with the Koreans just by passing the soccer ball in the gym when they arrived.”

Though soccer players worldwide speak different languages, “the language of the game is universal,” Lunney said.

At Lipscomb, athletes on both sides of the soccer ball “showcased exactly what a Christian athlete should look like.”

Danny Kang translated some interviews for this report. Additional interviews by Erik Tryggestad.

Filed under: Headlines - Primary Headlines - Secondary Partners

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