My family and I recently returned from nine days in Germany on a mission trip. We went with a group from Champion Forest Baptist Church in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in Minden, a town about three hours north of Frankfurt. For six years, these two churches have been offering a baseball camp for kids. I know what you’re thinking: “Baseball in Germany? Really???” True, Germans love their soccer, but they are intrigued by this strange American game. In fact, there were over 100 kids who participated in the camp.
Here’s how it worked: The kids were separated into a younger (8-12) and older (teenagers) division, and placed on teams. We Americans coached the teams: My daughter Kayleigh and another young lady coached the Yankees in the younger division, while Carrie, Will and I coached the Phillies in the older group. They had T-shirts that looked like the team’s jersey, and replica caps, which was a really nice touch. Each morning, we would have baseball drills with our teams, along with “team time,” a moment for sharing a story from Scripture. After lunch, we played 45-minute games with some modified rules: No more than five runs per inning, only one base advance on an overthrow, and my personal favorite, a free base if you hit the coach with a batted ball (We pitched to our own teams). At night, we had a worship service (I got to preach on Monday night!). It was a busy twelve-hour day, but it was a ton of fun.
So you’re probably wondering about a few things: Do these kids speak English? Most of them speak at least a little, and all but a few of our Phillies were fluent. Each team was assigned at least one translator (a kid who had outgrown the camp, but still wanted to be involved…ours was Amy). They came in handy when we taught our Bible lessons, or when we tried to explain some of the finer points of baseball (“Please tell him to run through first base, not slide into it”). Are they any good? Some of them are. We had at least three kids who any select team in America would love to have, and several others who were good athletes…it seemed that was the rule on all the teams. Some kids were just there to have fun. And some had never played the game before. Was this more about baseball, or more about Jesus? We took the baseball part seriously. I saw each kid grow in their abilities, even those who were experienced players. But the team times and the worship services were very deep. The Minden church had a praise band that was excellent, and the kids really engaged with God. Germany is a nation that has a rich Christian history, but is now quite irreligious. Some of our kids were Christians, but I was very aware that for many, God just wasn’t something they thought about often. Near the end of the week, one of our players asked me, “Why do you pray in the name of Jesus?” I told him that it’s because Jesus died for our sins that I now have the right to go into God’s presence and ask Him for whatever is on my heart. Praying in Jesus’ name is a reminder to me of that important fact. I was so glad to be able to share that!
There were a few exceptions to the schedule. Our first full day in Germany was our sightseeing day. We took a train to Wittenberg, where Martin Luther launched the Reformation 501 years ago. I am a huge history buff, and I read a Luther biography recently, so walking in his footsteps was a powerful experience for me. Taking the train also allowed us to see the countryside of this beautiful nation. On Tuesday night, the church had a block party, so we got to meet some of our players’ families and other folks from the neighborhood over bratwurst. Wednesday night, we Americans put on Astro Tshirts and caps to play an exhibition game against the Minden Millers, the local club team (several of our translators are on that team). We won, 9-2, thanks mostly to Travis, who dominated on the mound, and Nick, our 18 year-old, Blinn-bound catcher, who hit a home run that is probably still airborne somewhere over Copenhagen.
I have to confess something here. I grew up playing sports of all kinds, and used to be very proud of my throwing arm. I didn’t have a cannon, but I could throw the ball with accuracy. But it’s been a while, if you know what I mean. Pitching to my team was rather humbling. They would watch me throw bad pitch after bad pitch, waiting for something they could hit. The night of the game against the Millers, I was at second base. I immediately thought of Chuck Knoblauch, the great second baseman of the 1990s, whose career ended when he suddenly was unable to throw from second to first. Fortunately, thanks to Travis’ lights-out pitching, I only made one play on defense, and our first baseman managed to dig my throw out of the dirt. At the plate, I managed a base hit into right field that brought home two runs. My daughter was good enough to record it on her phone. My swing doesn’t exactly look like Altuve (and I certainly don’t run like him), but it was an exciting moment nonetheless.
On Thursday afternoon and Friday, we played a tournament. Kayleigh’s Yankees had started slowly, but by mid-week were a well-oiled machine, so we expected them to win. In our older division, the Rockies seemed like the team to beat. Every kid on their team seemed to be able to hit the ball into the outfield, and they could field the ball on defense, as well. They had no weak spots. Our Phillies had been erratic all week, but did well in the tournament. We played a double-round-robin, and we won four games and lost two—the two we played against the Rockies, of course. Then we won our semifinal against the Marlins and went into the championship game against those powerhouse Rockies. Our kids played hard, with nothing to lose, and managed to win! We celebrated with these ten German teenagers like we’d just won the World Series, then walked to the younger division ballfield just in time to see the Yankees win their championship as well. Seeing our entire family win the championship seemed a little too good to be true, but we enjoyed it!
There were so many blessings to the week. We were hosted by Alex and Judith Haak and their children, Vivian, Sarina and Lennard. They were incredibly gracious hosts. They fed us extremely well (we all gained five pounds at least). The day is long in northern Germany (the sun sets at around 10 PM), so after baseball camp was over each night, we still had time to grill in the backyard, or visit the Kaiser Wilhem Monument looming over Minden, or drive into downtown for a look at a church first established in 805 BC and to eat some spaghetti ice (Ice cream pressed to look like spaghetti…it’s delicious). We loved getting to know this family. In just a few days, they became incredibly dear to us, and we hope to see them again soon. We were impressed with the entire church, who worked so hard all week, from manning the brat wagon and the concession stand to making us lunch each day to washing the jerseys each night. This church is smaller than ours, but very committed to reaching their community for Christ. They are starting an Alpha course soon (a class designed to teach newcomers the basics of the Christian faith). Pray for that effort, for Pastor Olaf and his entire congregation.
For me, perhaps the greatest blessing was getting to do mission work with my family. That was a first for me. Kayleigh went on this trip last year and told us “the whole family needs to go next year.” I said that was impossible. Perhaps we could raise enough for her and one parent to go (I even offered for it to be Carrie instead of me…I know which parent is more important!). But she insisted. I prayed about it and decided even if we have to take a huge financial hit, it was something we should do. Well, thanks to so many generous friends, we didn’t take a huge financial hit. And it was an incredible joy to serve the Lord together.
We each absolutely left a piece of our hearts in Minden, Germany. God is good!