This story appears in FCA Magazine’s November/December 2017 issue. Subscribe today!
Over the years, as Garrick Williams has walked through his neighborhood in the Park Heights section of Baltimore, he has passed makeshift memorials to the many young men who have had their lives cut short. The markers are months — sometimes even years — old.
The tributes eventually become just tattered remains on a driveway or overgrown, unkempt flowers near a streetlight pole, but Williams’ memories of who they represent are vivid. He gave one of the young men his first Bible. Another was discipled while playing for the Park Heights Saints, a youth football program Williams runs in partnership with FCA. Unfortunately, as happens to far too many Baltimore youth, the young man got involved in a local gang when he turned 16.
On the surface, that’s what life in Park Heights looks like — and always has. But “Brother Garrick,” as he’s more commonly known, is helping write a deeper narrative.
“The whole thing I live and die for is to let people know Christ is real; He lives, and He can do anything for you but fail,” Brother Garrick said. “I instill hope into people who are dying and don’t think hope is available.
“I connect myself to the hope that is Jesus Christ and then let them know that, whatever they’re going through, God cares. People may die on you, but Jesus rose 2,000-plus years ago so that you might live.”
That hope undergirds everything Brother Garrick does through the Park Heights Saints, which has about 250 players between the ages of 5 and 15, plus a cheerleading program. The Saints are a testimony to the power of the gospel, of building deep unity and ministry across ethnic and socioeconomic lines, and of sports helping save lives — immediately and for eternity.
“This is special,” said Frank Kelly, a Baltimore-area resident and a member of the FCA Hall of Champions. “This is in the trenches, day after day, week after week, year after year.”
• • •
Park Heights, also known as the 21215 (its zip code), is where Garrick Williams has lived for the past 30 years. Life wasn’t easy growing up in Baltimore. His father died when he was a toddler, and his stepfather and mother separated when he was a teenager. He found his way to Carver Vocational Technical High School, where he played football and learned brick laying.
He began a career in construction, but a series of encounters close to home redirected his life.
Twenty-five years ago, he passed by a street evangelism outreach event at the Agape Fellowship Miracle Church, where he met the Rev. Dr. Eleanor Graham Bryant.
“She said she saw something great in me and that I was a mighty man of God,” Brother Garrick said, remembering the day he surrendered his life to Christ. “I’d never heard such positive words. She kept me beside her and discipled me and told me I was a minister.”
Brother Garrick later discovered his ultimate calling: God gave him a vision of a youth football team as a way to make a difference. His first foray was with the Spartans in the mid-to-late 1990s, but the full vision came into focus with the creation of the Saints in 2001.
The Park Heights Saints program has about 250 players between the ages of 5 and 15 and a growing cheerleader program.
The team made its home right in the middle of one of Park Heights’ most troubled areas. A year’s worth of Jericho prayer walks transformed Lucille Park from a notorious hangout for drug dealers into a hub for a Christ-centered football program.
“We prayed that God would bless us and purify the land and stop the killing in this area,” Brother Garrick said. “God shut down the bar and everything else (around the field), and I was the only one who had the keys to the field.”
For most of his time heading up the Saints, Brother Garrick has worked in the Community Initiatives department at Sinai Hospital, located less than two miles from the center of Park Heights. The hospital leadership heard about his neighborhood impact and brought him on staff as a community liaison.
“If there’s a star of this story other than God,” Kelly said, “it’s Garrick Williams.”
Early on in youth football, Brother Garrick met Kelly. Driven by vision and gifted at encouraging and equipping those in ministry, Kelly was drawn to the Saints.
He partnered with Brother Garrick, and he connected the Saints with FCA. That resulted in Bibles being sent to Lucille Park and players being sent to FCA Camp at Salisbury (Maryland) University, and later to the Mid-Atlantic Leadership Camp in North East, Maryland.
What’s more, FCA and the Park Heights Saints are part of a larger mosaic of ministries that have joined together to provide for the kids’ football — and non-football — needs. Fellow ministry Young Life is revamping its approach in the Park Heights area and developing a mentorship program. Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium has been integrally involved, and Central Presbyterian in nearby Towson provides a bus and gas for the Saints to get around.
“With anything, it’s about relationships,” said Sirena Alford, who works part-time for FCA as an area representative for community outreach in Baltimore. “It’s about Kingdom work, Kingdom business. These relationships have strengthened what God’s will was anyway. It’s not about a particular organization or person, but about His Kingdom, His work for His people that He’s concerned about in this city.”
• • •
The burden for ministry to reach deep into Baltimore is significant. In April 2015, the city became the epicenter of a still-ongoing national dialogue on racial and ethnic tensions.
The death of Freddie Gray while in police custody sparked heartache and outrage, especially in the black community. Unrest, riots and looting followed throughout a city already saddled with issues, including skyrocketing drug traffic, pervasive gang influence, and some of the most harrowing murder numbers in the nation (more than 300 each of the past two years, and on a similar pace this year).
Park Heights feels all of that, probably more than most corners of the city. In particular, young boys are often recruited to run envelopes for local drug dealers, beginning with $20 errands but expanding into much larger paydays as the contents get more dangerous.
Brother Garrick is pained by what he hears as a common question among the gang culture: “Is today the day I’m going to die?”
The questions asked at Lucille Park are different. Before practice begins, Brother Garrick leads a responsive chant that changes the words spoken over Park Heights:
What day is this?
This is the day that the Lord has made.
What should you do?
Rejoice and be glad in it.
God is good.
All the time.
And all the time,
God is good.
Praise the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me.
What is His name?
King of Kings,
Lord of Lords.
This chant gets louder and louder as it moves along, a spirited part of the 30 minutes per day that Brother Garrick preaches and teaches his players and coaches.
“They want to learn about football, and I want them to learn about God,” Brother Garrick said. “Those two go hand-in-hand. If we weren’t good, and this wasn’t a safe-haven place, this would still be a dead place.
“Once you have something where people can see there’s life, you tell them hope is still here.”
The 8-to-10 age group Saints won the 2016 American Youth Football national championship in Florida.
The Saints are not without their impressive accomplishments. The 8-to-10 age group team won the 2016 American Youth Football national championship in Florida. But, as ever, football is the medium, the connecting point where the gospel can be shared — most often by Brother Garrick, an evangelist who just happens to run a football program.
“He carries the banner of Christ. He’s unapologetic about that,” said Jimmy Page, FCA’s vice president of field ministry for the Mid-Atlantic Region. “The program doesn’t exist apart from the core elements of faith in Christ.”
That has paid dividends for nearly two decades, and the impact spans a couple generations of players. It includes men who once were players for the Park Heights Saints and have returned as coaches. It includes men who made bad choices as boys but now are finding their identity and purpose in being on the Saints staff.
“Brother Garrick pours into them, and they pour into the young people,” Alford said. “Whether you have that coming from a former drug dealer, or an ex-gang member, or even a police officer, you’re getting something you hardly see in the city: coming together for one purpose.”
• • •
Unity can be elusive, even in ministry. Not so with the Park Heights Saints.
The dream that God birthed in Brother Garrick’s heart found legs first through Agape Fellowship Miracle Church, and since has been buttressed by the long-term association with FCA. That began as an informal, friendly arrangement, but in recent years it’s been more formalized to best support Brother Garrick and the Saints.
Kelly has helped energize much of the journey (“Whenever we can, we’re trying, because the need is so great,” he said), and Alford’s presence in recent years has been integral.
“Sirena is the reason we still have FCA ministry happening in Baltimore city,” Page said. “She is passionate about it because she is a mom who has a son who came up through FCA.
Established in 2001, the Park Heights Saints program has impacted the lives of multiple generations of young athletes.
“She knows FCA is the primary and best vehicle to reach kids and coaches for Christ, in our schools and on our fields. She stood in the gap when we’ve had no other leadership in Baltimore city. She was the glue that held it all together.”
Urban ministry is like any ministry in that it requires treasure. Alford can remember some of the Saints players receiving scholarships to FCA Leadership Camp, but she also knew they didn’t have many of the supplies on the pack list. She stopped by a Dollar General store, pulled the students aside, and gave them what they needed.
“You don’t want someone to be made fun of or feel inadequate, because that might block them from hearing the gospel,” Alford said. “When you’re talking about young people who are disadvantaged, they’re still kids — regardless of how they’re growing up.”
Moreover, urban ministry can be less than optimal when only treasure is involved. A legitimate ministry of presence that commits time and talent — over years, not just months — has made a difference with FCA and the Saints.
Over time, the partnership with FCA has grown beyond just football and provided a replicable model for other programs in Baltimore, and potentially other urban centers outside the city. In recent years, Alford has taken many of the Saints’ cheerleaders to the Mid-Atlantic FCA Remarkable Girls Conference, and within the past year lacrosse became another offering of the Park Heights Saints.
Through it all, humility on all sides — Brother Garrick and his visionary ministry and the 60-plus years of experience and excellence of FCA — has been on display to work together and embrace each other’s strengths.
“They want to learn about football, and I want them to learn about God.” — Brother Garrick “FCA has come in and walked beside him, discovered what he was doing, invested in what he was doing,” Page said. “We invested in people over a long period of time. Frank Kelly, in particular, was one of those guys who has walked in close relationship over many, many years. So there’s high relational trust.
“We went in willing to learn. We offered different things to help, which Brother Garrick took readily and implemented. But we didn’t act like we knew it all. We really respected the impact he was already having. And we celebrated that.”
All of this offers more reason for optimism in Park Heights, greatly increasing the currency of hope that the Saints deliver.
“It’s a place where people do live, and they love their children and families,” Brother Garrick said. “Sometimes, people think they’re exiled and nothing great can come from here. The devil is a liar.”
Photos courtesy of Linda Bunk and Sirena Alford