Is it possible to embed oneself so deeply into the Word of God that it becomes as familiar as breathing? To live out the Gospel in word, thought and deed so naturally that it pours out of the everyday and covers the world in light?
This is the core of FCA’s “To and Through the Coach” strategy, and it’s how Northside High School cross country and track coach Jeff Lewis in Fort Smith, Arkansas, lives his life. Tyson Simon, River Valley FCA Multi-Area Director, points to Romans 12:1 when describing Lewis:
“And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.”
Lewis honors his realm of influence and allows the Word to come alive. “I see this Bible verse stand out before my eyes,” said Simon. “He is a faithful man.”
Lewis spent most of his childhood in Arkansas and was first introduced to FCA at his high school Huddle in Lamar. He accepted Christ in college and earned a scholarship to run at Northeastern Oklahoma State University. Heavily influenced by his college track coach, Glen Stone, Lewis began his coaching career in Freer, Texas, with the cross country team.
In 1995, Lewis took an assistant football coach position in Shawnee, Oklahoma, where he was asked to lead the FCA Huddle. “I thought to myself, ‘I grew up in church; I can do this,’” he said. But through the years his faith had stagnated, and as the school year progressed, Lewis was convicted that his spiritual walk wasn’t in step with God. Lewis was struck by the book Character Counts, which was in his Huddle kit. As Lewis started reading, he came to a crossroads in his faith and knew God was asking him to make a change. “On the front seat of a bus on our way to play on a Friday night, I was broken and surrendered myself once again to my Lord and Savior,” he remembered. “That Friday night, on that bus, God changed the course of my career and my life.”
With a renewed faith and enthusiasm to encourage student-athletes, Lewis moved back to Arkansas and started teaching at Northside High School in 2005. In 2011, he started coaching the cross country team. He began soaking in Scripture and fellowship through a weekly coaches’ Bible study at the local FCA office on Thursday mornings, which he has continued to attend faithfully for 14 years. As ministry has gone to Lewis, ministry is happening through him.
As the sponsor of the runners’ Huddle, he creates a safe space for his athletes to trust him and writes devotionals to inspire his teams, like this devotional he wrote for his cross country team the night before they ran in the Arkansas state meet:
As we enter the stadium tomorrow, we will be stepping into a stadium full of people watching and cheering. None of them know the hours of training and dreaming you have gone through to reach this day. But tomorrow you will put on display … the hopes, dreams and hard work you invested to be here.
... When you toe the line tomorrow, if you give the very best you have, then it is a successful day! This one race or competition doesn’t define you or confine you to a place in time; it only marks the path you traveled.
Lewis’ transparency and authentic faith makes kids feel comfortable to share their hurts and fears. In an age where many teens are skeptical of assistance, students are flocking to him in deep need of care, including students like Anya Sifuentes.
MIRACLE STORY GOES VIRAL
A Northside senior with a sweet countenance and constant smile, Sifuentes was busy with normal teenage talk—what to wear to homecoming, the next cross country meet, and what she would be doing for her birthday.
But on October 1, 2018, she arrived home from practice to get ready for work and was met by two people in a red car who broke the news: they were taking the house, which made Sifuentes and her family homeless.
Coach Lewis supports his athlete, Anya Sifuentes (pictured left). She earned a track scholarship to the University of the Ozarks despite facing homelessness her senior year.
“I didn’t know how to react,” Sifuentes said. “It broke my heart. We spent seven years living there, and all the memories, gone in no time.” With her 18th birthday the next day, distraught, in a panic and confused, Sifuentes called Lewis. He did all he could to support and stabilize her situation. For a few days, Sifuentes went to school, practice and work and tried not to stress. But when her mom left for another state to work, she was quickly thrust into adulthood caring for her family and the bills “It was horrible,” she remembered.
Picking up additional jobs while securing an apartment for herself, two siblings and nephew. Around the-clock days of school, practice, and work until one or two in the morning. Coming home bleary eyed and doing homework into the early morning hours. Then heading to school to continue the cycle all over again. It all seemed unreal. One minute, Sifuentes was steeped in the grind of making ends meet; the next, she was standing in the middle of the football field announced as homecoming queen. Encouraged by Coach Lewis to attend FCA Huddle meetings and events, Sifuentes took him up on it. A few weeks later, she attended
FCA’s Fields of Faith, a gathering of students around the country converging on athletic fields to worship God. At Fields of Faith, Lewis watched Sifuentes decide to truly give her life to Christ. It was a rejuvenating new feeling of someone sharing her burden.
But the onslaught of monthly bills and weight of responsibility pressed down, the latest challenge being a large heating bill. Lewis found Sifuentes crying after practice and knew something was wrong.
“He is the ultimate 3Dimensional coach, teaching talent and skill, emotions and the spiritual. That is Coach Lewis.”
-Tyson Simon, River Valley Multi-Area Director
“Coach said, ‘I saw you give your life to Christ and [also] the pain in your eyes,’” said Sifuentes. “I told him everything. He just prayed and told me to ask for a miracle.” Later that evening, she received a text from Lewis telling her the heating bill was covered through a network of good Samaritans. Lewis became part of the miracle he prayed for, witnessing the movement of God in the young runner’s life. Over the next six months, Sifuentes ran and worked, with Lewis right beside her. She received an FCA award for her commitment to faith and athletics and earned a track scholarship to the University of the Ozarks. It was a miracle, one the entire world witnessed as Sifuentes’ incredible story went viral. From Teen Vogue to CBS to Southern Living, media outlets across the country caught wind of her journey.
“I’m really grateful,” Sifuentes said of Lewis’ support. “Coach is a spiritual guide—it’s never about him; it’s all about others. I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
A 3D COACH
At the core of a viral story about a homeless athlete getting a scholarship was a coach scrounging up resources, pouring into her, and helping her survive.
“Everybody matters,” said Lewis, who has now coached for more than 30 years. “You meet Jesus every day—you just don’t know. You need to pay attention. I teach my kids to be observant, look for God and others.”
Lewis personifies FCA’s 3Dimensional Coaching®, paying close attention to physical training, mental motivation and confidence, and focusing deeper still on the heart and its self-worth and values. Coaches ministry is a crucial element for FCA, as this three-tiered coaching builds not only an athletic foundation, but holistic motivation from the inside out that leads to deep and lasting spiritual transformation. “What I’ve seen is a coach consistently living out his faith,” Simon said. “He runs with his kids during practice. He’ll change car batteries. He goes over and beyond.”
Over and beyond—and immeasurably more. Lewis is living his life for a greater Kingdom, transformed from the inside out, so he can offer similar grace to his athletes.
Photos courtesy of Jeff Lewis and Anya Sifuentes