An elite track and field athlete, Sarah Nambawa was no stranger to sports.
Her love of competing led her to travel across the ocean and run on a scholarship at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. There, her faith caught fire. After she experienced FCA Camp in 2010, Nambawa wondered how to continue combining her love of sports and God.
By the time she returned home to Uganda in 2013, a new sport had made its way to the country: lacrosse. A team game with origins tied to the Native Americans, dubbed ‘The Creator’s Game,’ a cross-like stick is used with a ball. The sport combines basketball, soccer and hockey. Nambawa’s background was track and field, and she was familiar with soccer, but lacrosse was new to her. But, it was becoming very popular in Uganda, so she stepped out of her comfort zone so she could reach more coaches and athletes with the Good News of Jesus.
“I knew nothing of this sport,” said Nambawa, “I had to learn everything.”
Little did she know that across the country, God was at work in another athlete’s heart and using lacrosse to reach him.
The day Michael Bahiizi met a man wielding this same unusual stick and net combo while running up and down the soccer pitch changed his life. He accepted the man’s invitation to join in lacrosse practices. As the oldest brother of three younger sisters who all came from a Christian ranching family living in the southwest part of Uganda, he wanted to make his family proud. It was always on his heart to serve the Lord, but he didn’t know how. Lacrosse began to connect the dots.
Thanks to an organization called Fields of Growth, lacrosse had been established in Uganda in the early 2000s after years of conflict. Short-term mission trips taken by college-age lacrosse players had introduced the war-torn country to the sport, and it was taking off.
By 2014, Ugandan lacrosse players were ready to compete on the international stage. Nambawa was digging into the initial stages of sports ministry and a better understanding of the sport. She traveled to the 2014 Lacrosse World Championship in Denver, Colorado, and when she returned, she tracked down a university that had begun to implement lacrosse into its athletics: Makerere University Business School. There, she connected with an old coach from her high school track days and shared her vision. He connected her with more coaches, and they went to work recruiting males and females for not only national teams, but for teams full of young athletes too.
Bahiizi was also in Denver in 2014, playing for Team Uganda: the first African lacrosse team to compete at an international level. It was an exciting time, but what got Bahiizi most excited was encountering FCA Lacrosse. They were at the competition as “Team Serve” with the purpose of helping scrimmage with the international teams, fill water bottles, and serve the lacrosse community. Team Serve combined competition and Christ.
“That was the first time I saw sports ministry,” said Bahiizi. “It was always in my heart to serve the Lord, but I didn’t know how. Seeing this team planted a seed in me.”
Little did Nambawa and Bahiizi know that the Denver World Championships were taking place less than 100 miles from where one of the most powerful moments in FCA Lacrosse history happened. In the early 1990s, a group of athletes came together and experienced an incredible game now known as “Miracle in the Mountains.”
Former professional lacrosse players Dan Britton, who at the time was serving with FCA in Northern Virginia, and Frank Kelly, had a dream of assembling a team to play at the Vail Shootout so they could share Jesus with the lacrosse community. In a series of miraculous events, doors opened for them to assemble a team for the prestigious tournament and play as Team FCA. When they pulled off an unpredictable win in the semi-final game, heads turned. Although they didn’t win the tournament, the seed had been planted and FCA Lacrosse gained steam.
In the decades to come, lacrosse would be added to FCA Camps in the Northeast area, and some of the first FCA Sports Clubs and Leagues would form to play lacrosse. Men and women, boys and girls, began picking up lacrosse sticks to learn “the Creator’s game.”
"It's incredible to think about the impact of what happened during miracle in the Mountains and to see FCA Lacrosse today," said Frank Kelly. "Our prayer was to see God use lacrosse to influence others for Christ. There are so many stories, and the ripple effect of FCA lacrosse shows up in my and many lives every day."
The Kelly family would become instrumental in getting FCA Lacrosse established, with the four Kelly brothers, all lacrosse players, and their dad using their family business in Maryland to headquarter the growing ministry. They’d eventually hire one of the campers who met Christ through FCA Lacrosse Camp, Sean McNamera, to administrate the growing camps, clubs and leagues. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, FCA Lacrosse continued to grow. Athletes who’d grown up playing on FCA Lacrosse teams would join college and professional teams. By the 2010s, FCA was becoming an international ministry and lacrosse an international sport.
"As we watched lacrosse grow in other countries around the world, we were also experiencing the vision for FCA International exploding," said Dan Britton, FCA Chief Field Officer. "God was using lacrosse to open doors for FCA to expand His name into other countries and people groups."
Once Bahiizi returned home to Uganda after the Denver tournament, he continued playing lacrosse and finding ways to share his faith. At the same time, Nambawa met with Britton and learned how to invest in the wellbeing of coaches and athletes by joining FCA.
“I've seen athletes accepting Christ and changing their behaviors,” said Nambawa. “In these communities, sometimes you find kids coming from ghettos, and these ghettos have their own behaviors. But when you help them in sports as well as understanding who gave them the talent, kids change a lot. I remember the kids I first met in lacrosse when they were very small, but now they're adults and they have testimonies to tell from what sports has done and what loving God has meant.”
And while lacrosse was popular in Uganda, it wasn’t the only African country showing interest.
Fred Osore had been leading soccer teams in Kenya when he discovered lacrosse. Also passionate about sharing God with athletes, he began identifying schools that would benefit from learning the new sport, focusing especially on female athletes. The girls had shown great skill and promise during their first practices, which transferred over to their first competition in the 2016 East African 7s Lacrosse Championship tournament hosted in Uganda. Their success fanned the flames of lacrosse in Kenya, drawing the interest of more and more girls.
Osore had heard about the influence of FCA Lacrosse in Uganda, and he wanted to learn more. After a vision trip with FCA leaders, he joined FCA as an Area Representative, focused on using lacrosse to share Jesus to Kenyan coaches and athletes.
In 2019, the Kenyan girls played in the Lacrosse World Championship in Canada and after the competition, interest spread. Osore introduced the first boys’ team and today, Kenya has four teams, with more and more schools being introduced to lacrosse each day.
“Lacrosse was new, it was different, it was exciting to play and watch,” said Osore. “When I showed it to schools around the village of Mumias, everyone was keen to play it. I explained that ‘lacrosse’ means ‘the cross’ in French. This opened the door for me to turn the conversation to Christ and his death on the cross, and that by his words we can be healed.”
Osore’s pastoral heart shaped not just the physical development of his athletes, but paved a way for spiritual recognition as well.
“I started playing lacrosse when I was 13 years old in 2018 when Coach Fred introduced the sport to our school,” said Chris, one of Osore’s athletes. “Through lacrosse, I have learned how to love and care for my teammates. The coaches introduced me to Christ last year and I am happy I accepted Him in my life as Lord and Savior. I enjoy playing lacrosse with my teammates, and believe that one day I will represent my country."
LACROSSE AND THE WORLD
Over the past decade, God has shown that He has big plans for lacrosse and that He’s going to use athletes to continue reaching other athletes. Thanks to her athletic background, Nambawa has built up enough lacrosse skills, she now knows her way around the field and invests in coaches who are role models to their athletes and other athletes. She was the first FCA staff person for lacrosse in Uganda.
Bahiizi reconnected with FCA Lacrosse’s Team Serve when he played in the 2018 World Championships in Israel, and he traveled to the U.S.—without a detailed itinerary, trusting God would provide for Him—to learn more about joining FCA staff. (Which, thanks to many FCA teammates, God did provide!) Bahiizi has also served on staff in Uganda. Meanwhile, Osore continues pouring into lacrosse players as FCA staff in Kenya.
"I am so proud that I took up lacrosse,” shared Rukia, one of Osore’s athletes. “It connected me with loving coaches who have been so inspiring. I had no way of joining high school, but one of the coaches connected me to a school where I was given a sports scholarship. It has been four wonderful years in this school and God willing, I will be done with high school by the end of this year, all courtesy of lacrosse.”
Uganda and Kenya are just two of the many countries around the world where lacrosse is taking off, and many leaders in the lacrosse organizations point to FCA Lacrosse as the catalyst. All around the world, lacrosse athletes are getting engaged, equipped and empowered through the sport and its many passionate supporters. Many are getting fired up not only about the sport itself, but the opportunity to do sports ministry through FCA.
Although not everyone knows about lacrosse or even how to hold a stick yet, many leaders say it’s not about the sport as much as it’s about the Creator it points to, and lacrosse is pointing athletes to Christ.
Photos courtesy of FCA Lacrosse and FCA International