A year can feel like a long time. A year in today’s world can feel like an eternity. Yet even with all the now-cliché “unprecedented” events of 2020 behind them, Collin Thomas and Mario Bento can still somehow remember their visit to Curitiba, Brazil, like it was yesterday.
“I was overwhelmed by the experience,” Bento said. “I can’t even describe it.”
That experience was a trip birthed out of Southeastern University (SEU) in Lakeland, Florida, in which Thomas—the school’s missions coordinator and former SEU football player—took assistant coaches Bento and Drew Engels, along with seven players, to train and minister to American football players in Curitiba where the sport has been rapidly growing in popularity throughout the past 20-plus years.
That experience also almost didn’t happen. In fact, Thomas’ excursion, which started February 27th and concluded March 6th, was the last trip out of SEU that took place before stay-at-home orders went into effect as COVID-19 spread across the United States and shut down international travel.
“It was a volatile time,” FCA Georgia International Advancement Coordinator Tom Joyner said. “We were trying to decide if we should pull the plug or trust God. In my mind, I was eager for the trip to take place, even though I wasn’t able to go. It put me in a precarious position. I was relying on [FCA Brazil Leader] Paulo Wescher and some others in Brazil to verify that it was still safe. There was a lot of confusion, so we were just trusting God and covering the team in prayer.”
Wescher, a veteran International Leader, was anxious for the team to arrive but first had to warn them that Brazil had just gotten its first COVID-19 case. While no one knew what was over the horizon in the coming weeks and months, training and ministry proceeded as planned. During the day, the team spoke at schools and public gyms. At night, they trained with the local football players from 7 PM until late in the evening with a break between sessions to share personal testimonies and Gospel messages.
“Brazilian football players know the game well,” Thomas said. “They want to learn. The players and coaches were extremely coachable. Ministry-wise, it was the perfect storm. You had players and coaches who soak up every word about football you can give them. Then, when you’re able to preach the Gospel, you already have their respect. Preaching the Gospel was so natural.”
The trip was especially meaningful for Bento, who was returning home to Brazil, where he first started coaching American football before pursuing a career in the United States. It was during his journey when, as a lifelong atheist, he accepted Christ through the influence of FCA and learned what it means to be a Christian coach.
“I’ve seen American football grow in Brazil from the beginning,” Bento said. “When the trip came together, it was a dream come true because I was coming back from the other perspective as an American coach who was also from Brazil. It was bringing everything to the same table for me—my country, my people and the people I’m coaching here.”
For Wescher, the trip was a dream come true because he knew how the coaches’ and players’ presence would boost his diligent efforts.
“When I have Americans come to teach American football, it opens up so many doors to the coaches and athletes,” Wescher said. “Everybody listens to them. After the clinics, they’ll give their testimonies and talk about Jesus and that opens the door for me to have a relationship with those coaches and athletes to study the Bible.”
But Bento and Thomas agree that it was the Americans who were impacted the most and in a way that will have long-term ramifications. Such was the case with defensive lineman Curtis Williams.
“On the last day, he could hardly say goodbye to everyone because he was in tears in the van,” Thomas said. “You can flippantly say that someone’s life was changed through an experience like this, but in the fullest sense, the dude’s life was changed. He stands up for everything he believes in now and he faces opposition because of it. I remind him all the time that I’m inspired by him because that’s what I wanted to do that when I was a football player, but I didn’t have the faith in God then as he does now. I witnessed that happen in Brazil.”
The national lockdowns that soon followed the team’s return were in some ways a blessing in disguise. Coach Engels, for example, was fired up to use his platform for Christ but had to find creative ways to do so. His solution was to start a series of webinars, which allowed him to train the Brazilian coaches in the sport and build them up spiritually.
“The next time we take football players from Southeastern University, it’s going to be a big, big trip,” Bento said. “There’s a lot of players that want to go and a lot of coaches that want to go. It’s going to be another landmark in our lives.”
Brazil is a sports hungry nation and American football is one of its fastest growing sports. Paulo Wescher is praying for more resource so he can bring on more staff and better equip them to reach all of the athletes and coaches within their circle of influence.
“Once the pandemic is over, we also want more American football players and coaches to come to Brazil,” Wescher said.
Tom Joyner is on board with that sentiment and likewise is praying that FCA Georgia will be able to help Wescher’s ministry grow remotely and in the field.
“We encourage athletes and coaches to go on these trips,” Joyner said. “We want them to get out of their comfort zones. When they come back, it makes them realize that they have a gift to utilize their faith and share it more.”
Pray for ministry in Brazil, that God would continue to raise up leaders to impact coaches and athletes for Christ and make disciples.
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Photos courtesy of Tom Joyner