In 1984, Frank Kelly conceded defeat in the middle of lacrosse practice at Cornell University. As far as he was concerned, his playing days were over thanks to injuries and mediocre play that had relegated him to the fourth string. During a moment of surrender, Kelly bowed his head while on the field and committed his future to Christ.
Miraculously, God gave lacrosse back to Kelly three weeks later. He finished his collegiate career, went to Japan on a sports ministry mission trip and, while there, says he received this life verse from the Lord:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
Fast forward 30 years later and Kelly again found himself on a lacrosse field. This time, it was with a team representing FCA’s Team Serve and teams made up of Israelis, in Netanya, Israel, no less.
The two teams had just competed in the World Lacrosse Festival where Kelly and Dan Britton, FCA Executive Director of International Ministry, were helping lead Team Serve’s efforts at the 2018 FIL (Federation of International Lacrosse) World Lacrosse Championships.
After the game and some fun conversation, Kelly prayed from the Torah over his opponent while one of its team members interpreted into Hebrew:
May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn His face towards you and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)
Kelly then explained the meaning behind the bracelets his FCA athletes had just offered to the local competitors. It was blue and white with the word STRONG and the Bible reference for 2 Timothy 4:7, both of which represent the 2018 FCA Camp theme: Fight. Finish. Faith.
“You’ve had to overcome a lot to make the team and now you’re competing,” Kelly explained. “You need to fight. You need to finish what you started. Even if you get discouraged or you get down, you need to finish. And you need to have faith in each other as teammates. You need to have faith in your coaches. And while we’re here in the Holy Land, it’s an opportunity to grow in your faith in God.”
That scene repeated itself numerous times this past July as Team Serve gave away over 1,000 STRONG wristbands to several Israeli teams during the festival and more than a dozen other international teams during the FIL event as Team Serve scrimmaged to help them prepare for the global gathering that takes place every four years.
Team Serve with the Philippines team.
For Kelly and Britton, it was the culmination of a 26-year journey that started in Vail, Colorado, where FCA Lacrosse was launched following “The Miracle in the Mountains” in 1992. There, a rag-tag group of athletes made an improbable run at the prestigious Vail Lacrosse Shootout that resulted in an astonishing runner-up finish.
Kelly had already planted the seeds in 1988 with the sport’s first FCA Lacrosse Camp in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That long and winding road eventually led to the establishment of the FCA Lacrosse Ministry and the development of hundreds of FCA Lacrosse teams playing throughout the U.S. including Team Serve’s first trip to the 2014 FIL Lacrosse Championships in Denver, Colorado.
When the 2018 FIL event was moved from England to Israel, FCA Lacrosse decided to organize another team to serve the nations. In November of 2017, Kelly’s son Frankie, who had played at the University of North Carolina, began putting the 28-member team together—a team that consisted of current and former college and professional players and a couple of young high school players as well, and ranged in age from 14 to 62.
Team Serve landed in Israel on a Sunday night where they gathered on a beach overlooking the Mediterranean Sea for a late meeting and time of prayer. The next morning, they kicked off a long day of competition against three national teams. Within the first three days, Team Serve faced 11 countries including Spain, Mexico, Norway, Turkey, Scotland, Uganda, Netherlands, Philippines, Luxembourg, South Korea and Russia.
“After every scrimmage, we shared the STRONG message, prayed over the team, and took a combined team picture. Then the players would be standing there talking and they’d ask more questions,” Britton recalled. “Some of the guys were believers and wanted to engage. Some guys would say, ‘Hey, I never really thought about this before today.’ We were just there to be the hands and feet of Jesus.”
Prayer with Team Uganda after scrimmage.
Thanks in part to Kelly’s deep ties within the international lacrosse community, the FIL not only allowed Team Serve to be part of the World Championships, but also invited them to share living quarters with five other national teams. This led to unique opportunities for fellowship including team dinners with South Korea and Mexico, and a luncheon with Uganda. Team Serve also strung lacrosse goals and served as referees for a scrimmage between two other teams.
“We were especially a blessing to some of the second-tier teams,” Britton explains. “They knew the high level of talent that we had on Team Serve, and we were able to help them and teach them and instruct them and coach them up and help them get better for their games. They were blown away. They could not believe that we had traveled all the way to Israel just to help them.”
One of the Turkish team members was one of many international players who were significantly impacted through FCA’s presence in Israel.
“It was an amazing experience working with Team Serve,” he says. “We were able to work on drills and skills that prepared us for the 2018 World Championships. We can't thank Team Serve enough for helping to improve our player’s understanding of the game and learn about each others’ cultures.”
The Holy Land Experience
Because the Israeli Lacrosse Association had limited field space in Netanya, event organizers asked Team Serve if they would be willing to drive two and a half hours to Jerusalem and scrimmage countries at the brand-new Kraft Family Sports Complex. This was an easy offer for Kelly and Britton to accept.
Not only were they able to impact teams from 12 nations, they also had the opportunity to tour Jerusalem and other historic sites such as Bethlehem and Capernaum and held Bible studies including a teaching on The Beatitudes at the same place where Jesus taught His powerful Sermon on the Mount.
“It was a surreal experience,” Britton said. “You’re in the Holy Land and walking the land where Abraham and David and King Solomon walked and then following in the footsteps of Jesus, and you’re experiencing a transformation of your faith. I’ll never read the Bible the same again.”
Team Serve at the Mount of Olives.
Although Team Serve’s players were already believers, some had not yet fully committed themselves to a daily relationship with Christ. This led to some significant moments of ministry including one afternoon when three team members were baptized in the Sea of Galilee. Two other players later requested baptism in the waterfalls of En Gedi near the Dead Sea.
“Being in Israel multiplied the daily devotionals and the extra-curricular team activities and made it much easier to fill up so we could pour out,” Frankie Kelly said. “That really encouraged guys and energized them to play a full season’s worth of lacrosse in less than two weeks.”
According to Alex Aken, a college athlete at Palm Beach Atlantic, the experience was more than just playing the game that he loves.
“For the first time, it wasn’t about me, how well I played, or if our team even won our scrimmages or not,” he said. “It was about building relationships with the players we played against and being there to serve them in whatever way possible. The opportunities that God provided for me to connect with specific players from the other teams are what I will cherish in my heart all the days of my life. In my opinion, this is what the spirit of lacrosse is really all about.”
Furman University athlete Myles Cohen concurred and called the trip “the greatest experience of my life” while former Eastern University athlete Kyle Gillam expressed his desire to play for Team Serve again in four years.
“I will never forget it,” he said. “For our team to use lacrosse to serve so many nations and share Christ’s love was unfathomable. God prepared open doors for us to reach the nations and challenged me personally every step of the way.”
From Ukraine With Love
One of the biggest highlights for all team members also took place in Jerusalem following a scrimmage against Russia. Ironically, the moment involved the one player who wasn’t from the United States.
As Frankie Kelly was putting together the roster, Dan Britton suggested they invite Vova Demediuk from FCA Ukraine. Demediuk only began playing lacrosse a few years ago and has been developing the sport in Ukraine. The team immediately embraced the newcomer and began training him and helping him improve as a player.
After a scrimmage against Scotland and Uganda, the team went to the locker room before another game against Russia. During the break, Demediuk shared the story of how his first wife died of cancer and the miraculous events surrounding his daughter’s young life.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” Britton recounted. “Then we laid hands on him and prayed for him. That was a watershed moment.”
Then came the scrimmage against Russia. Not only did Demediuk score his first goal of the week, he also served as the interpreter for Frank Kelly’s post-game talk and for the closing prayer.
“Man, I think we just solved world peace,” Frankie Kelly quipped. “To see a Ukrainian FCA staff guy praying over the Russians in Russian after playing them in lacrosse in Israel was pretty surreal on a global scale.”
Demediuk’s story took another compelling turn later in the trip. For the past 10 years, he has been working to have lacrosse officially recognized in Ukraine. In what felt like a providential moment, Demediuk’s home country was approved as the 62nd member of the FIL.
“It just shows another aspect of sports ministry,” Britton said. “Even if that means helping establish a sport in a country and developing a national team. That’s part of our assignment.”
Playing It Forward
On a Sunday during their time in Netanya, Team Serve organized a morning worship service, which was attended by a handful of players from Uganda, Scotland, and the Philippines. The most notable person to attend, however, wasn’t a lacrosse player, but rather Jim Scherr, CEO of the FIL, who is also a believer and has supported FCA in the past.
Jim Scherr, CEO of the FIL (center), with Frank Kelly (left) and Dan Britton (right).
His presence helped solidify conversations that had already been taking place throughout the two-week event—talks that led to an invitation for Team Serve to attend the 2022 World Championships in Vancouver.
“God has given us incredible favor with the Federation of International Lacrosse and the lacrosse community,” Kelly said. “That’s going to be very important moving forward as we establish that relationship and work towards future ministry and service opportunities in the lacrosse community.
Team Serve also fostered relationships with national teams that have opened the door for FCA Lacrosse into places such as Japan and South Korea while introducing dozens of athletes to ministry that is already ongoing in their home nations.
“We can now engage our local people and FCA staff in those countries,” Britton said. “It’s a game changer.”
Photos courtesy of FCA Lacrosse