In Guatemala City, they call them red zones; 21 districts where crime is extremely high and hope is at an all-time low.
As a star professional soccer player with a notable family, Julio Gomez had limited experience with his hometown’s most notorious pockets. That all changed when, at the age of 29, he hung up his cleats and joined the world of community service.
“I asked the Lord to use me and guide me into whatever He wanted,” he said. “I just wanted to serve Him.”
Julio went to work with Champions in Action, an NGO that serves at-risk communities through soccer. That’s when he got an up-close look at the neighborhoods riddled with gang activity, drug use, violence and poverty.
“I saw a generation of kids who have no hope,” Julio said. “But I knew that God could change that.”
Although Julio grew up in a religious home, he didn’t understand a personal relationship with Jesus Christ until he was 18 years old. That’s when an opportunity to play professionally in Italy fell through. Losing his dream caused him to realize soccer was number one in his life. He surrendered the sport to God and asked for direction.
Five years later, Julio began experiencing spiritual transformation thanks to guidance from a close friend (who would later become his wife) , mentoring from his pastor (a former soccer player himself) and a Christian coach.
In 2014, Julio was in the United Kingdom at a conference where Global Region Coordinator Jim Roquemore was helping develop curriculum for sports teams. Julio heard that Jim was asked to speak to coaches at an adjacent sports camp and snuck out of his meeting to hear the FCA leader speak.
“Julio sat in the back of the room and heard me talking about FCA Coaches Ministry and 3D Coaching,” Jim recalled.
“That’s what I’m looking for,” Julio told Jim. “I’m looking to reach the coaches and athletes in my country.”
It didn’t take long for Jim to instinctively know that Julio was the person to take FCA Guatemala to the next level.
“He’s been a great leader,” Jim said. “He’s put together partnerships with other NGOs. He’s put together a sports chaplaincy program. He works with professional teams in Guatemala City. We’re bringing in 3D Coaching. We’ve got professional athletes meeting together. The ministry has really thrived under Julio’s leadership.”
One particular game-changing moment took place when Jim visited Julio to explore ministry opportunities. That led them to Zone Seven, where the economy is built around the garbage dump.
Accompanying an NGO worker who was checking up on truant school children, Jim found himself in a 12x12 house that was packed with recyclables and swarming with flies.
“I’m a pretty tough guy and probably could’ve stomached that, but what I couldn’t stomach was seeing a little girl standing next to me,” Jim remembered. “It was heartbreaking to see a little eight-year old girl named Lucy standing next to me in these conditions. I still have that visual image in my mind."
Julio and Jim left the neighborhood with heavy hearts. Both had the same question burning deep inside: “What can we do for these children?”
“There’s thousands of kids,” Jim said. “The poverty problem is so large. I can’t fix it. You can’t fix it. But we had to do something. We didn’t know what that something was, so we prayed about it.”
As they drove away, they passed a new soccer complex that was less than a mile around the corner.
“We knew it would be a dream to have something like this for the kids,” Julio said. “So we looked for the manager, and I was surprised to learn that he was one of my former teammates. He told me he believed God had put him there to serve those kids. He was willing to let use his place for free. It was an immediate response from God. He was saying, ‘If you really want to help My kids, I have the resources.’”
From that providential meeting, FCA Guatemala started a soccer academy in Zone Seven. Eventually, they put together a team made up street kids that lost 12-0 in its first game but went on to win some games and qualify for the postseason tournament.
“More importantly, we discipled and mentored them,” Jim added. “That’s the heart of the ministry.”
According to Julio, the lifeblood that pumps that heart are coaches that FCA is raising up from within Guatemala City and the red zones. One of his coaches grew up in Zone 18 and is also serving as an area director.
“He’s been through a lot of challenges, but he’s proof of what God can do in those neighborhoods,” Julio said. “God has prepared him for this role and to ministry in this community.”
Among Julio’s long-term goals is to continue developing ministry to young people under the age of 18, which makes up 60 percent of the Guatemalan population.
“When we say that kids are the future, that’s exactly right, and I can tell you that they’re the present too,” he said. “That’s why we are called to serve them. They are the generation that can change a country. One of our goals is to reach as many communities as we can. We want to find the future coaches and the future professionals of Guatemala.”
Julio has already seen his weekly reach grow from 50 kids to more than 600 kids via Huddles and discipleship groups.
FCA Guatemala’s other area of influence is in the professional and club sports worlds where Julio has developed a chaplaincy program to help bridge the gap between athletes and the church.
“We’re working with six professional teams so far and continuing to grow so we can reach as many soccer, basketball and baseball athletes as possible,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to be the light into that world.”
Five Facts About Guatemala
1. Guatemala is a Central American country located south of Mexico with a population of 15.8 million people.
2. Just over 41 percent of the Guatemalan population is Mestizo (also called Ladino) while another 41 percent come from a variety of indigenous groups. About 18 percent are white or European. Spanish is the official language and spoken by 93 percent of the population.
3. Guatemala boasts the largest economy in Central America yet is one of the poorest nations in Latin America. Some of its main exports are fruits, vegetables, flowers and the raw materials needed to create bio-fuels.
4. Christianity is the dominant religion of Guatemala. Roughly 57 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic while another 28 percent are Protestant. The next highest percentage, however, is the 11 percent who claim no religious affiliation.
5. Sports are a very prominent part of Guatemalan culture. Soccer is considered the most popular sport, but baseball, basketball, volleyball and kickboxing are also closely followed. Some notable athletes from Guatemala include soccer stars Carlos Ruiz, Gustavo Cabrera and Guillermo Ramirez, and Erick Barrondo who won the nation’s first Olympic medal (20-km race walk) at the 2012 Summer Games in London.