When Hope Looks Like a Soccer Ball

GLOOMY DAYS OF DESPAIR SURROUNDED CARLOS. Through the translator’s broken English, Carlos described his life. Trapped in an endless cycle of misery, not a pinprick of hope lightened the darkness. Constant fighting and crying, hemmed in by poverty, violence and an alcoholic father, he often laid on his stomach at night trying to quell the pain of hunger. Then hope broke into his life in the form of a soccer ball.

In El Salvador, soccer is king (known by the name of football in that country). Anselmo, Carlos’ dad, spent his days in an alcoholic daze. Nevertheless, he loved soccer. When a cousin invited him to join a soccer team, he enthusiastically agreed—until he discovered one nonflexible requirement. To play on this team, he had to go to church once a week.

At first, Anselmo emphatically responded, “No,” but eventually he decided one hour a week was a small price to pay to play! Father and son began to play soccer and attend the required church service together. There the light of hope dawned in Carlos’ mind. Here was something different from the misery he had always known. Carlos heard the praise band and fell in love with the guitar. He found a guitar with only two strings and began to practice. Later, the church loaned him a guitar with the required number of strings, and eventually Carlos became part of the praise band. More importantly, Carlos’ whole family accepted Christ—life transformation occurred! Today, Anselmo is the pastor of the growing church at El Riel, and Carlos leads worship and pastors the youth group.

When STCH Ministries began work in 2007 in the Dominican Republic, we established some fundamental principles to guide our work internationally with churches, schools and orphanages. One, we would not own nor try to manage work in another country, believing that local individuals can reach their people more effectively than those from another culture. Two, we would look for ministries that focused on children and families. And three, the leaders of these ministries had to be called by God, competent and working by faith. STCH Ministries would partner with these ministries in their calling through encouragement, training, education and additional resources.

In addition, consistent with the STCH Ministries mission, the makeup of our mission teams would include children and families. Accordingly, the logistics of lodging, food and safety were a priority. In 2017, after 10 years of working in the Dominican Republic, we began to explore other countries, among them Costa Rica, Peru and Mexico, considering whether we could expand our outreach.

Although the pandemic significantly interrupted these efforts, in 2021 Ward Hayes, CFO of Texas Baptists, heard about the international work of STCH Ministries. “My former church had a wonderful experience with the Peniel network of churches in El Salvador. I believe it would be a great place for STCH Ministries.” We began conversations with the Peniel leadership. Then beginning in the spring of 2022, we made the first of several trips which included staff, our Dominican partners and U.S. pastors and leaders. Both in the Peniel churches and their leadership, we discovered the matching focus and heart of STCH Ministries.

The Peniel network of churches was aptly named after the place where the Jewish patriarch, Jacob, met with God face-to-face. There, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and his life was never the same. The Peniel churches create opportunities for Gospel change through meeting practical life needs, impacting families and growing disciples. Soccer, a huge attraction in El Salvador, is one innovative tool. Churches develop their own leagues, and for those willing to come to church once a week, all fees are waived.

Jobs are scarce, and competition is fierce. Approximately 80,000 youth graduate from high school every year and must compete for an average of 20,000 job openings. Education is crucial, and the ability to speak English and to use computer technology significantly enhances employment opportunities. Accordingly, every church in the Peniel network either already has a school or is in the process of growing one, starting from preschool. Parents who wish to enroll their children receive a significant tuition discount if they also attend church once a week.

In the summer of 2023, we hosted our first two mission teams. Pastor David Thompson from Schulenberg reported recently, “I think about our experiences in El Salvador all the time. What struck me the most was the fervency and passion of the Christians—they were so alive. Church services were worshipful and joyful experiences. The whole experience reinvigorated us in our own Christian walk and service.” Another team, Calvert Grace from Maryland, spent four afternoons explaining creative and effective teaching techniques. They also conducted a sports camp at the school in El Riel, rotating between ga-ga ball, baseball, frisbees, American football and soccer, including a Bible lesson as they rotated. Both churches plan to return this summer.

As we pursue God’s leading in El Salvador, the STCH Ministries annual Vision Trip expanded to our first dual-country visit, spending approximately three and a half days each in El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. The logistics were daunting—housing in both countries, unique food (like pupusas), e-tickets and entry documents, three different airlines, translators and transportation—with our “friendly adversary” time, always pressuring and impacting what we could accomplish. Our goal in both countries was to inspire and present opportunities for future involvement. The group of 22 individuals included pastors, ministry leaders and supporters, board members and staff.

Our group boarded a United flight in Houston for a non-stop, three-hour flight to San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Pastor Edgar Borja and our efficient activity coordinator, Sulma, met us with a bus. The weather was warm, and somewhat less humid due to being on the Pacific coast, as we traveled to the mother church site at Santa Tecla. They had prepared an overview of their ministry, involving the leadership of several sites, assisted by translators-in-training. Shortly after, the pastors and their wives of the eight churches in their network joined us for a light supper and an opportunity to meet and greet. Inspired, we loaded our bus to the hotel accommodations for a night of rest.

The next morning, we enjoyed the vista, as we ate a bountiful breakfast buffet. Then, Matt Homeyer, pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio, shared a devotional. That day, we saw what God had helped the El Riel church and school accomplish through the partnership with STCH Ministries. During earlier trips, we witnessed volunteers digging trenches by hand for a future church building and donated a small offering to help purchase the cement blocks, and later the roof. During the summer of 2023, we partnered to help them add a room for science and computers, required by the school district for the ninth grade. Our team worshipped with the children and families in their new sanctuary, then climbed down precarious dirt-fashioned steps to celebrate and dedicate the computer science facility. Excited and joyful ninth graders and their teachers joined us for the viewing and ribbon cutting.

For the next two days, the Peniel leadership and young people prepared a program in each of the seven locations. They presented their vision, methods, progress and needs. Danny Quintanilla, a staff member at Bear Creek Church in Houston, reflected, “What impressed me the most was the focus on sharing the Gospel to all who come to their church whether it be through the school, sports ministry, soccer or the caring of those in need.”

Their passion to reach their people was equaled only by their excitement to share their dreams and the opportunities for partnership with our team. “It can be a Salvadoran dream, or an American dream, but most important is to make sure we are aligning with God’s dreams,” shared Dr. Edgar Borja, a Salvadoran ministry leader. We visited schools and shared a devotional with over 200 high school students in one location. We participated in different church services as pastors in our vision group presented a message of encouragement and inspiration. Some churches in the Peniel network were well-established, and others had just begun. However, in all of the Peniel churches, the need for resources, hands to share the work, training and education are limitless.

An important STCH Ministries goal was to hear from the Vision Trip group about their impressions and sense of God’s leading for the future. Chairman of the STCH Ministries board, John Weber, gave his perspective on El Salvador and the Peniel network of churches. “The work here fits the STCH Ministries method. They are focused on children and families, passionate to reach their people, hard-working, and have vision, and an amazing organization.” Many others shared a similar perspective.

“This is an amazing opportunity for us to come alongside these churches and offer a hand-up.” Karol Peters, board member

“I was impressed by their dual focus on meeting practical life needs and sharing the Gospel. This is the same goal for our church that I have noted in all of the STCH Ministries.” Will Rushing, pastor of University Baptist Church in Houston

STCH Ministries staff member, Kelli Meyer, summarized: “The Peniel network of churches reminded me of the early church in Acts. Each student, pastor and church member we met had a testimony of God bringing them out of addictions, tragedies, poverty, generational chains or brokenness. Now, on the other side, each one has a passion to help others. Like Acts, there is a unity in this church family and a ripple effect of discipleship.”

STCH Ministries has carefully evaluated the opportunities for Kingdom impact through partnership with the Peniel network of churches. They are working by faith with trained and competent leadership. They are using innovative and creative methods to heal, restore and transform lives like Carlos and his father, Anselmo. As Eron Green, CEO of STCH Ministries, often reminds us, “It’s not about numbers; it’s about the weight of the impact.”

Since the beginning in 1952, the STCH Ministries’ mission has included, “enabling others to join us in this ministry.” Please pray with us for the resources and helpers that are needed, especially for the opportunity to help construct missionary housing for teams, which is immediately before us. We are excited to see more churches respond similarly to Brian Hill, lead pastor at FBC Corpus Christi: “During the Vision Trip recently, I was immediately impressed with the sense that the opportunities in El Salvador are also a great fit for our church to help at the ground level. The experience for our teams will be different in El Salvador than what they would experience in the Dominican, but I am excited to get started.”

For more information on how your church can participate, please contact Joanna Berry at jberry@stchm.org or Mark Lozuk at mlozuk@stchm.org.