Wednesday, March 12, 2008

There's No Devotions in Soccer

This is a tad off topic from the stated purpose of this blog but luckily for me I'm not the New York Times. It's my blog and I'll rant if I want to.

DD#1 is our little soccer star. She's been playing for several years and this spring will be her eighth soccer season. She loves the sport -- she's actually quite good -- and it's a family activity we all enjoy. She's always played in a wonderful league run by the church right next to our subdivision. This church (whose denomination shall remain nameless to protect the innocent) has a tremendous sports and fitness program that includes a variety of sports leagues, classes and activities that's open to our entire community. My girls have enjoyed soccer, gymnastics and several summer camps there. Many of our friends and neighbors of all religions and backgrounds also partake in these activities.

Although we're Jewish, I never thought twice about doing the sports activities at this church. That is, until I got this "Important Information about Spring Soccer" email from the church's sports director:

During our season Devotions are a vital part of our program and we are going to try a new system. The devotion for the week can be found online. Players and coaches are to download it and run it off and fill it out. (We encourage you to make this a family event with your kids!) Also we encourage your child to put a prayer request on their completed sheet.

Bring the completed devotion to practice and your coach will take about 5 minutes to discuss it and go over the answers. Coaches will initial the completed devotion and hand it in to me. At the next practice kids will receive a sports pin for having completed the devotion. At the end of the season the kids with the most pins will receive a cool prize.

Until now, the "devotions" she references as a "vital part of our program" have been a two second prayer before each game. Hard to know what exactly is said during those prayers as its done by the players and coaches in a huddle. According to DD#1, it's usually about having a good game, having fun or some other random harmless thing. It's never "Christian" in nature and "God" isn't even mentioned -- the kind of "prayer" I could certainly live with.

But filling out a weekly devotion, requesting prayers and discussing them at practice? An entirely different proposition. At first, although I was annoyed that I and my kids were getting yet another homework assignment to have to remember to do each week, I naively hoped that maybe like the pre-game prayers, these devotions would also be non-denominational "life lessons" that would appeal to all kids. So I went online and checked out this week's devotion. No such luck. This week's devotion is all about hope -- and how Jesus is the only person who offers true hope because He is Hope.

WTF????!!! I don't recall signing my kid up for Bible school. I thought this was soccer! I was appalled that they would be so insensitive as to encourage religious teachings during an activity that was open to the entire community. Either they assume that everyone who signed up for soccer (and baseball, by the way) is Christian or they really don't care if you aren't. Either way, they managed to royally piss me off.

Of course, after Hubby peeled me off the ceiling, we promptly informed our coach that DD#1 simply wouldn't participate in the devotion program. I should mention that Hubby is not Jewish -- I like to say he's non-denominational (my mom says he's "NotJewish" -- one word like that's his religion) -- so this is not a big issue for him. I, on the other hand, have decided to wait it out, see how this season goes and then search my soul as to whether or not to sign her up for another season with this league.

I happen to be an ultra-reformed Jew and a not very religious one (hence the "NotJewish" husband). I also happen to appreciate and respect all religions and pride myself on raising my children that way. As long as you practice your religion your way, and you allow me to practice my religion my way, we're all good.

But I can't help but feel like this church pulled a bait and switch on me and is completely oblivious to potentially alienating non-Christian community members by pushing this devotions program. It feels a bit like exclusion and discrimination and it just doesn't sit right with me. I've composed all kinds of letters to the sports director in my head about the potentially unintended consequences of this new devotions program. But I'm also fully aware that I am likely one of a very small minority of people who will have a problem with the program.

What do you think? Is it completely unrealistic to expect separation of church and soccer? What would you do?

UPDATE TO THIS POST: I just got done watching Obama's inspiring speech on race. In it, he reminds us that each race has its own perspective based on its unique experiences. Each perspective is valid. And until we can understand and appreciate each perspective, we can never bridge the gaps that divide us. I believe the same can be said of religion. Having been enlightened, I've decided to chalk this situation up to my Christian neighbors wanting to serve the majority of their sports leagues members for what they believe will be a valuable program. And I've decided to forgive them for what seems like insensitivity to their non-Christian members as it likely was not their intention to insult.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post. My name is Jeff, and ironically, I was searching for soccer devotions in preparation for coaching this fall in an Atlanta area church league. I can definitely relate though, having coached for five years now at the Atlanta/Cobb YMCA (which despite the name was as completely non-Christian as you could get, to the point of kicking out a coach for witnessing to teen players) and now in a church league with devotions.

Last year, our family moved from a hyper competitive program (win at ALL costs, scream at little kids, etc) to our current church league. A group of six players and their families came with us, to my surprise. One player was from a mixed Jewish/Christian family that was in a quandary precisely because of the issue of devotions... his Dad really wants him to complete his lessons and make his Bar Mitzvah, and felt that getting "sermons" from the coach (me) would send mixed messages.

I was up front with them that I felt that while I would do the devotions to stay true to the program as set up, there was certainly room to discuss the differences and commonalities between the two faiths AS PART OF the devotions (er, Jesus went to Temple, right?), but they chose not to play. I think/hope they joined the program down town at the JCC, but that was a hike for them to travel.

What becomes of us, when we close ourselves off to discourse? We become more insular, more protectionist, more fearful and distrustful... more prone to anger, to hate. I was prepared to see you end your posting that you'd left, and am so heartened that you didn't, fellow "soccer parent". Coming from a red state background, I'm not a fan of Obama, but I think its important to listen to others points of view, especially when they initially repel. So, salute to y'all, and best wishes to your daughter this fall season, if she's still playing!

- Coach Jeff in Atlanta.

Anonymous said...

It's a church. Enroll your kid in a different soccer program. Seriously, what would you expect?