TIME Religion

A Different Kind of Spring Training

This Holy Week, I realized God's hope in a place other than church

Proclaiming that the tomb is empty – that Jesus has risen from the grave – is the most powerful witness any Christian can offer. But if our Easter celebration stops at proclamation then we’ve shortchanged the world of the hope and joy it sorely needs. The resurrection must also be about embodiment. It should change the way we live and move and have our being. Easter should transform and strengthen us to participate in God’s reconciling work in the world.

That’s why I chose to spend this Easter worshipping in a very different way and in a very different place. There was no midnight watch service or large family dinner, but there were countless moments of hope and an abiding trust in the possibility of new life.

For the past two years, John McCarthy, whom everyone affectionately calls Coach Mac, has taken a group of young baseball players from Washington, D.C. to join kids in the Dominican Republic (DR) for a week of playing baseball. Major League Baseball teams recruit heavily from the DR. 20 percent of professional baseball players learned the fundamentals of the game in this small country. Baseball is part of the nation’s cultural rhythms. Coach Mac runs a legendary program in Washington, D.C. called “Homerun Baseball” where the t-shirts read “Talent is what you have, effort is what you give.” He is known for using baseball to teach life lessons. He teaches his players how to succeed on and off the field.

One of the issues that has specifically tugged at John’s heart is literacy. The money he raises through his program helps subsidize reading programs in the nation’s capital, Brooklyn, NY, and the Dominican Republic. I believe in his work and was thrilled that my 11-year old son Jack and I could be a part of the Dominican journey last week.

For many baseball fans in the United States, their romantic image of the game is capture by the movie Field of Dreams. Pitches are thrown and bats are swung amidst the growing corn stalks and simple joys of small town America. But in the Dominican Republic, baseball diamonds are surrounded by sugarcane, whose shoots are used for the dugout walls. The scene is almost magical. Watching our boys sit on the bench chewing on sugarcane sticks was a sight to behold. Coach Mac knows I am a long-time little league coach in DC, so I was invited to join his coaching staff in the DR. We led skill drills and coached daily double headers under the hot sun, working alongside our Dominican counterparts. We shared stories of past exploits – my favorite coach, 27-year-old Luis, told the story of his years playing in the minor leagues. Luis showed his commitment to helping other kids escape the grinding poverty that far too frequently dashes youthful dreams in his country.

In the DR, baseball is played hard and well because many believe that it is their only opportunity to escape from poverty. Our kids were able to recognize their own privilege and it amazed them to see how their Dominican teammates come from so little yet bring so much to the field every day. Kids like Mosquito, whose mother died of HIV/AIDS, who is both deaf and mute, but is such a good pitcher that one of our Homerun coaches, a former MLB pitcher himself for 17 years, thinks this 12-year-old could eventually make the Majors. Or Isaac, a big hitter who kept hitting balls over buildings, always with a big smile on his face. Or little Derrick, who snuck onto the bus because he wanted to join our team– to our great benefit because of his great swing and glove in the field! Or even Kendre, who liked to catch for me while I hit ground balls to the infielders. He kept calling me “Coach Diego,” and caught hard throws with the flimsiest glove until I gave him mine to borrow. Kendre could hardly believe his good fortune when I told him at the end of the second day to keep my glove.

Many of the children attend a school started years earlier by the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. These sisters are also a core partner in the baseball program, recognizing too that the truth of the resurrection must be embodied in tangible ways.

At the end of the week, we stood around a huge baseball cake while both American and Dominican players talked about what they had learned. As they thanked each other and vowed to do it again next year, one 11-year-old Dominican player said, “Keep playing baseball and keep believing in God.” Another wished us safe travel “Vamos con Dios!” or “Go with God.”

In a final late night conversation with Jack and his friend Sam, we discussed what we had learned and how our lives might help change the lives of the young players and families we had met. They came up with the idea of a “foundation” to bring lots of baseball equipment from their teams and friends to the DR. That’s fine I said, but asked if baseball will really help many people in the Dominican escape poverty. No, they thought, that will take education and the boys decided we need to include books with the baseball gear. So look out for the “J and S Glove and Book Foundation” coming soon!

This “holy” week drove home to me how the resurrection calls us to bring hope wherever we go. When we can live in that reality—that death and evil do not finally win—we find the strength to participate in God’s work in the world.

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