December 2009 Jill Ewert
The circle on the Morehouse College football field spanned from the 10 yard-line to midfield. Locked arm-in-arm were football players, cheerleaders, coaches, administrators and volunteers from both sides of the rivalry.
Morehouse and Clark Atlanta.They’re two of Georgia’s 10 Historically Black Colleges and Universities and, even more specifically, two of the four undergraduate colleges seated on a single 200-acre lot on the west end of downtown Atlanta.
Practically sharing a campus, the Morehouse and Clark Atlanta University football teams are natural rivals. They’re part of the same conference (the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference), sport very similar colors and have been competing for close to a century. It would almost break an unwritten sports code if they weren’t rivals.
Yet here they stood, young men in maroon intermingled with those in red, arms laced together, heads bowed in prayer. For one night, they were brothers, not competitors. Despite being surrounded by the divisive culture of the inner city, they’d come together under a banner of unity and had chosen—even if against their natural instincts—to embrace their similarities and potential camaraderie.
They’d laughed, dined and sung praise to the Lord. They’d listened to administrators from both schools challenge them to embrace one another.They’d heard a word of biblical truth from one of their own coaches—Clark Atlanta’s Billy “White Shoes” Johnson—and now they were calling out to the Lord in one voice.
“Lord, bring Your spirit of unity to these young men,” prayed the chaplains and team captains who stood at the center of the circle. “Make them warriors for You who can stand and fight together as part of Your army. Make them brothers, Lord.”
At its essence, that is the picture of the FCA ministry in inner-city Atlanta. Where there is brokenness and division, God is bringing restoration and hope through the work of a small staff committed to changing a culture.
Three years ago, FCA’s Danny Buggs obeyed a calling from the Lord to relocate from West Virginia to Atlanta. While serving as the chaplain for the West Virginia football team, he’d been working to establish an FCA ministry in Morgantown and the surrounding areas. But Buggs couldn’t shake the vision he’d had for FCA from the start: to infiltrate and transform the nation’s inner cities.
“That’s been one link missing from FCA,” said Buggs, a former NFL wide receiver and Georgia native. “We’ve done a good job of impacting suburban areas, but the inner city is an area of great need, and in Philippians 4:19, Paul says that God will supply all of our needs. As the biggest sports ministry in the world, FCA has an opportunity to bring an inclusiveness and raise up leaders in the inner city.”
Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta huddle in prayer.
With a vision and passion specifically for the city of Atlanta, Buggs relocated to Georgia and went to work. He drew inspiration from the book of Nehemiah and likened establishing the inner-city ministry to the building of a great wall.
The first step was to lay the foundation, which came in the form of a ministry board, willing volunteers and the right field staff. Buggs watched as God raised up local business leaders from Chick-fil-A and Coca-Cola, assembled a capable staff that included Buggs’ son, Jamal, and also delivered a powerful backing force in the form of FCA’s founding father, Don McClanen.
“For years I’ve had a deep longing for FCA to be more involved with the poor,” McClanen said. “When I met Danny, I could see his authenticity toward the poor and the unfortunate. I saw a reality inside him that was obvious. We had an instant connection.”
After their initial meeting at FCA’s Realtime staff gathering in February, Buggs traveled to Haiti with McClanen on one of what were, for McClanen, regular journeys. There, the two grew in admiration for each other and bonded over a shared desire to reach the impoverished. Soon, McClanen began visiting Buggs in Atlanta, lending advice and support to the growing inner-city FCA initiative focused on touching similar populations in the U.S.
“I’m utterly convinced and convicted that the poor are the neglected on earth, and I know that God doesn’t neglect anybody,” McClanen said. “Jesus was the Man for the poor if there ever was one. For two-thirds of the earth to be living on a dollar or two a day is a tragedy of the first order. We build new stadiums and race tracks and beautiful glass buildings, but we leave the poor to suffer and die in the slums. My heart is just broken for that reason, and I know that Danny’s is, too. And he’s doing something about it.”
With a ministry support system and fundraising structure in place, Buggs and his staff, which has grown from two to nine (seven full-time and two student-chaplains) in three years, laid a strong base for lasting impact in a challenging environment.
“Here in Atlanta you have a lot of hate, crime, disconnection and territorialism,” he said. “With Christ leading the way, we’re breaking down these barriers. And when that gets in the city, it overflows into the schools, then into the lives of the children, and then they take it back home. We feel like if we get to this in time and lay our blueprint, we can make a change. And our blueprint is greater than the world’s blueprint. Ours is based on the Word of God.”
In the first 18 months of the inner-city Atlanta FCA ministry, more than 350 students and coaches attended FCA Camps. For many it was their first time away from home in a camp environment. One popular testimony came from a single camper’s statement: “This week at FCA Camp was very influential and spiritual. Why? Because I actually prayed for the first time.”
Mays High School volleyball team at FCA Camp
Local Huddles also have begun turning the tides of student bodies in both middle and high schools. There are now 10 Huddles in the area, including one at Benjamin E. Mays High School, located just off of Interstate 285 in Fulton County.
“Starting FCA here has been amazing,” said Huddle Coach Betty Perkins, also the head girls’ track and assistant girls’ basketball coach. “The impact is evident because the kids keep coming; they want to know the Word. Even the chronic classcutters find a way to get to FCA even if they skip class. Then, throughout the course of the day, we are able to speak to them about what Jesus would desire for their lives—would He want them in class? Once they’ve been to FCA, they’re more open to hearing and responding to that kind of teaching. It’s just one way that we are able to change a culture.”
One blessing for Coach Perkins as the Mays Huddle Coach has been watching God transform the lives of individual students in the inner city school. Student Huddle Leader Mariah Dean is one such inspiration.
“Every morning Mariah comes in the gym and says, ‘Praise the Lord, everybody,’ and we all respond back, ‘Praise the Lord!’” Perkins said with a proud-mama smile. “Even the kids who don’t understand what she’s saying or why she’s saying it take notice that there’s something different about her.”
That difference: the joy of the Lord, which could hardly be more evident on the face of the tall sophomore than if it were inked on her forehead.
After relocating with her father from Tennessee to Atlanta, not only did Mariah have to establish herself in a new environment, she also had to do it with the challenge of a disability. A childhood dog mauling left her with a visible deformity in her right leg, and, while she’s not embarrassed about it, she realizes that it makes her different. But Mariah simply smiles when her peers ask questions. She’s learned to incorporate her difference into her witness for Christ, using her unhindered athletic ability to bear witness to His power. And as the school’s Huddle Leader, she speaks often to crowds about His work in her life, communicating it to her FCA Huddle members and teammates.
“When Coach Perkins first asked me to lead, I was nervous and my prayer was simply, ‘Lord, let it be all of You and none of me,’” said Mariah, who said she has been blessed herself by the community of the Huddle. “Through FCA I’ve found peace of mind in this school and a reason to start over. Without FCA, I would have broken down. But when I get around people my age who are worshipping God and saying what they are thankful for even when life is hard and our situations are hard, it makes an impact on me. It helps me to see myself as the Lord sees me, not as the world sees me.”
It’s an inner-city world that doesn’t allow Mariah Dean to drive to the mall and buy new shoes when she can’t find a pair to match a new sweater. It’s a world that doesn’t allow her to eat steak and salmon every night for dinner. But it’s a world that has been transformed by Christ, the One who meets all of her needs and allows her to maintain—even radiate—His joy, regardless of abundance or poverty. And He’s using FCA to cultivate an understanding of the love and value He placed on her life.
And in the inner city of Atlanta—praise be to God—Mariah is one example of many.
“These kids are forming bonds,” Perkins said. “They all have a natural bond together, and I think that has a lot to do with how successful we’ve been at laying a foundation in Jesus Christ. He’s the One who is transforming the lives of so many kids here.”
Back on the Morehouse football field, the Unity in the Community event has just come to a close. Danny Buggs and his staff are mingling with the last of the coaches, administrators and volunteers who have stayed behind to dismiss the scant remains of the barbecue. Bits of their conversations reveal the source of their lingering energy: genuine excitement about what the Lord has done on the field that night.
“Once FCA got involved, there was a change in their walk and talk—the whole aspect of how they go about everyday life.”
– Coach Keith Higdon
Keith Higdon, Clark Atlanta’s interim head football coach, stands with his family and recounts the events with Buggs. After all, it was Higdon who had been the Lord’s conduit for FCA at Clark Atlanta when Buggs first arrived on the scene. The passion for inner-city ministry, specifically at the college level, is one that these men share in a profound way.
“Here we have a variety of kids from different backgrounds and nationalities and different thought processes,” said Higdon, who, as an assistant coach, invited Buggs to fill the role of chaplain at Clark Atlanta in 2006. “Once FCA got involved, there was a change in their walk and talk—the whole aspect of how they go about everyday life. Danny has done a tremendous job with the guys. He and his staff are heaven-sent. I tell him all the time that he answered our prayers.”
It’s an everyday occurrence, but not one on which Buggs or his staff dwell: the fact that they are answered prayers. They’re more focused on lifting up new prayers of their own for the inner-city ministry of Atlanta and for other inner-city FCA ministries being established throughout the country under the counsel of FCA’s new national inner-city task force.
“God is bringing together people with like minds and like hearts who want to see the walls of inner-city ministry built up because they have been laid in ruin,” Buggs said of the task force, which held its first meeting early last summer at the National Support Center in Kansas City, Mo. “With FCA, we have that blueprint to rebuild, and we’re working to do that—to build His Kingdom in a place where there is a lack of finances, lack of staff, lack of volunteer support, lack of vision. But we’re building that wall, and soon the whole nation will see where we’ve been and where we’re going. It truly is awesome.”
In one sense, Unity in the Community is finally over. In quite another, it is also just beginning.
Trumping the Rivalry
A century-old rivalry fuels the competitive intensity between the athletes of Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University. It’s one that dates back to the post-Civil War reconstruction of the South when, two years after the war ended, a former slave founded Morehouse College in Augusta, Ga. A few years later, a wealthy businessman moved the school to Atlanta where Clark College (now Clark Atlanta after merging with Atlanta University) already had been established.
FCA's Danny Buggs
With a hundred-plus years of rivalry railing against it, the FCA “Unity in the Community” event broke through significant barriers by bringing the athletes and coaches of Morehouse and Clark Atlanta together on friendly terms before the 2009 football season began.
“The Bible says in Psalm 133:1 (NIV), ‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity,’” Buggs said. “Our vision was to unify these two rivals who are basically on the same yard, and to bring them together in love and harmony so that the coaches, players, cheerleaders and administration could demonstrate unity to
the community and student body. They could show them that, yes, we play a game for competition, but we are a unified body of Christ. And when the body comes together collectively and the people of the world see us, then we can be the salt that will be sprinkled in the lives of hurting and dying people. We will become the light of the world that will shine in the darkness.”
Naturally, there was resistance to the event. Engaging their “enemies” on friendly terms did not strike many of the players as a productive use of time.
“Before Danny and the staff came in with the idea of Unity in the Community, it seemed like there was an ‘I hate Clark,’ or ‘I hate Morehouse’ attitude,” said Clark Atlanta Interim Head Coach Keith Higdon. “But with this event, we hope that they got the understanding that it’s more than just football. When Christ is the center of your life, there is nothing that can come between you because everyone has a common goal. We want to let everybody know that we play a football game, but, at the end of the day, we still all love Jesus Christ. And that’s the bigger picture.”
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of Oscar Daniel II and Samira Brinson