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Sports in the Spirit

Young adult group mixes play and prayer

By John Burger

Many Catholics have heard of Theology on Tap, the evangelization effort that invites young adults to a local pub for a talk about the faith. The venue is considered a friendly space for those who would feel uncomfortable visiting a church for the same talk.

Now, there’s a new effort at evangelizing young adults that uses an outdoor platform.

Catholic Young Adult Sports (CYAS) organizes team play to bring young people together. It is designed to be a means of building community among young adults, Catholic or otherwise. The community building and the forming of relationships through team efforts help bring people to Christ, says founder and director Paul Spotts. After all, he points out, the most effective evangelization efforts begin with a relationship.

But it’s not all fun and games. The apostolate also sponsors small-group Bible studies, retreats, mission trips and service events. Spotts invited members in the Denver area to join him the day after Thanksgiving to go to minister to the homeless.

Sometimes, the non-sporting events yield visible fruits. At a recent retreat, one of the participants, whom Spotts characterized as a “fallen-away Mormon,” was attending Mass. The priest gave a homily on the “Bread of Life discourse” from the Gospel according to St. John. “And afterwards we had adoration…for three hours,” Spotts recalled.

Later, he asked the man if he would share with the other retreatants a little bit about “where he was in relationship to the Lord.” In very emotional testimony, the man said he was still trying to figure out some things about Catholicism, “but he’s curious, and in some ways he kind of thinks he needs the Lord to speak to him and make it easy.” Spotts later told him that sometimes God uses a 2-by-4 to get our attention, and at other times, he whispers.

Operating in Denver and San Diego, the program organizes leagues and pickup games throughout the year. Plus, there is hiking and other recreational and social events that are not explicitly spiritual.

“Sometimes, we get into this sort of ‘all Catholic, all the time’ mode, and we need time to let loose,” Nathan Poe, who serves as director of programs for Southern California, told The Southern Cross newspaper of the San Diego Diocese.

CYAS gives participants the chance to “just have fun, have some competition, some friendly rivalry, go out and get a beer afterwards, and just sort of live life the way most people would see as normal,” Poe said. He told The Southern Cross that the Catholic faith is shared through “normal conversations” among friends, not through proselytizing.

Chris Anderson, 28, a single father in Denver, is not Catholic. He found CYAS on Facebook soon after moving from Colorado Springs and has found it to be a “great community.”

“Denver is a big place. I lived downtown at the time, and I needed something to kind of have, you know, just a sport,” said Anderson. “There are people who struggle with a bunch of different things, whether it’s family or some kind of addiction, whatever. CYAS being there for people like that was kind of their medicine… a way to have fun with people who knew them.”

Anderson appreciates the fact that one doesn’t have to be Catholic, or even Christian, to participate. “They try to bring a good environment, a family environment and have competitive fun,” he said. “Fellowship is the main goal.”

Jacqueline Tremblay, 32, of San Diego, added, “The thing that makes it so special is that our unity is based on our faith, but it isn’t necessary to be Catholic in order to hang out or join us. It creates a safe space where we don’t have to preach with only our words. We bring God to others through our actions, inclusiveness, the character we display on the field, and the way we embrace newcomers.”

She experienced that embrace firsthand soon after she was confirmed as a Catholic in 2013, and joined a CYAS Ultimate Frisbee team.

“My first time there I’m sure I stuck out like a sore thumb…quietly sitting alone on the cement, observing people throw a Frisbee in ways I didn’t even know a Frisbee could be thrown,” she said.

But one of the team members quickly made her feel part of the group.

“The simple invite to dinner afterwards and the laughter we shared throughout the game made me want to come back,” Tremblay said. “It was the feeling of belonging, even though I was new. A feeling we all are ultimately seeking in God.”

She kept going back and played in the volleyball league for the next two summers. She goes on hikes and recently started to help lead a women’s group that attends Confession and Mass together.

“I am challenged by these people, and continually learn more about my faith in a non-judgmental way, comforted when needed, and enjoy a good laugh almost every time we hang out,” Tremblay said.

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia.