Most people don’t associate basketball with Italy, especially in the town of Mestre, located on the mainland of Venice. But you wouldn’t know that if you happened to be walking by Bissuola Park on a sunny summer afternoon, where 75 children fill the playground to play basketball and learn Bible stories.
Started as a joint project between TEAM missionaries Mark and Kris Crooks and Push the Rock ministries five years ago with just 25 kids, the summer camp has become a favorite summer-time activity for many children, which in turn, is impacting the spiritual lives of Mestre families.
Mark and Kris Crooks moved to Mestre seven years ago after spending 15 years working in Venezuela. “Venice is a great Italian city, but there were only a few evangelical churches in the entire region,” said Mark, who serves as pastor of what is now called Centro Evangelico Il Faro (the Lighthouse Evangelical Center). Mark and Kris mentor and train the church leaders.
Push the Rock summer camps have been a great way to reach out to the community. Families can see the positive spiritual impact the camp has on their children, which leads to a spiritual impact on the parents as well. “Some of them have testified with tears in their eyes how touched they have been to see the vibrant, personal relationship these basketball coaches have with the Lord, and how thankful they are that this has been transmitted to their children and right into their homes,” said Kris.
Much of the camps’ success is due to Michele Gardin, a former semi-pro basketball player who has worked extensively with youth basketball programs. Michele’s passion for sports, experience as a coach, and ties to the local basketball scene led to the increase in kids attending the basketball camps. “Michele is a well-known local basketball coach, so his involvement gives the camps credibility and raises awareness within the community,” said Mark.
Having Italians participate in the camps is important for the ministry and a long-term goal of the church. Francesca Pietrella, who grew up Catholic but felt disconnected from her faith, came to Christ after her father died. When she heard about the Il Faro church, she moved to Mestre and decided to re-dedicate her life to the service of the Lord.
Francesca is a part of the leadership team, is involved in women’s ministries, and serves on the worship team. Francesca’s husband Victor is in charge of the church computer and sound systems. He is a ferry driver in Venice and regularly shares his faith with his colleagues. Francesca and Victor also lead a small group in their home. They are an important part of the ministry because Italians relate to their Catholic background and upbringing, so they are more willing to listen to their testimonies of faith. The sports camps are a wide-open opportunity to share their stories. “We are growing and working really hard to integrate church members and locals into the camps to make this a family feeling,” she said.
Michele echoes Francesca’s sentiments. “We work together to make Push the Rock an established ‘historic event’ each year in our community,” he said. “We want to organize a city-wide camp, improve our facilities, and come up with new ideas for the future.”
-Written by Lisa H. Renninger
-Photography by Robert Johnson
[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, March 2012]Download This Issue of TEAMHorizons