The Game Thats Changing Lives!

The Universal Game

The Game

I started playing football (soccer for my American friends) from the moment I could walk and kick a football.  I grew up playing the game because of my older brother but have continued to play it throughout my life because I fell in love with it.  I very quickly found it to be an emotional outlet for me and for the minutes I was on the field, nothing else mattered.  Throughout my life it has been a place of safety, a place to let go and forget everything going on in my life and just focus on the game.  It might sound strange but I fully believe there was even a moment that God used football to save my life.  Football can be a powerful tool, the most powerful thing about it is that it’s universal.  You could travel to any country in the world, take out a football and I guarantee you’d soon make new friends and connections.  You don’t even have to speak the same language, you can set the ball down and just go.  It can reach out and bring together people from all backgrounds, cultures, genders and races.  It’s more than just a game.  It can be a powerful weapon to use against the devil.  The devil wants nothing more than to divide us and destroy connections, football crosses over all those lines and reaches out to bring the most unlikely people together.   I believe, without a doubt, that God can and is using football as way to stretch boundaries, break chains and bring hope to millions.  It’s not the only way of course, but I don’t think I know of anything else that has wider reach in this world than football does.  I could of course be a little biased!

The Dream

I’ve been in Cambodia for just over a year now, when I first arrived out, I came carrying a dream and a vision to establish a football ministry here.  About 4-5 years ago God placed a passion in my heart to fight against human trafficking.  About a year later he gave me a vision to set up a sports ministry, a very detailed vision but he failed to mention the where.  A vision that overwhelmed me in every way and left me wondering how on earth I could ever do what God had placed in my heart.  Over those years God would add some more things to it, one being that I would use football as a tool to fight against trafficking.  I had no grid for how, when or where yet.  I certainly had given zero thought to moving to Asia, Africa maybe!  The year leading up to me moving here God soon started opening up my heart to Cambodia.  Our Iris Cambodia directors went to my church and I soon found myself meeting with them and we both had a vision for a sports ministry and everything they envisioned ticked the boxes of the vision God had given me years before.  I knew almost immediately that Cambodia was where I was supposed to go and a few months later I landed here! 

The football dream came fully alive in July (2018) as we launched our first project in Sihanoukville, a football summer camp.  We ran it once a week for 8 weeks for 11-16 year olds.  We averaged about 18 boys (and 1 girl) each week, our biggest attendance being 21!  We coached them both football skills and life skills such as working together, leadership skills for our older boys, discipline and all about working hard.  We had an amazing 8 weeks with them.  Every single week they showed up, worked hard, were super enthusiastic and just owned the team!  We bought them all football shoes which most (if not all) had never owned a pair before and about halfway through we got them their own team football kits and team name: Iris Eagles F.C. 

Why eagles?  Eagles represent freedom, strength and courage.  Eagles can fly higher than any other bird allowing them to see things from a higher perspective and see the bigger picture.  My hope for our team is that it brings them into freedom and clothes them with strength and courage.  That we would see things from a heavenly (higher) perspective, be in the moment but also see the long-term future, the bigger picture of all this ministry could be for our kids.

“But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;

they shall mount up with wings like eagles;

they shall run and not be weary;

they shall walk and not faint”

– Isaiah 40:31. 

The Impact

I was blown away by the impact that the football team had on the players in such a short time.  Leading up to this, we had seen a drop in attendance at our kids centre which correlated with the opening of an internet cafe in the heart of the community where our kids lived.  We saw a lot of boys spending hours and hours here, addicted to the gaming and also being introduced to unhealthy and inappropriate sites such as pornography.  Some were even skipping school to stay at the cafe.  Before each kids centre session, our staff were having to go into cafe and try and encourage our boys to come to the centre.  So with the football project we saw an opportunity to help the boys choose a healthier lifestyle choice.  When we announced the football camp we had a huge interest and had about 25 youth register (most of them being ones that spent a lot of time at the cafe).  One of our terms for being able to come to the camp and be part of the team was that they had to attend the centre at least once a week.  We ran our centre on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the football on Fridays. 

Come our first week of football, the Tuesday of that week when we went pick the kids up for the centre, every single one of our players that had signed up, stood waiting for the truck.  Our staff went into the cafe and not one of our kids was in there.  Those that had signed up for the football did not want to risk their place on the camp.  It was incredible the immediate impact football had on them and how excited they were to get to be part of this.  In the remaining weeks of the football camp, we saw an increase in our numbers at the centre, including boys we had not saw at our centre in a very long time.  One of the boys that suddenly showed up after months of not coming to the centre was actually the manager of this internet cafe.  His uncle owned the cafe and had put him in charge of it.  He is only about 15/16 years old and was no longer in school so he could work at the cafe.  He showed up to the centre wanting to come to the football camp.  Most weeks after that he was coming to both the centre and to football.  He normally held the stature of being tough and hard, but he was coming along to both projects with huge smiles on his face and you could see how the tough exterior was breaking off and joy was breaking through.  In all of our boys we noticed some changes in them, a lightness about them as they used this space to just have fun and let loose.

But, here is my most favourite story of all.  One that both wrecked my heart and filled it with pure love and joy.  On our very last week of camp we did a tournament day with the team and surprised them with a treat afterwards to a local Italian restaurant for pizza and awards!  There is so much I could say about the time at the pizza place, it was just amazing in so many ways.  For most, this was a first time experience not only at a nice restaurant but also in eating pizza.  We just had so much fun with the team here.  As we were eating I noticed an older lady approach one of the tables begging for money from the kids. Not unusual for Cambodia. One boy, without hesitation, quietly and quickly pulled out the little money he had and gave it to this lady. The lady immediately went ‘akun, akun’ (thank-you). The moment came and went in the blink of a second and I only just caught it. I almost immediately started crying.

This boy had little to nothing but he saw someone in greater need and gave all that he had. I leaned over to Sovy (one of our Khmer staff) and told him what happened and he said because he had gotten to eat all the pizza he felt he had more than enough which is why he was so quick to give to this lady. My heart just about combusted in my chest. I don’t think I’ve witnessed anyone give as much as this young boy gave and it came out of the overflow of our team pouring love into our kids. The kindness, the gentleness, the generosity of his small action just wrecked me in every way. I’m so thankful that God allowed me to witness that short beautiful moment. It’s one I won’t forget. That day, is one I won’t forget, it was just perfect. I’m so so proud of our team!

The Long-Term Vision

All of this only happened in the space of 8 weeks.  God just blew away every expectation I had in these first 8 weeks.  This is only the beginning and I’m so excited to what God will do in weeks, months and years to come!  We are planning out our next camp here in Sihanoukville and hope to have it up and running again in a few weeks.  We hope to keep the same core of players who attended previously and maybe try and open up some spaces for new kids (we have a lot who want to come).  In the next phase we want to be more intentional in using this time to also disciple and mentor the team and use it as an opportunity to share more of Jesus in a way that is relevant to the older kids in the community.  Beyond that, we would love to start up a camp for younger kids.  We would love to play against other teams, travel with the team to other towns and cities.  Host tournaments to invite other NGOs to bring their teams to and establish connections with similar organisations in the area.  We are dreaming up residential weekends for our team in Sihanoukville, we would love to take them to Phnom Penh and play against our base’s team there.  We want to establish a football ministry here in Kampot though our focus for now will remain with our team in Sihanoukville as we look to establish the ministry more there first.  My vision is to create a mentorship program in where we train our older boys in how to coach football in hopes of them being able to create a job out of those skills.  To dream really big and long-term, we would love to have our players scouted for semi-pro and or professional teams or for college scholarships overseas.  The potential for what this could become are endless.  To use football as a way to give these kids, these young people a new hope for their future and fresh opportunities for something better than the situations they currently face.

We are focused on the present, on the immediate impact but I also love that God encourages us to dream big, to dream for the long-term, and with God, anything is possible.  Absolutely anything.  We dream not to gain for ourselves, but because it is much bigger than us, we dream big to enable our kids to dream big.  So I choose to believe that there is more for our kids and youth than what they currently face, whether for themselves or for the generation that follows them.  I can’t wait for what is to come.

Great is His Faithfulness – By Liz

‘For great is your love, higher than the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies’. (Psalm 108 verse 4)

I have really been struck recently by God’s faithfulness. When I look at my short time here in Phnom Penh (I only arrived in April) I can totally see the faithfulness of God. I see His hand in the timing of my arrival, His provision of finances and friends and His care of me in so many different ways.

I love how God is interested even in the little things. Like, I really like swimming, and so prayed that I would live close enough to a pool to be able to get regular exercise. And the language school where I am studying Khmer is a short walk to a nice pool and not far from my home. And if I time it right then I can use the pool when hardly anybody else is swimming…bliss! And its also opposite a supermarket that sells some of my favourite chocolate…another blessing. 🙂

I also love having a rooftop to be able to go up to worship and pray, and declare that the pagoda that is close to our house will one day declare the praises of Jesus! Standing on the rooftop also helps remind me of life’s bigger picture and gives me just a very small glimpse at how great and big our Father God really is and yet He cares so intimately for us. Great is His faithfulness!

Waiting For Our Promises – By MaryGrace

In Sihanoukville we are sitting on and pressing into so many promises. Some for our personal lives, and many for Iris Cambodia.

Our Dream Centre is almost so close I can touch it. We already know some of these boys and we are already seeing changes in them through this season of building relationships and laying foundations. We are still seeing fruit as we prepare for what has been promised to us. Many other dreams lie ahead – ministries, churches, outreaches and businesses. This season has been both comfortable at times, and excruciating at times.

As I have been sitting in this season of foundations, both personally and organizationally, a very familiar and loving voice comes to me often. Though God is speaking consistently and growing me in this time, the voice He speaks through is sometimes that of my earthly father, my Daddy.

When I was in elementary school my father, who was the president of a children’s home, had run out of room. He had no room to grow. He had promises, he had vision and he had the cimage (1) (640x480)all he had said yes to, but in the physical he was out of space. I remember driving with him, looking out the window and asking him what he would do if he had land like that or buildings like that. He would share with me his dreams and promises. I saw and felt the ache in his heart for more, to fulfill his call and to see his promises come to reality.

Almost 20 years later, I can relate. Just like my Daddy there is a great need, a great promise and a “yes” in my heart to everything God wants to do. My Daddy always encouraged me to “pay my dues,” not to rush to the top, but to spend the time to learn from the bottom up. I believe that years down the road I will look back to this season of “waiting” and see the incredible fruit that was birthed from it. I am learning, we are learning, and God is creating a foundation that can withstand the huge dreams He has for this country and more importantly His Kingdom.

So I guess you should know that my Daddy’s promises came, and they came like a flood. Through faith, love and prayer, his territory was expanded with four more locations, numerous buildings, programs and government favor. I watched as his dreams and promises became reality and with an incredible foundation are able stand.

My prayer for Sihanoukville is that we will be faithful to every promise we carry for this place. That this season of “waiting” will be that of incredible growth, maturity, dreaming and laying a foundation of love that can not be shaken. We have a God who does not know how to wast anything. Thank you for joining us in this season and for contenting for these promises.  It is a truly significant time and we have no option but to be unshakable.

Love Looks Like Something – By Cat

The more I think about my life in Cambodia the more thankful I am. I feel so privileged to serve and love the beautiful people of Cambodia. I recently returned to Cambodia after spending time with my family in the States, and even though it was great being there I am happy to be home. I have had so much fun reconnecting with my kids (I have about 13 neighbor kids that I’ve claimed as my own). We have done lots of coloring, nail painting, hugging, and playing zombie. It doesn’t matter who is the zombie, but they think it’s hilarious when I tickle them and tell them they taste “ching-ang” (delicious.)

I had an especially sweet moment with one of my boys the other night. This boy has struggled with acting out in the past, but this particular night he came, sat on my lap and wanted to play zombie. As I tickled him he threw his head back and laughed hysterically. It was such a precious moment and a beautiful reward for the time spent redirecting his behavior, loving him no matter what, and IMG_4761speaking life over him. Moments like that remind me of why I moved to Cambodia. I came to see lives restored and to see people walk in all that God has for them. We are commissioned to bind up the broken hearted and set the captives free. That sweet moment with my boy was a physical manifestation of what God has been doing in his heart and mind during the 11 months I’ve lived here. The love of God really does transform people. His love brings hope where hopelessness and despair run rampant. I get the incredible privilege of being the hands and feet of Jesus, and I get to release His hope and His love to everyone around me.

Love looks like something and I love finding out what it looks like for each kid. When I was home people would ask me if its hard living here, and some days it really is, but other days I just sit back and marvel at what God has done. He brought me from the other side of the world to love these kids who need someone to care and be invested in their lives. I get to be the one to help them understand how much God loves them. Even though things are more comfortable in America I would not and could not be satisfied. This is what I’m called to do. I have the best job in the world.