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Winning Souls Through Sports

Winning Souls Through Sports

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Manny Reyna’s journey to Christ began with the Westover Hills Church guy who sold him a softball bat via social media. Both lived in San Antonio, so Johnny Rodríguez met Reyna in person to deliver the bat.

During their visit, Rodríguez invited Reyna, 42, to check out Westover Sports, the recreational complex in the Alamo city where his softball team needed another player. Rodríguez, who with his wife, Kathy, is a volunteer coach, also invited his new friend to church.

Reyna and his wife, Stephanie, were having marital problems. Fed up with his alcoholism, she asked him for a divorce. Shattered, Reyna talked to Rodríguez. In turn, Rodríguez referred him to James Rios, a Westover Hills pastor who in March 2019 led Reyna to the Lord. Reyna hasn’t had a drink since.

That’s the fruit of Westover Sports, a ministry of Westover Hills Church, an Assemblies of God congregation of 5,800 adherents. In 2008, land next to the church went up for sale as lead pastor Jim D. Rion was praying for the Lord to give the church an outreach that would engage the community.

The 10-acre property looked to Rion perfect for a sports complex with quality fields and a gymnasium.

“Sports is in the American culture,” says Rion, 61, who planted Westover Hills in 1986. “We don’t have to teach people to like or to enjoy sports. What we will do is offer them what they love, and hopefully introduce them to somebody they don't know: Jesus.”

Westover Sports began in the late 2000s with a softball league staffed with church volunteers. In 2015, the effort shifted into high gear with youth and adult sports. The church hired Antonio Daniels, a retired player with the San Antonio Spurs NBA team, in 2015 as the first sports director. A month later, Matt Hill came on as sports coordinator. Today he is sports director; Alberto Santiago is sports coordinator.

In 2017, Westover Sports opened the first phase of a premier facility, a concession building that includes a full kitchen, offices, and restrooms. The full complex was completed the summer of 2018. Westover Sports began its first soccer league that fall.

Today, the program offers soccer and T-ball for children, co-ed basketball for middle schoolers, men’s basketball and softball, plus women’s softball. The 70-plus volunteer coaches — some of whom are pastors — are all part of the Westover Hills Church body.

Practices and meetings begin with prayer and devotionals. Words for the day stress a biblical virtue, such as perseverance, integrity, and character. Messages may address teamwork, learning to follow direction, getting along with others — all of which are discipleship issues.

While watching the Winter Olympics, Rion was taken by how frequently an athlete cited a coach as his or her inspiration.

“A coach can say everything a youth pastor would say in a sermon over a season,” Rion says. “The teenager will listen to a coach, but will tune out a youth pastor. We give them what they need by giving them what they want.”

Enrolling in sports leagues can be prohibitively expensive. Fees for Rion’s 7-year-old grandson to play soccer in a secular league amounted to $1,100 per year. In contrast, Westover’s soccer costs $40. Those who can’t afford it enroll for free, as do foster children. San Antonio Teen Challenge fields a softball team.

Such low fees don’t nearly cover the cost of operations of a first-rate complex. Watering the grass alone costs $1,100 per week. The mowing bill is $1,500 per month. The ministry is subsidized by the church missions budget.

“This costs us too much money for it to be just for fun,” Rion says. “The mission behind it cannot be fun. The payoff is reaching souls for Jesus.”

At first, 80 percent of participants were already affiliated with Westover Hills. The second year, however, the church met its goal of 60 percent of the 6,700 participants coming from the community. The audience includes parents and grandparents, broadening the reach even further. Rion knows when he greets people in the sports complex who don't recognize him that they aren’t part of the church.

Additionally, the program doesn’t cater to the most-skilled players.

“We tell our parents it doesn’t matter how athletic your student is, they get equal playing time,” Rion says.

“At the end of the day, our focus is trying to reach the lost,” Santiago says. “People are asking for prayer in the middle of a soccer field. If they’re not getting saved, they're rededicating their life, getting right with God.”

Reyna and Stephanie, who’s also a Christian, are plugged into Westover Hills Church with their daughter, Lena, 6. They pray and read the Word as a family. He’s not only sober, but he’s seen his marriage restored and found financial freedom as he no longer buys alcohol.

“All this happened when I gave myself to the Lord,” says Reyna, who is inviting unchurched friends to join the Westover Sports program. “I owe all this not just to the church, but to the sports ministry. It’s a gateway for people who may not realize they need God in their life.”

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