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John Campbell of Boone demonstrates that sharing the love of Jesus — and football — is a
winning combination with children in El Salvador.

Originally published: 2013-04-29 11:53:05
Last modified: 2013-04-29 11:57:55

Local mission team takes an unusual trip to El Salvador

by Sherrie Norris

Ten High Country residents representing the Johnny Wilson Evangelistic Association of Boone was in El Salvador in March to share the gospel of Christ -- and the fundamentals of football.

Wilson said he was elated when earlier asked by El Salvadoran officials to incorporate a football clinic into his pending visit. 

"They told us that they watch the Super Bowl, but they didn't understand the game," he said. Initially, Wilson said he was asked to bring pads, cleats -- "the whole deal." 

"Logistically, we couldn't do that, but we did take 20 footballs," he said. 

Wilson's team, which included Roman Gabriel IV, president of Sold Out Ministries, and ASU Mountaineer Logan Hallock, scored an incredible victory with thousands of youngsters who heard about Jesus for the first time. Dozens learned the basics of America's favorite sport and played the game like champions on their worn and dirty soccer fields. 

Before the Saturday sports morning clinics, Wilson's group visited with more than 8,000 youths in the local schools, where an estimated 450 of those made a profession of faith after hearing, first, about football and then, about Jesus.
  Gabriel, whose passion for youth is well known through his Boone-based drug and alcohol prevention program, said, "It was awesome, a huge blessing to take knowledge and skills that God gave us to share with some of the sweetest kids I've ever been around."

 Gabriel said he would never forget the expression on the faces of the children when they saw footballs for the first time.

"These kids know soccer, but they've never used their hands and feet at the same time to play with a ball. They caught on quick, but it's because they are accustomed to being physically active and using their imagination -- they have no other distractions and don't sit around all day in front of a video game," he said. 

Knowing firsthand the challenges of taking "good news" into public schools, Gabriel said, he was "amazed," that the team was welcomed into the schools there -- and that local churches had agreed to provide follow-up with the students once the team was gone. 

 "Kids are the same to me," Gabriel said, "no matter what or where. The only difference I saw there was that they had such a thirst for Christ, and life is so hard for them. It's nothing like what our kids here experience."

It was disappointing to Wilson's team that the majority of children they visited in the schools were not allowed to attend the football clinics at week's end.

"There are so many gangs there and the threat of violence, even death, is ever present should lines be crossed," Wilson said. 

Gabriel is "definitely going back," he said, and hopes to have more players and coaches join him, "so we can reach as many kids as possible and let them hear about Jesus -- and learn more about football. Put those two together and that's what I'm all about."

Gabriel's experience proved what he's felt for a long time. "Sports is a universal language," he said. "When you throw a ball out there, it's all the same."

Hallock, who shared his testimony with the youngsters everywhere they went, said his experience was life changing. He described the trip as "the greatest experience of my life."
  Because the response to football was so positive, Wilson said, the church hosting the Saturday clinics is planning to upgrade the nearby dirt-covered soccer field to make it more appealing for football. "We have heard that the kids are going back every Saturday morning now to play football."

In addition to Gabriel and Hallock, Wilson was joined by his wife and ministry partner, Wanda Wilson, who conducted two women's conferences while there.  

Also, Josh Honeycutt, Angela Honeycutt, John Campbell, John Cole, Mike Mathis and Rachel Mathis each contributed significantly to the mission outreach, he said.   

For Campbell, the visit was different from any mission trip that he had taken before. "This time, the actual work was not about disaster relief and reconstruction, but it was about verbally sharing the gospel; not about how I might've been able to help people, but more so, about the blessings, encouragement and growth that I experienced by being there."

Since 2004, Wilson has made 13 trips to El Salvador with one mission in mind -- to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It's not so different than what he does in his homeland, but Wilson has identified a great need in the South American country, where few Christians are available to make a difference. 

Wilson has worked hard to develop relationships with national leaders, police, prison officials and even gang leaders in El Salvador, and has been invited through doors that few Americans have been able to open. "It hasn't come easy, but it's been well worth the journey," he said.

He said he doesn't feel threatened. 

"We have learned when to go, where to go and have connections with people there who can advise us," Wilson said. 

In general, El Salvador is extremely open to the gospel, Wilson said. "It's a real plus that they love Americans. The church we work with is fantastic, in terms of their heart and what they are trying to do," he said. 

"Because of what we have done in the country, people have gotten to know us well," Wilson said. "They receive us and respect us."

In one town in which Wilson has worked closely through the years, gangs have begun signing truces and turning in their guns.

"I am curious if it is a result of any of our interventions," he said. "I was told that the murder rate has declined at least 57 percent." 

From one visit to another, Wilson has seen evidence of life-changing experiences through translators, police, inmates and their guards, as well as with children, youth, college students and their parents.

"We share the good news of Jesus Christ with these precious people," he said. "We show them respect, provide meals and do it all in a courteous, nonconfrontational way."

The majority of those they serve live in poverty, Wilson said.

"The average home where we go consists of eight people and a monthly income of about $240," he said.

In addition to a full schedule of outreach opportunities locally and abroad, Wilson is planning a return trip to El Salvador in March 2014. He hopes to broaden the spectrum in South America by offering other sports clinics in other locations.

For more information on how you can be a part of Wilson's ministry through going or giving, call (828) 773-3441. Tax-deductible donations may be mailed to Johnny Wilson Evangelistic Association Inc., P.O. Box 3412, Boone, NC 28607.