BANI, Dominican Republic -- The blazing mid-summer Caribbean sun beats down on a small group of boys, who are playing on a dusty space that they have claimed as their field. Bats and balls in hand, they are starting the day in the same way they always do: with palpable eagerness for the game they live and breathe.
Their passion is given a brand new spark when a team of American baseball coaches walks up. The men carry bats, balls, hats, and even t-shirt jerseys.
Baseball will be a main activity in the hours to follow, and it unites the two groups. But that's not why these men are here. While their in-road is of high impact in these children's lives, their true purpose is greater than any activity that these small boys could participate in.
The leader of the group has a passion for the coaches' true purpose that rivals the boys' passion for the game. He coaches at Maranatha in the spring, and this summer trip reminds him how the game can have an eternal impact and transcend cultural barriers - especially here.
For Coach Gary Garrison, his yearly trip to the Dominican Republic is so much more than just a summer highlight.
In a country where baseball is king, Garrison and 30 other men use baseball clinics to share the news of their Savior and King with hundreds of excited, respectful young boys. Through the Lord's powerful working, the men have seen first-hand how young lives can be changed. And it's the game of baseball that exposes the boys to the Word of God.
Connecting For the Gospel
The small island country is about half the size of Indiana, yet hundreds of MLB players have emerged out of it, and currently, it's estimated that 20 percent of minor-league ballplayers in the U.S. come from the Dominican Republic.
"All you have to do is say, 'we're playing baseball today,' and you'll get smothered," Garrison says with a smile. "These boys are just elated that we have chosen to come to 'their field'. It's an amazing thing to watch. They are very passionate about baseball. Very. For many of them, it's daily life. I don't know how to put it into words what [baseball] means to the average Dominican boy."
But the game isn't the only thing that attracts the boys to these baseball clinics.
"In addition to that, they love Americans," Garrison continued. "Any American who will share baseball with them and spend time on the ballfield with them is very significant to them, so that gives us the opportunity to tell them about Christ."
The team's method for giving the gospel is structured well. The group of 30 splits into three smaller teams, and each goes to a local ballfield - which, in this country, is a certain fixture in every community. The coaches run six "stations" - five are for baseball and the sixth is a clear gospel presentation. The local boys listen carefully, and Garrison estimates that 60 salvation decisions were made from last year's trip.
"It's pretty amazing how open these boys are and how attentive they are," Garrison says. "We call [the gospel station] the main event, and the boys are respectful and attentive - it's an American who's telling them about Jesus."
The impact doesn't just stop at the clinics, either. Garrison recounts how a nine-year-old boy trusted Christ, then went home and told his sister, who also trusted Christ. He invited his parents to church, and after some 12 years of praying, both their parents received Christ as their savior as well. And it all started with an eager young boy hearing the gospel and trusting Christ at a local baseball clinic.
"It's an amazing story. When I go there next month, the boy's mom and dad will be there in that church, singing heartily," says Garrison. "They are active in that church, and they will be there on Sunday morning when we join them for worship. It's a phenomenal story."
The trip to the Dominican not only connects team members with locals, but it also develops those who give the gospel. It's an opportunity that Garrison takes for himself and for the MBU Baseball Team.
"[The trip] is something that really has become a part of my fabric," says Garrison. "It gives us a chance to use baseball to tell the boys about Christ. That's first and foremost. But an added bonus for me is the friendships I've developed with the other guys who make the same trip. Unifying our efforts towards and specific goal of sharing Christ is the biggest thing for me."
Garrison recognizes the all-around impact the trip can have, so he will bring the Sabercats baseball team when he can. Garrison is eyeing next spring for an overseas mission trip to either the Dominican or another overseas location.
"[The impact] is like nothing else we've ever done," Garrison says. "Guys have said to me, 'coach, this is a trip of a lifetime'. If all we did was play through a season, I would find that to be pretty futile. So we look for ways that God has gifted us in and use them for his work."