How a church in Philadelphia is using sports to fulfill its mission
About 12 years ago, a Philadelphia church thought athletics could be a form of outreach to young people. They had no idea how successful their effort would be.
Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church is now producing college and professional athletes while also achieving its more important goal of teaching Christianity.
"We like to say that we are unapologetically youth-oriented here at Enon," said Rev. Alyn Waller, who started Enon's program in 2005 as his church was growing to its current size of 15,000 members.
"I recognize sports as a wonderful way to teach Christianity and life through the medium of sports. And that's literally what our program is, and whether they go on to be great athletes is not the real issue. We want them to be great people, and that's what sports can do," Waller said.
Many, however, have become great athletes, including three NFL players who attended church at Enon, and many college athletes like Heisman candidate D'Andre Swift, a University of Georgia tailback. He started playing at Enon when he was just seven years old.
"I'm not surprised, but I am excited about how extensive it has become," Waller said. "I'm excited to see the number of children that are now going onto college and so that's been wonderful."
The program grew so big that Enon bought a 34-acre campus in 2012 that included the former football field for Temple University. The church spent millions to build from the ground up, transforming a dirt pit into a state-of-the-art church facility with adjoining playing fields.
With eight football teams, four cheerleading squads, four baseball teams, track, basketball, soccer and martial arts to manage, the church took the rare step of hiring a full-time athletic director. Greg Burris is a former church deacon and retired business owner.
"On a basis of about a year span we probably touch about 1,000 kids," Burris said. "I think what I'm most proud of here is just how we were able to open it up to not just our membership, but to the community as well, giving kids an opportunity to come ... from surrounding neighborhoods, and see us, and see parents on the sideline watching them, and say, 'This is the church doing this.'"
Enon sports camps are subsidized by the church and cost a fraction of other area programs -- a big plus for parents like Keisha Bronson and Monique Yelder whose children attend church and play sports at Enon.
"The program here is enriching from a spiritual perspective," Yelder said. She also said it was important for her sons to be around men "who loved the Lord, as well as loved football."
"Not only do they make it convenient, but it's all inclusive," Bronson said. "So you don't have to be a member of the Enon church to be a part of the program. So you get exposure to a lot of different children, a lot of different parents, a lot of different experiences, but they're all in a very safe and appropriate space."
Camp participants do not have to be church members. But Pastor Waller said "saving souls" is still the focus at Enon.
"You don't have to belong," Waller said. "You don't have to believe what we believe. But we have things that we expect you to do if you choose to play for our team."
"We have mandatory Bible study," Waller said. "We expect you to participate in those Bible studies. We do have prayer but you know this at the front end. It's not bait and switch. You don't have to join the church. This is what we do. And if you want to play with us, this is how we play."
The formula has worked. Enon's teams won numerous local and regional championships over the years with talented kids like Collin Washington, who grew up playing at Enon and is now a playing football at Temple University on a scholarship.
"It's taught me sportsmanship and how to treat people," Washington said. "The coaches didn't curse here. The coach cursed at other programs."
After playing all day, many parents and kids went right across the street for Saturday evening service for praise and worship.
At Enon, Pastor Waller makes it clear that the church's mission is bigger than sports. Enon gives away a total of $400,000 in college scholarships every year.
"Every child that goes to school from this church every year, every semester gets about $250 from us to just help them with some books, or encourage them midway through the semester," Waller said. "We're committed to athletics. We're committed to academics. We're committed to raising and changing a generation."
Waller is a third generation preacher and he considers his work at Enon as part of a rich, prophetic legacy. A picture of him as a young boy in the lap Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sits in his office.
"That picture of me sitting on Martin King's lap has been with me since the day it was taken. He was preaching for my father in September of '67. He inspires me. He wanted to see the families come back together. He wanted us to really participate in the greatest country on the planet. And even with all that's goin' on, I still believe that, and, like him, would like to fight to make sure this country remains the great thing that it is," Waller said.
Waller is not just a visionary who is resting on his laurels. He recently completed a degree program at Harvard Business School to help prepare him to be more strategic in leading Enon into the next phase of growth and success, not only in northwest Philadelphia, but also beyond.
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