The steady, slapping cadence of basketballs on concrete provided the accompaniment as a band of boys repeated phrases from the Bible passage most associated with sports.
"I have fought the good fight," CampLearn leader C.J. Eims began, the boys shouting it back in unison as they went down the sidewalk. "I have finished the race." Bounce, bounce, bounce.
"I have kept the faith. . . . Now there is in store for me . . . the crown of righteousness . . . which the Lord, the righteous judge . . . will award to me on that day . . . and not only to me . . . but also to all . . . who have longed for his appearing." Bounce . . . bounce.
By the time the kids finished belting out 2 Timothy 5:7-8, they had bounced from an outside basketball court to a spacious room for a half-hour Bible lesson. It was part of a weeklong evangelistic sports camp for children at Chandler Christian Church.
Instead of offering a traditional vacation Bible school this summer, the church enrolled youngsters in CampLearn, a week of instruction in soccer, basketball or cheerleading, accompanied by upbeat faith and Bible lessons. From Monday through Friday, the 92 boys and girls were drilled in the basics of those activities by five college students working summer jobs for Uncharted Waters, a Christian organization in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"We’re just trying to convey to them that basically you can have a relationship with God, and you can still love sports and you can glorify him through your life," said Michael Strawsburg, 19, of Long Beach, Calif.
"We are tickled to death with the program," said Joe Vitton, a retired Illinois high school coach who leads Chandler Christian’s sports ministries.
Response was much larger than expected. "About 60 percent of the children are from our community family," he said.
While 40 girls went through sessions of stretches, then cheerleading techniques and cheers, about 20 boys and girls were learning soccer moves. The rest were going through basketball instruction.
Laura Sylvester watched her daughter, Haley, 7, in a cheerleading session. "I think it is a refreshing change (from vacation Bible school) because it seems like it is more organized and more focused," she said.
Sports works as a good hook to get children to attend a summer camp, Sylvester said. "First of all, it gets kids here," she said. "Secondly, it makes an association with kids. It’s healthy body, healthy mind, healthy spiritual mind. It puts it all together in a tight little package."
Peggy Conway said her children are "very interested in sports" but they may fuss going to vacation Bible school if they didn’t care for the theme or format. With sports, "I don’t have to worry about whatever the theme is. I know they like basketball," she said. "The fact that they get some Christian education, do some singing and learn things along the way is a bonus."
Britta Hatley, 7, was among a couple of girls in the soccer group. "It’s sort of fun ’cause your legs get stronger and so does your heart," she said.
While "Go the Distance" was the theme for the week, each day had a different emphasis. Each day children received "Sports Flash," a four-page paper featuring word games and a page reinforcing the day’s lesson.
During a water break in a basketball workout, Strawsburg took a half-dozen boys aside and sought to make the "endure hardship" concept relevant. "What’s an example of a hardship?" he asked.
A hardship could be like losing a basketball game," suggested Aaron Colyer, 11, part of a set of quadruplets attending CampLearn.
"We are going to learn today that sometimes hardships are undeserved," Strawsburg said. "Sometimes things in life are not really fair, whether it’s your schoolwork, sports or life or anything."
He told them how he had once played in an important volleyball tournament. In the final match of the day, another player landed on his foot. "I had to go the hospital," he said, noting that he went to Disneyland in a wheelchair with his family and missed out on the rides. But the blessing from it, Strawsburg told the boys, was how the injury gave him time with his family and friends and more chances to attend church.
Jarad Garren, the church’s associate pastor for elementary ministry, wrapped up the evening’s camp with a 15-minute talk on hardship, going back and forth between the imprisoned Apostle Paul and the late Olympics track star Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three gold medals in the same Olympics in 1960 in Rome. Rudolph overcame debilitating childhood illnesses that prompted doctors to say she would never walk again.
On cue, Garren had the kids grunting out "tough times" in a low deep voice each time he prompted, "God can help us through tough times. If Paul can do it, if Wilma can do it, we know for sure that we can do it."