By Sharon Mager
BALTIMORE, Md.—Curiosity was mounting on a sweltering June 22 afternoon at the basketball courts at the Lillian Jones Park in West Baltimore’s neighborhood of Sandtown.
As adolescent young men played at the hoops, a very tall African American man came strolling onto the scene along with church members from several Baltimore churches and even one from the Susquehanna area.
The young men didn’t know the tall man was Ray Sydnor. A former Philadelphia Eagles football player, Sydnor’s celebrity status wasn’t recognized on the basketball court; but the crowd did take note of the free food and cold drinks.
Harold Phillips, pastor of Pleasant View Baptist Church, Port Deposit, and a team from his church arrived shortly after Sydnor and they carried in large containers of lemonade, chips, condiments and about 700 hotdogs already in the buns to give to the hungry players.
The evening was the first of a five-week basketball league the Baltimore Baptist Association helped facilitate in partnership with Mentoring Academics Athletics in Partnerships (MAAP), founded by Sydnor. The basketball partnership, that included Upward Basketball and the Maryland Bible Society was an outreach in a continuing prayerful effort to share peace and love to the community following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, which sparked unrest and riots in the city earlier in the spring. Gray’s arrest was within a block of the courts.
Soon additional basketball players arrived in cars from local churches. After Phillips blessed the food, players and bystanders chowed down and completely emptied the lemonade in less than a half hour before hitting the courts. Sydnor organized the guys into teams; each led by a “coach,” pastors, church leaders and Sydnor’s ministry associates.
Each week, different churches, including The Garden Church, Colonial Baptist Church and others hosted the games, providing food and a devotional time. Guest speakers including local sports figures were asked to participate. The league is made up of roughly 14 teams of youth and young adults from the inner city as well as inner city and regional churches.
Though the Gospel was shared each week, Harold Phillips explained the long-term goal of the league was to provide an opportunity for local churches to get to know these young men, build on those relationships and ultimately share not only friendship but also a solid relationship with Jesus.