It was a fun day of football, friendship, and hearing the hope of the gospel message for more than 100 kids who attended a Baltimore Ravens sports camp last Saturday – an outreach program sponsored by Prison Fellowship.
The nation's largest prison ministry partnered with the NFL team and local churches to bring the gospel to children of incarcerated parents during the day-long camp.
"What a life they've had with all of the commotion, all the chaos, all the heartbreak," one camp coordinator said. "You just want to have that turnaround for them. You know God is there and that He can do that. And you know that they can be anything they want to be if they can just get that into their head and their heart."
Prison Fellowship, started by Chuck Colson, holds the mission "to see all affected by crime reconciled to God, their families, and their communities."
The most vulnerable are children.
According to the National Institute of Corrections, more than two million children living in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent. These children suffer from higher rates of aggression, depression, and drug use. They also are more susceptible to one day being incarcerated.
Prison Fellowship holds Angel Tree Sports camps two to three times a month at different locations across the country. The initiative, which began in 2005, gives kids an opportunity to participate in basketball, cheer, soccer, ice skating, baseball, and bowling clinics.
"All of these kids have been put in tough situations and not by their own choice," Schuyler Shanen, senior program manger of sports camp at Prison Fellowship and Angel Tree, told CBN News.
"We know just because you are put in a tough situation doesn't mean that you have to stay there," he continued. "We love that they have an opportunity to meet heroes of theirs, whether it be professional football players or play where the players are playing, like the Ravens' facility."
The ministry held its first camp at the Ravens' practice facility in Owings Mills, Maryland, in partnership with Coco-Cola Consolidated, at a venue known by local sports fans as "The Castle."
Children practiced sports drills throughout the day and during their lunch break heard the message of the gospel.
"It is so much more than about the sport. It's about the connections and the community and knowing that you have people on your side," Shanen explained.
Each child left the camp with a backpack containing a pair of athletic shoes, a football, an age-appropriate Bible, and the perspective that God loves them and they do have hope and a future.
"I, myself, am a child whose father was incarcerated as a kid," Shanen shared. "Sports were really an avenue for me to have men who could speak truth and life into me while challenging me. So I know for these kids to have men and women there who are going to encourage them, and cheer for them and be there for them is a powerful moment."
"It can really change the trajectory of a young child's life," he added.
"I hope next year more kids can come to camp," one child shared of his experience with Angel Tree. "This place is amazing. The counselors really do care. They want us to have a relationship with God...Thank you, Lord."