I knew nothing about soccer when I was preparing to make my first trip to South Africa in 2000. I was traveling with a group of people from the Twin Cities to attend an international AIDS conference being held in Durban. Prior to the conference, our delegation was invited to spend a week in the townships surrounding Cape Town, seeing the impact HIV/AIDS was having there.
The invitation came from a Presbyterian minister, Spiwo Xapile, who was nearly single-handily trying to serve a community where one in every five adults was HIV-positive. The Xhosa minister and AIDS activist said he would show us his township of Guguletu and introduce us to people living with HIV and dying from AIDS.
In preparing for our journey, I asked Rev. Xapile what we might bring from the United States that would be helpful for his ministry. Anticipating what the needs might be, our group had begun collecting condoms, aspirins and vitamins. I was surprised – gob-smacked really – with the response to my inquiry that I received from our future host. The minister was not requesting the medical supplies that we thought would be his priorities. Rather, he asked us to bring soccer shoes for some of the children in the township.
Having no source for soccer shoes, and ignorantly (and arrogantly) questioning the importance of this request, I thought about simply ignoring it and continuing in our quest to bring our African hosts the supplies that we thought were more critical. Fortunately, that notion passed and I began calling soccer stores to see if we could collect football cleats.
Local soccer fans were not surprised by the request and within days we received donations of 70 pairs of shoes. We took the supplies already collected, the condoms and bottles of aspirin and vitamins, and stuffed them into the cleats as we packed suitcases and departed for Cape Town.
On a cold winter’s day in South Africa, we gathered in a shipping container that had been converted to a community center, and watched as each pair of shoes was given to a youngster. To my dismay, when it came time to present the last child in the room with his cleats, there was only one shoe to give him. Somehow, we had lost a shoe in transit. I told Rev. Xapile that we could not give a child just one soccer shoe and I saw the look of disappointment on the child’s face when he thought he might leave empty-handed. Rev. Xapile explained that these children had always played soccer in their bare feet. To have even one soccer shoe was much better than having none. Although not fully understanding, we presented the one shoe to a beaming boy who clutched the cleat to his chest.
The next day we met at a field to watch the children play soccer in their new shoes. As we watched the game, concentrating on the boy playing with only one shoe, Rev. Xapile said that the boy’s mother had told him that her son was so excited to have a single soccer shoe that he had slept with it the night before.
On meeting Rev. Xapile for the first time in Cape Town, he immediately asked if we had brought the soccer shoes. At the time, I remember wondering what would have happened had I said no – that we hadn’t brought the shoes with us. Had we failed the minister on his very first request, would he have trusted us to work with him?
Now, 11 years later, hundreds of Minnesotans have traveled to South Africa and been exposed to the issues and work that is happening in the township of Guguletu. The organization I work for, Open Arms of Minnesota, provides food and nutrition for people with HIV/AIDS. Members of Saint Joan of Arc Catholic Church created a nonprofit called Arm in Arm in Africa to address other needs in South Africa. The House of Hope Presbyterian Church in Saint Paul became a supporter of Rev. Xapile. And the University of St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota have involved the community of Guguletu in their study abroad programs.
And all of this support for a community half a world away began with a single journey and a suitcase full of soccer shoes.
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