Virtual Evangelism?

by Frank Zeidler, Jr, Executive Director

I am originally from the Philadelphia area and I still follow the hometown sports teams. One of the unique things about Philly sports is that the four major sports teams play in stadiums within sight of each other. In March, I came across an article announcing a new venue planned for the Philadelphia Sports Complex – the $50M Fusion Arena. The article detailed 10,000 square feet of training facilities, two balcony bars, club seats outfitted with USB ports, executive suites…all the amenities in many new stadiums, plus a “futuristic design.” The home team will be the Philadelphia Fusion and they play…video games!

Editor’s note: Before all the gamers in The Saints family form a picket line outside our offices, please realize that was not intended to be disparaging. I recognize that much of 21st century culture has passed me by – so please read the rest of the article before hunting me down.

Apparently, playing video games became a career path for some and the popularity has grown to monster proportions. The term for this is ESports, and the highest level of ESports – the Overwatch League – has teams all around the world. “This project places ESports alongside all the major traditional sports that call South Philadelphia home,” said Joe Marsh, Chief Business Officer of Spectator Gaming and the Philadelphia Fusion.

I don’t know if I agree that 3,500 spectators places ESports at that level, since the minor traditional sports in Philly such as Wings lacrosse and Soul arena football each draw more than 10,000 fans to a game. Nevertheless, the notion that playing video games is just something friends do on a rainy day to pass the time is clearly obsolete. Now we get to why this is front page news.

Over my 20 years of traveling with The Saints teams, I have seen a downward trend in the size of the crowds watching our games. We do still see large numbers of men and women but, in painting with a broad brush, the average attendance was probably 30-40% greater when I started than it is today. This is particularly true on crusades where The Saints Prison Ministry visit is a once-a-year special event. There was a time when our out-of-town team would draw averages of 150-200 inmates as we traveled to prisons in a new state. Today those spectator averages are closer to 75-125 (see page 4 for more on recent crusades). Less quantifiable but no less accurate has been the significant drop in attendance at morning events – we have almost reached a point where prisons don’t schedule recreation time for the mornings because the level of participation does not justify the cost of staffing!

I was having a conversation about this trend with a Recreation Officer in Illinois, and his explanation was surprisingly simple – “the younger guys don’t want to go outside nearly as much as the older cons used to; they want to stay inside and watch TV or play video games.” It gave me pause and as I reflected on it, the thought occurred to me that we routinely see the evidence of his observation.

Even though the prison populations are overcrowded with 20-somethings, the teams we play against are often made up of much older men and women. Softball certainly skews much older since it is a boring game to many younger athletes, but even in soccer and basketball, we see men in their 30s and 40s taking the court or running up and down the field. Moreover, a number of prisons have chosen the softball field as a place to construct a new building because usage is declining.

That is why the Fusion Arena caught my attention. Our ministry’s experience is mirroring today’s sporting culture – a younger generation with different interests, different priorities, and different attitudes are making themselves known. On the business side of professional sports, some visionaries have noticed and embraced this shift in order to be on the cutting edge of what comes next. I believe that as a ministry we have a God-given responsibility to do the same.

I am not suggesting we form a Saints Prison Ministry Fortnite Team this week. However, I am suggesting that we should be prayerfully considering what comes next and how we are going to reach a lost and dying generation of prisoners who may not embrace what has made us so popular and successful for the past 30-plus years. It is not out of the question that The Saints Prison Ministry – God’s ministry through us – will look very different when I come to our 50th Anniversary Celebration.

I just pray that during the celebration party I understand what they are talking about!

 

Announcements

January usually means winding down soccer season, the heart of basketball season, and the first mention of softball season in the way of preseason meetings. To no one’s surprise, soccer and basketball seasons have fallen victim to pandemic cautions.

That leaves the softball season preparation to “announce” and this will surprise no one either. Due to the incredibly unpredictable prison landscape today, the preseason meetings for softball season are postponed until further notice. We are optimistic that we will see some level in-prison activity this summer but, until we have some indication of what that may look like, we are going to move forward cautiously to avoid any confusion or misleading statements.

We appreciate your prayers for our missionary-athletes as they are anxious to once again meet inmates who are desperate for answers once again, face-to-face, in the furtherance of the Gospel.

Hot Topics

COVID-19 certainly qualifies as a Hot Topic, and even more so as it impacts not only our ministry but also the men and women to whom we minister.

Just this week, the first inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Fort Dix passed away as a result of COVID. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is a long-time partner of the Saints Prison Ministry and we have visited Federal prisons all over the country. But FCI Fort Dix is right in our backyard, a mere 15 miles from our headquarters in NJ, and we have developed many close relationships there over the years.

One inmate’s death is no more or less important than another, but this news reminds us that the incarcerated men and women we visit are living in perilous conditions. While we may choose to lock ourselves in our homes or wear a hazmat suit in public if we choose, prison conditions are so cramped that “social distancing” is almost impossible.

While our ministry is not allowed in-person visits at this time, prayer is a ministry unto itself and we ask all of our Saints family to be praying regularly for the mission field to which we are called.

“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them……” Hebrews 13:3 [Link to the nj.com article referenced above https://www.nj.com/news/2021/01/first-inmate-dies-at-nj-prison-ravaged-by-covid.html