Salem’s soccer team may have disbanded in 2009, but the name and the team’s former coach and president still are a force in Christian soccer ministry.
Cascade Surge’s David Irby moved to Salem in 1997 for a dual purpose: to coach a soccer team and to unite Christian ministry with the sport. The idea for the Premiere Development League team when he took it over was to have the team play soccer but also work with local kids and participate in mission projects. Over the years, the team went to Sudan to play its national team as part of a peace process, played charity matches and visited an orphanage in Tecate, Mexico, played in Thailand where their presence helped fight against the “sex slave trade” and traveled to Peru playing a match in Iquitos, a town only accessible by plane or boat.
Irby said what happened is people supported the projects and international work more than the team. The transition out of the league was a “natural dollars and cents evolution,” he said.
“There’s a time for every season like it says in Ecclesiastes,” Irby said. “We had our season of ministry here, and it has evolved.”
Although he no longer had a Surge soccer team, Irby still had contacts in the world-wide soccer community. He continued, under a renamed Surge International, to put together groups that mainly take requests to go into other countries and teach soccer, love people, play with kids in the street and share their Christian beliefs.
Surge International is made up of Irby and four others, one in Georgia and three in Vienna, Austria, where Surge sends Christian players to participate in missionary work with youth and play soccer for a year. Since shutting down the Cascade Surge team, Surge International has sent 18 players there.
The road to soccer ministry
Irby said he can see how God guided him into sports ministry early in his life. He was a 19-year-old college student at Azusa Pacific University in California when the school started up a soccer team in 1972. Irby had never played on a soccer team before but said, “Hey, why not?”
He was at the right place at the right time.
“Then, I just fell in love with soccer,” he said.
His post-graduation plans were to coach and teach at a Christian university. He got a position coaching at Azusa Pacific. But his plans changed again a few years later in 1980 when he went to Mexicali, Mexico. He visited a boys’ prison playing soccer with them. He remembers asking, “Why are these boys in prison?”
He was told, “Nobody cares about them. They have nowhere to go.”
“That’s when the light bulb went off,” he said. “You can come play soccer, play their sport with them and show them that you love them. What a concept.”
Irby was an early pioneer of soccer ministry. In 1985, he was hired as the first full-time staff member of Missionary Athletes International in California. It led him to Salem 12 years later.
When Cascade Surge transitioned into Surge International, Irby still continued coaching. Over the past five years, he has coached at Blanchet Catholic School, Corban University and trained coaches through United Soccer Club. Though not coaching now, Irby, who is licensed in the highest level in the country, the U.S. Soccer National Coaching School, said he hopes to get back into it.
Under Surge International, Irby has put together short-term mission groups to Kosovo, Ukraine, Albania, Mongolia, Bolivia, Mexico and Peru doing such things as leadership training through soccer, working at orphanages or with kids in the street, and church planting.
“You show them how to run a soccer camp, what makes a good leader, how to train kids, how to reach out to families,” Irby said.
He estimated he works on eight to nine short-term missions a year with two to 25 people attending. He gets so many requests that he has to turn down around 20 a year from people all over the world.
Kickoff to Hope Tour
Last year, he met a pastor from Burundi at a prayer group he attends in Salem. The pastor was worried about civil war in his southeast African country just south of Rwanda and wanted help promoting reconciliation. He asked Irby if he would put together a team to come play. Irby hadn’t put together a soccer team for missions since the Cascade Surge went to the Amazon River in 2007, but after a month of prayer and a series of meetings, Irby got more serious. He took a trip to Burundi to check things out and then another one. A mission trip was set for June.
Across the world, Mark Geissbauer, Irby’s German colleague, who was the general manager of the Cascade Surge, recruited some star players for the trip. Musa Otieno, a retired Kenya National Team captain, committed in February, and Mineiro, a retired Brazilian 2006 World Cup player, signed up 10 days before the tour.
Irby ended up taking a team of 25, including 17 players from six U.S. cities and four countries, to Burundi. It was called the 10-day Kickoff to Hope Tour.
The team, especially with Mineiro and Otieno, created a buzz. Also on the team was a woman, 22-year-old soccer player Jontae Campbell of San Diego Christian College.
“When I felt I was supposed to ask her to play, I knew I’d have opposition,” Irby said. “I didn’t know how the crowd would react, but she felt led to come on the trip.”
Any worry disappeared when in Burundi. The idea of a woman playing with the men went over well.
“The crowd was roaring, clapping,” he said about when Campbell came into the game. “It created a whole other dynamic.”
“For a female to come on and play with a men’s team was a big statement,” said former Cascade Surge team member Josh Westermann who now coaches Women’s Soccer at San Diego Christian College and was part of the Hope Tour. “That has never happened before in a country where women are treated inferior to men. It was a big surprise for us to see the country so accepting of this.”
Twice the team played in national stadiums in Burundi. They also played in the president’s private stadium. Their games led to radio and television interviews that went out to millions.
“Basically we talked about how we came to love Brundi and that we came in Christ’s love and come to encourage reconciliation,” Irby said.
Some members of the team also shared their testimonies of how God has worked in their lives during interviews, too.
“If we weren’t a soccer team, that wouldn’t have happened,” Irby said about the media exposure.
They also checked out different existing ministries while they were there, including ministries for street kids, widows and orphans.
“We’re not just going to play soccer,” Irby said. “We’re playing soccer so we can minister, hang out with orphans and be educated about the needs there. We’re not the answer, just a small piece of the answer.”
In July, Surge International was in Bolivia visiting an orphanage and helping with a soccer camp for a church. Irby’s next two trips are this October, first to orphanages in Tecate, Mexico, for a charity soccer match and then Vienna to visit with partners and the two players they currently have there.
“You don’t have to be a soccer player to go, just have to have a heart for ministry, a love for people,” Irby said about the mission trips.
Surge’s main focus has been international, but Irby has helped or influenced local soccer programs too. He has worked in partnership with Salem Leadership Foundation with area schools and groups, teaching how to put together soccer camps.
Irby was part of the early stages of Calvary Chapel Church’s soccer relationship with Swegle Elementary that has grown into Grassroots After School Soccer Program, a volunteer-led program working with five elementary schools in the McKay area and four area churches.
Calvary Chapel pastor Steve Hopkins, who also was a chaplain for Cascade Surge, said Irby helped get the program started four years ago. Calvary was looking to help their neighborhood, and Swegle was needing something to deter kids from drugs and gangs. Hopkins knew soccer would be a good place to start — and that Irby was the perfect person to help.
Irby connected Calvary to 2009 Surge player Likius Hafeni, who still runs the program and credits Irby with encouraging him in sports ministry.
Others who have played under Irby also are following in his footsteps.
Louis-Claude Nguea-Njoh, who played for Irby at Corban, led a soccer outreach this summer for neighborhood kids at Gateway Foursquare Church in South Salem. And former Corban player Kaleb Herring helps Hafeni with Grassroots After School Soccer Program.
“Dave’s soccer ministry started a movement in Salem for others to follow,” said Carrie Maheu, a Salem Leadership Foundation representative for the McKay area.
Irby said Surge is mainly behind the scenes now locally, linking people together and providing training.
“It’s not about planting Surge name … it’s more about helping groups design a project,” Irby said.
“People really caught up and realized how important sports are, how they are a great connector,” he said. “You just roll out a ball, and people show up.”
Contact Heather Rayhorn if you have story ideas for faith features, (503) 589-6920, hrayhorn@StatesmanJournal.com.