By Denise Poon
oach Ben and his friends huddle around the television screen - just a cluster of men watching a football match together. Coach Ben is particularly absorbed in the match, his eyes trained on one of the players - a young man, a speck on the screen. His son. A page crowded with scribbled notes and jottings - his thoughts about how his son is playing - lies in front of him. He would share these insights himself, of course, but he is watching from prison. He leans forward to better scrutinise the game.
Later, when the match is over, Coach Ben will hand the paper to a prison guard, who will photograph it on his phone and send it to Ben’s wife. It's a simple act, but one that encapsulates the choreography of Coach Ben's life before and since prison. It draws together the family ties that march on despite separation, the friendships that have bloomed inside prison walls, and the unexpected favour Coach Ben has found as a prisoner.
In 2013 Coach Ben was sentenced to six years in prison for possession of drugs. At the time, he was a coach at Jesus Football Training Academy, a soccer club he founded in 2008 after attending one of Sports Friends Asia’s early Basic Trainings. His family, friends, church community, and team protested his innocence. They believed that the drugs, which were found amongst vegetables from Ben’s farm as he prepared to sell them in the neighbourhood market, were planted as revenge for past disagreements with local police. His family’s protests were unsuccessful, and Coach Ben has been imprisoned since 2013.
What is Sports Friends?
Sports Friends is a project of SIM that operates in several countries and on three continents. It equips and empowers local churches to use sports as a platform for community outreach in order to mentor youth, build relationships, and share the good news about Jesus Christ.
Click to find out more on the Sports Friends website.
n this part of Asia, where corruption has deep roots, Coach Ben’s case was not unusual. He was plucked from his unassuming life and placed unceremoniously in a jail cell with 200 other inmates.
As the first months wore on, Ben saw many of his fellow prisoners succumb to bitterness and hopelessness. But he also saw an opportunity in this hardship - kernel-sized, but promising. He approached prison management about forming a soccer team and was given permission to begin. The coach who had been divested of community, team, and work suddenly received them all back - but now in quite a foreign context.
He was as strict as ever, and even more invested. He trained his team on the field, but also asked them about their lives, offered encouragement, and prayed for them. When he wasn’t coaching, Ben had so much free time on his hands that he decided to read the Bible from cover-to-cover for the first time so that he could share the Gospel of Jesus with the team. He finished in three months and began having conversations with his team about who Jesus was and why Ben believed what he did.
The team eventually became the national champions in the prison league, and 50 inmates came to believe in Jesus Christ in the process.
One new believer wrote to him, “You have given me hope. I thought that the purpose of my life was just to wake up, eat, sleep, and die. But you have given me hope in Jesus Christ, and now I know why I was born.”
en has now served more than two years of his prison sentence, and for him, there is still hope. There was hope when he was imprisoned and saw a door open for sports ministry and the gospel to take root in an unlikely place. It is why Coach Ben continues in his ministry, despite newer rules that have made it more difficult to unite prisoners from different zones to play football. There is hope that his six-year sentence may be reduced because of the positive influence he has been, and that he may be released next year.
Beyond the prison walls, life has also continued. Ben’s son has been selected to play for a professional football team, and it is during these matches that he catches a glimpse of his son, grown in the years since his father was taken. Ben’s wife now manages Jesus Football Training Academy and though she receives help from family, it is exhausting work - especially without its founding coach.
“I have hope because my husband tells me to wait patiently for him, to never give up,” Coach Ben’s wife said. “And most importantly, to keep trusting in Jesus Christ.”
Personal details of the people in this story have been changed to protect their identities.