The Grier Heights neighborhood is not for the faint of heart.
Large families inhabit small government-funded dwellings. The shouts that ring out late in the night are not usually shouts of laughter. Robberies and break-ins are common.
Into this world stepped former Lipscomb soccer standout Ben Page, determined to make a difference.
Since 2009, Page and his teammates on the Charlotte Eagles, a top team in the United Soccer League’s Second Division, have been involved with the Urban Eagles outreach project. Weekly soccer practices and a monthly tournament for local youth were led by Eagles in four different high-risk neighborhoods in the Charlotte area: Birchcroft, Dillehay Courts, Woodbridge and Grier Heights.
Page took it to another level in April 2010 when he and two teammates moved into a house in Grier Heights in order to be more accessible to the young men and their families.
“We feel that God has called us into these neighborhoods for a purpose of loving and mentoring the fatherless and empowering them to reach their full potential,” said Page. “We don’t feel it was enough to be in and out of the neighborhood but rather a constant presence in these kids lives.”
Since then, Page and his teammates have established a ministry in Grier Heights that has gone beyond the soccer pitch and into an outreach of basketball camps, tutoring programs and Bible studies.
The Eagles have also taken the program outside the neighborhoods, taking the youth to visit nearby colleges, as well as soccer camps and swimming outings, among other adventures.
While some view the neighborhood as dangerous, Page reports that the families in the area have rallied around the project and support the players in their endeavors with the area youth.
“Our ministry in the community has built a love and trust like nothing else could,” said Page. “It’s not to say we haven’t experienced our share of problems; we’ve been broken into a couple of times. But we feel the Lord’s Favor on what we’re doing.”
It’s a feeling that permeates through the neighborhood.
“The people in the neighborhood show us great respect, and drop by often for prayer and other needs,” explains Page. “At any time, day or night, we get knocks on the door. We’ve had to learn to set a few boundaries, since the hours can be a little inconvenient some nights, but that’s just another thing we’ve had to learn as this ministry has grown and developed.”
For a project that recently gained national exposure when featured on Fox Soccer Channel’s USL Breakaway, it would seem to some that the Eagles have stepped in as surrogate father figures, but that is not the intent of the project.
“We always point to God as the Father,” said Page. “We explain to the kids that we’re just an extension of His love. I am not their parent. I’m their coach and mentor. It would be ignorant to think we don’t play that role in some lives, but we are intentional in not setting those expectations. In an environment like this, it’s very important to be upfront about things like that.”
A plan is already underway for the squad to expand their program across the country. Within the next month, the Eagles are slated to receive their first full-time intern. After training in Charlotte, the newest member of the Urban Eagles team will head to the “Windy City” as the ministry expands to Chicago.
Locally, the project does not just rely on members of the Eagles. A number of local churches and ministries have partnered with the team to fill a number of needs within the communities.
“You can feel the changes in the neighborhood,” says Page. “Partnering with the churches has helped bring light into a dark place. Kids coming alive in Christ, leaders being mentored… empowerment is our goal, and we see that goal being reached every day.”
Page and his mates did not just rely on their soccer skills to pave the way for the project.
“We aim to structure what we’re doing around God, not our skill sets,” he explained. “I’m not creating a program for me and my skill set only. We have to see what God is doing in and around our community.”
Aside from being mentors and coaches,the long-term program goal is to empower the youth to make a difference in their own world.
“We always pray that the ceiling for our faith would be the floor for the future generation,” said Page. “I guess we hope to ‘work ourselves out of a job’ by raising up the next leader in our place.”
For all those who are interested in the Urban Eagles project, it has an official Facebook page (click here). You can also watch the video that was on FSC’s USL Breakaway below.