This is the first time I’ve written a positive word about small-town football, particularly as it’s practiced here in my town. I’m appalled at the casual attitude toward the players’ physical well-being — I once saw a medic have an injured player first get up and then lie down again on a backboard. I lament the false hopes of breeze-through college scholarships and glorious careers. I mourn that there is a whole cadre of gone-to-seed adult victims of adolescent privilege.

But mostly I hate the culture of violence, about which I could write volumes. This culture is summarized by an incident that happened in 2008, which I described in the New Year 2009 issue of In Trust. A group of drunken high school football players kicked to death an undocumented Mexican worker, leaving public opinion divided as to whether or not they’d done anything wrong.

But since Philippians 4:8 says to think on “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, and worthy of praise,” here I offer a positive word: This time, when something terrible happened, the Shenandoah Valley Youth Football League responded exactly right. Among last year’s football players was a set of 10-year-old cousins, Christian Sanchez and Damian Lopez. Their mothers were Anglo, their fathers Mexican. The family caught its share of flack, but the kids were great players and full of heart. At the awards banquet, Christian was named most valuable player, while Damian got a good sportsmanship award.

And then, tragedy — the sort well known in towns with row houses: a fast-moving early morning fire. Christian’s mom was able to push her younger son out a window to safety, but she died along with Christian, Damian, and Damian’s baby brother. The coroner said, “I believe that they died of smoke inhalation. I pray that they did.”

There is something primal that brings people together after a fire, and it kicked in right away. On the street in front of the burned houses, there was a candlelit vigil with makeshift shrines decorated with stuffed animals, palm crosses, notes, balloons, and flowers. There wasn’t a lot of program, although some tried to sing “Amazing Grace.” A few people spoke. We did a bit better with the Lord’s Prayer.

Mostly it involved folks just being together: Firefighters crying with Hispanic teens. Old church ladies consoling wide-eyed friends of the dead boys. Half-sober patrons who emerged from the corner bar to share in the grief. It was arguably the most diverse gathering ever in this town.

Meanwhile, the boys’ fathers were sitting at the United States–Mexico border, trying to get humanitarian visas for their sons’ funeral. One had been an undocumented worker, deported after a traffic stop. The visas came through the day before the funeral.

The funeral was huge and overwhelming. But the sweet moment —the moment of God’s own light, the moment of hope and healing— happened afterwards.

The football officials made copies of the boys’ awards, which had, of course, been destroyed in the fire. They presented them to the boys’ fathers.

Reader, I wept.

God is working out his purposes in ways we cannot imagine, and grace shines in the least expected places. When it does, and we notice, we are blindsided by its glory. All we can do is to stand humbled and delighted in the midst of tears. 

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