By Sharon Mager

COBB ISLAND, Md.—When Joe Blanton, pastor of Cobb Island Baptist Church, and his wife, Pat, began an Upward Sports program at Cobb Island Baptist Church, they were elated to see their church attendance grow from 15 to almost 50, but what really surprised them was how God used the sports program to pull their community together.upward-2

Several years ago, God burdened Pat to reach out to the children and youth on the island. They had Vacation Bible School and brought in 90 kids, and then Pat felt led to start Upward Soccer. They applied for and received a strengthening churches grant from the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware to purchase supplies. Pat served as the Upward Sports administrator.

“We don’t have room at the church, but there are fields across the street that the citizen’s association maintain and they allowed us to use,” Pat said.

“The first season we had 42 children. The fall of that year, we added flag football and cheerleading and we had 50. This year, the church registered 74 football players and 10 cheerleaders. They have programs for children ages four years old through eighth grade.

Pat said families like Upward sports because there’s no stress. They practice an hour each week and games are one hour on Saturday mornings. There are no losers, and all kids play. Also, there’s a short devotional time during half time, and players get awards at the end of every game. The season ends with a ceremony with trophies and fun special speakers. This year it was the “The Extreme Balloon Man.”

Amazingly, the community quickly rallied around the games. Parents volunteer and help with concessions. Volunteers from other local churches help with the coaching and sharing devotions. They even have a mascot they named “Swagger.”

“The thing we loved best is that there’s always prayer, fellowship and friendship,” said Michelle Lawman. Michelle and her husband, William Lawman, Jr., have two children, five-year-old Lacie and seven-year-old Collin, who both participate in Upward Sports. The Lawtons attend Holy Ghost Catholic Church in nearby Newburg.

This is our daughter’s first time cheerleading and she absolutely loved it,” Michelle said. “Everyone plays, and no one gets left behind. Pat and Pastor Joe are wonderful.

William is the Cobb Island Volunteer Fire Company fire chief and Michelle said the partnership between the fire company and the church is great. “When Upward has their end of year celebration they use the firehouse, and when the firehouse has an event, the church announces it and supports it,” Michelle said.

Cobb Island local Ryan Shymansky called Upward sports a blessing. “It brought the community together… Everyone waves and says, ‘Hi,’ and, ‘You all did great in that game yesterday!’

“You see people you haven’t seen for awhile, grandparents, cousins, they all come out for the games. It’s awesome. I wish I had this when I was little.”

Ryan and his wife Jenny have three children, 14-year-old Kyle, an Upward alumni, a nine-year-old daughter Lilyan, who participated in the last season, and their youngest, Madilyn, who’s too young to play, but they plan for her to participate in a few years.

Pat Blanton said they bathe the program in prayer. Over 20 prayer partners are praying regularly for the children, coaches, the pastor and other volunteers.

“We see the Holy Spirit working. We’ve gotten bolder and bolder with the devotions,” she said. “And we have a lot of fun!”

Another benefit, Pat said, is that many in the community who don’t have a church, consider Joe Blanton their pastor. When there’s a need, they call him. When there’s a funeral to perform, they call Joe. In fact, Pat said she heard one person, when asked where they go to church, motion toward the Upward field and say, “This is my church!”

Though the church is growing, Pat Blanton said the purpose of the Upward games is to share Christ and to plant seeds. It’s not about Cobb Island Baptist Church growing, she said. “It’s about the kingdom of God,” she said.