It’s not easy being a teenager and trying to fit in, no matter where you find yourself. But it is particularly tricky when you are the only American boy in a village of several thousand. Soccer (or football as it is known here) is a HUGE deal, especially among the youth. Ezra, who is now 14, began playing soccer about a year-and-a-half or so ago in an attempt to bond with the boys his age.
While he began playing in front of our house with his friends, he gradually got better and more confident and began playing at the big field in our part of the village. This, however, did not always go so well as this put him around other teenaged boys that did not know him. And teenaged boys are not always the nicest, especially towards those that are obviously very different. Most days Ezra would return home from the field having nearly been in a fight and having particularly been preyed upon by a group of boys from another people group who seemed to thrive upon harassing the “toubab” (white person) at the field. But each afternoon Ez would put on his cleats and leave for the field to train and to play. And his parents would pray that God would protect him and teach him what it meant for God to be his defender.
In God’s providence, the village organized a tournament for the boys aged 15 and under. The coach of the team for our corner of the village asked Ezra to join the team after the first game and Ez was more than excited to do so. When Ez told us the news we did not know whether to cheer or to throw-up. We knew it was a great opportunity for our son, but we also knew that it would come with a great deal of criticism as he would be playing in front of several hundred people.
When the day of his first match arrived we were all a bit nervous. His coach put him in to start the game and for his first game he played okay. But each time that Ezra got the ball there were audible cries of “white boy” in the local language and any time that he did anything less than perfect he was met with laughs and mocking from the large crowd that had gathered to watch the game. After the game Ez was discouraged, but vowed to train harder for the next match. His parents, while supportive, half wished that he would quit. We shared what had happened with one of the Diola believers here and he said, “You know he is really easy to spot on the field: 21 black players and one white boy!”
The important next match would determine if his team would be seeded first for the semi-finals and it was against the team with the boys that gave Ezra the most trouble. Ez did not start the game, but was put in at the very end of the match with just a few minutes to play with his team down 1-0. After about 45 seconds, Ezra scored the tying goal that assured his team of the first seed! And when he scored the goal the sidelines cleared out and everyone ran out onto the field to celebrate with Ez. And in that moment he was no longer the “white boy” on the team, but was just another teenaged village boy. And his parents praised God.
Ez’s team made it all the way to final game where they would play for the championship. In the second half, with his team up 1-0 but with the other team playing very hard, Ez scored the “but d’assurance” that assured the championship for his team. And when he did once again the sidelines cleared and even the organizer of the tournament ran out onto the field to celebrate. After the game, Ez’s coach gave him the captain’s armband and asked him to receive the trophy for the team. And everyone was happy for him to do so.
Now, everywhere we go in the village or even in the surrounding villages, they know Ezra. He is known as “Le Buteur” (the goal-maker) and has become quite the celebrity. And, after a lot of courage on his part and a lot of grace on God’s part, he really fits in. Now, he’s just one of the neighborhood kids; no difference at all. And we all stand amazed at the grace of God!