What does a former Sunderland FA Cup Squad player and a Church of England Vicar from Sunderland have in common? The answer is the use of Football to reach out to communities bringing the thrill of sport it’s values and a sense of belonging.
This was the brainchild of The Revd Pouya Heidari himself an ex Iranian professional player who approached the Archbishops Council with an idea to form Church of England Clergy Football Teams.
One year on, and Pouya has been appointed as the Captain of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s men’s team and through a mutual friend has recruited former Sunderland Footballer and ‘Faith in Football’ advocate Maurice Hepworth to coach the teams.
Pouya said: “Football was always a passion of mine and throughout my training for ordination I have been thinking how this journey of discipleship grows different bits of your life and for many people sports, and especially football, is one of the big ones.
“Part of my proposal to the Archbishops Council was that we would like to have both men and women’s football teams. So far we have a full men’s squad made of 18 vicars drawn from across the country and we are well on the way to building the women’s squad also. Clearly all involved are passionate about football and how it can be used for outreach into their various communities – it’s all very exciting.
“Our immediate focus is playing in friendlies and tournaments in this country against teams from different faith of groups, religious communities and secular clubs, not just Christian teams. Some of them may be semi-professional or even professional. Currently, we are scheduled to play in the National Christian football festival that is happening in Wales in July 2020. We are also exploring tournaments further afield with the Catholics in Rome and with the Lutherans in Germany but we will have to see what happens. For now, we are really excited about where this is going to take us.”
The team’s coach Maurice Hepworth played for Sunderland from 1969 – 1976 and was part of the FA Cup-winning squad in 1973 before injury cut his playing career in the UK short. He went to South Africa for 5 years and was part of the multicultural coming together of the Black and White Leagues to form one professional league and so has seen the power of football in healing rifts and getting people working together. He has been coaching for 35 years and as a Christian uses football to instil the values of sports and faith in the work he does with youth coaching and with team-building with adult and corporate clients.
Maurice said: “I first got involved in Christian football many years ago when I set up a team in the Northeast Christian League and within three years we had won the league, the cup and taken 3 or 4 players to faith in Jesus. So when this opportunity to spread that work wider came up I jumped at the opportunity as I want to focus on Christian value being demonstrated through sport.
“When Pouya and I sat down to talk about it we agreed that there is something special about the game. There’s something special about how they affect people’s emotions, their thinking and how they come together in communities and we felt that this was an amazing opportunity to take what we do in this team and have that taken into communities across the country by the individual members of the team.”
Both Pouya and Maurice are very clear that they share the passion for football that is so prevalent in the North East and this initiative comes from that place and from that passion. They both point out that they are not affiliated with any team but they are as Maurice says ‘Aligned to Jesus and we want to reach out to every part of the North East and wider’.
He adds: “People may see loving Jesus as a weakness, they see vulnerability as a weakness, we want to say to them express yourself, be who you are on that football pitch – yes there are values that you live by but you can be who you really want to be.”
Pouya concluded: “The perception that society, especially the secular world has on ordained ministers is often wrong. We want to challenge those perceptions and send a message that shows we are a bunch of friendly people who love Sports, Love Jesus and Love to have fun just like Jesus did with his friends at a wedding in Cana. So if people come along and play against us and through doing that a conversation starts about faith and about Jesus that’s great as well!
“So what Maurice and I really believe in apart from the values that football can instil, is that sense of community and faith. Gathering around exploring friendships and being friends because friendship, in the end, is what matters for the journey that we follow as disciples of Christ.”
The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham said: “Many football clubs were founded by local churches. My own predecessor Bishop Lightfoot founded ‘The Two Blues’ of Bishop Auckland. So I am delighted Pouya has led this initiative. I hope it will inspire many to engage in football, sport more generally, and to help people recognise that faith and football/sport can go together.”