A quick inbound pass whistles by, just out of reach of a defender. The ball’s grabbed, then quickly bounced — passed to another lanky youngster on the Tarheels (not the North Carolina college team, but youngsters on the cusp of being teenagers) basketball squad.
“Shoot it!” yells a teammate.
One quick pivot and a turnaround jumper later, the ball swishes cleanly through the net.
Such is a microcosm of youth hoops November through February at Peachtree Corners Baptist Church (PCBC), which plays host to a highly regarded and mainly intermural sports program that gathers in as many as 1,000 youngsters and adults annually. That includes boys’ and girls’ basketball (ages 7 to 12), with nearly a workday’s-worth of games playing out on a particularly chilly January Saturday.
As is the case with any such program, the scene is familiar. Players, parents and coaches shouting into the echoing cavern of the gym, the squeak of sneakers and the rhythmic ‘thunk, thunk’ of ball meeting hardwood.
Sit in the bleachers for a while, however, and the differences between it and some other programs manifest. No trash talk. No angry disputing of referee calls. Coaches who encourage instead of demean.
‘A good atmosphere’
“It’s the first time I’ve been here,” said Dan Marschke, a Walton County resident, in between yelling in-game encouragement to his grandson. “I think it’s a good atmosphere.”
Unfortunately, the “feel” has changed a bit this year with a pandemic continuing to rage. As COVID-19 gained steam this past spring, adult basketball, tee-ball, and machine pitch baseball were shut down. The program returned with summer camps and precautions in place going forward.
As a faith-based organization, creating a team from youngsters, sometimes less than perfectly disciplined and lacking basketball experience, happens on the parallel tracks of skill improvement plus character / spiritual development. The recreational benefits of sports and fun are emphasized over winning and losing, said league coordinator Billy Sowell. Bringing players closer to Christ — pumping up that faith muscle, so to speak — is also a prime priority.
At PCBC, that takes the form of a devotional done in the course of weekly practice and prayer before games. Coaches, parents and kids all seem to appreciate the connection.
“I get to be closer to God,” is how 13-year-old Grayson McCollum put it, referring to those 15-minute practice devotionals. “He gave me everything that I am blessed with today so I want to be as close as I can.”
Not only has his faith strengthened, he indicated, but the experience has fostered a more even temperament. Cooperation, building each other up and taking responsibility are the default, not anger and blame shifting.
Peachtree Corners City Manager Brian Johnson, who coaches the Blue Devils team his 12-year-old Elias plays on, backs up that mindset. “The general benefit is learning teamwork and sportsmanship and how to be a good winner and a good loser,” he said, “and that practice makes perfect. It takes time to get better.” He added that personal development happens more than at the player level.
At the end of the season, Johnson said, “I feel like I’ve learned things, not just the kids. For me it’s a little taste of what it’s like to be a teacher.”
As an adjunct to that notion, he’s mindful that how he handles a bad referee call or tough loss sets an example.
And sometimes playing in a structured environment can lead to an inflection point or alteration in direction. Tarheels player and coaches’ son Michael Brown Jr. said the experience has led to a changed view on sports.
“I always thought soccer was going to be my thing, but basketball has proven to be a really fun sport,” he said emphatically.
He said that a winter holiday made longer by concerns over COVID-19 posed a challenge. “We came back from break and you could definitely tell that we had been gone for a while,” Brown Jr. said. That rustiness led into some rehabilitative drilling on the basics.
Pandemic concerns have also made another kind of dent in the program. Sowell says four teams had been “quarantined” as of January 26, sitting out of games and practices. Two of the teams involved were exposed to coaches who have tested positive. The other two stemmed from cases where a player had tested positive within two days of playing a game. Three of the teams had returned as of January 26, with the other set to come back the following week.
He said that a couple of games and several practices had been canceled.
COVID and other concerns notwithstanding, parents seem very happy with the sports ministry.
“Everybody knows about the program here,” said Karen McCollum, the mother of 13-year-old Grayson and 12-year-old brother Maddox. “We believe highly in keeping our kids involved in sports and keeping them focused. “They’ve learned so much from the coaches and the players.”
That’s like music to Sowell’s ears and, to him, is reflective of the program’s laser focus on faith. “We want to use sports as a way to introduce the love of Jesus,” he said, making it clear to the youngsters “that God gave them the abilities to play and have fun and that’s what we want to focus on.”
Onward and upward
Programs such as PCBC’s occupy an expanding role in the constellation of youth recreational sports.
South Carolina-based Upward Sports partners with churches to help them begin and maintain sports ministries, with more than 1,500 such congregations on its roster last year. Their Partner Engagement Manager, Drew Provence, said the goal is to help local congregations connect with their surrounding communities through the gospel.
“It’s a universal language,” is how Provence put it. “We’ve seen that 95% of all people interact with sports in some fashion.” And, he said, churches can use the outreach and that universal language as a way to attract new members to the flock.
Officials with the local church said that’s a story that’s repeatedly played out over the years, as players and families from the community at-large make the jump from setting foot on the property for a first time to becoming staunch members of the congregation.
Not just for kids
Sowell said that roughly 10% of those involved in their sports programs are church members.
Capitalizing on that broad base to draw from, he said, the men’s basketball program has become very competitive with several former professional and high-profile college players among the ranks.
“That’s why I started the 35-and-over league for players who want to be more recreational than competitive,” he said.
That recreational and developmental focus is on full display in the winter Saturday youth basketball program, said Tarheels coach Michael Brown Sr. A former school basketball player himself, Brown said he’s “thrilled” that his son has also fallen in love with the sport.
“It’s a great thing for a father and a son or a father and a daughter. I really enjoy working with the kids. We’ve got a great community here and a lot of talent and if I can just offer a little guidance and motivation, it’s great.”
Girls allowed — and encouraged
That same dynamic applies in the church’s girls’ basketball league, which takes over the gym earlier on Saturday before the boys storm the court. So said Perry McWilliams, a church staffer who helps direct a girls’ team dubbed the Cardinals. He shares coaching duties with a family friend and his sister, and he said taking on that role after spending some time coaching boys’ squads has been a revelatory experience.
“This is my first year of coaching a team of young ladies and you would think they wouldn’t be as rowdy as the boys are — and that’s definitely not the case,” he said. “It’s an athletic bunch and they need just as much redirection as the boys do. That’s been very interesting. Kids will be kids, no matter what.”
That direction is valuable and well worth it, said Johnson, despite many demands during his day. “I think that with growing up playing structured sports into college and having great coaches and parents to support me, I’d like to think I have something of value to add to my team and the league,” Johnson said. “I believe that’s worth a little extra time.”
McWilliams said he was surprised that some of the youngsters weren’t familiar with such elemental basketball phraseology as “traveling” and “triple double” and needed considerable drilling on the ins and outs of defensive play. Building on a firm foundation, he noted, there have been vast improvements since the season’s outset, not the least of which has been fewer air balls.
McCollum said her boys and his teammates also have needed some on-court and courtside corralling. “There are always times when they don’t want to do something; they don’t want to go to practice or something like that. But we firmly believe that when you start something, you finish it,” she said. “Once they’re there, they love it, and it’s much better than sitting in front of an electronic device.”
Sowell wants to grow participation in the programs that they have now, but that’s proving difficult in one area.
With nearby Cornerstone Christian Academy and PCBC’s own preschool using the gym during the day and practical limitations on practice — having 11-year-olds doing shooting drills at midnight is far from optimal — he said they’re capped at roughly 220 hoops participants on board. Sowell said he hates having to have a waiting list and to be turning away eager kids.
He has hopes that Cornerstone will eventually construct its own gym, giving PCBC more wiggle room and increasing participation.
No matter what 2021 and the years beyond might bring, Sowell has the overall goal firmly in his sights — making the Bible, and in particular one verse — a linchpin of the sports ministry.
“Our verse that we use is I Corinthians 9:25,” he said. From a modern Bible translation, it goes thusly: “All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. “
MOQ Invites Community to Celebration of Saint John the Baptist’s Birthday
Mary Our Queen Catholic Church in Peachtree Corners invites everyone in the community to attend a special evening Mass and outdoor festivities on Friday, June 23 in celebration of the eve of Saint John the Baptist’s birthday.
Saint John the Baptist, one of the most important figures in Christianity, is the cousin of Jesus and is known for preparing the way for Jesus’s public ministry.
Mary Our Queen will honor the saint with a Mass at 7 p.m. Following that, there will be a blessing of Saint John’s bonfire in his memory.
Everyone is invited to bring their lawn chairs and beverages to enjoy outside while listening to live music on our church plaza. Other festivities include outdoor games for children and teens, like the dunking booth — Saint John was known for baptism, after all — and eating crickets — Saint John actually ate locusts.
Mary Our Queen’s Knights of Columbus will serve watermelon, and there will be some fireworks towards the end of the evening.
For more information on this event, visit maryourqueen.com or call 770-416-0002.
West Point Gospel Choir to Visit and Sing in Peachtree Corners
The United States Military Academy at West Point Gospel Choir will be in Peachtree Corners April 7-9. The choir is scheduled to sing at Salvation and Deliverance Church, 3940 Fifth St., Peachtree Corners on Easter Sunday, April 9.
City Council Member Phil Sadd extended an initiation to the choir to visit Peachtree Corners City Hall on April 7, 2:30 p.m. for a special event that will include introductions, a proclamation presentation and a challenge coin presentation.
For more about the United States Military at West Point Gospel Choir, visit westpoint.edu/military/directorate-of-cadet-activities/diversity-clubs/gospel-choir. Get details about Salvation and Deliverance Church at facebook.com/SalvationandDeliverance.
A History of Simpsonwood UMC
In a clearing in the woods of Georgia stands a church known as Simpsonwood United Methodist Church (UMC). Over the past 40 years, the city around it has grown and so has the church — from a humble trailer to an interactive campus where young and old do the Lord’s work.
A glorious gift
The church’s history began in 1971 with a generous gift of land, bestowed by a local Christian benefactor. In 1910, Anna Louise Simpson, “Miss Ludie” to her many students, began her teaching career in the Atlanta and Gwinnett County School systems. Her career had spanned 35 years and she retired at age 70.
Originally the family farm, the land is a beautiful tract of some 277 prime acres located on the Chattahoochee River. Miss Ludie attended a small circuit church in nearby Mount Carmel, serviced by both Presbyterian and Methodist circuit ministers. She happened to join the church during one of the Presbyterian “alternate” Sundays. Still, she remained close to both denominations.
In 1971 at the age of 84, Miss Ludie shared her vision that her land be kept intact so all people could enjoy God’s beautiful creation. The land was first offered to the Presbyterian Church. However, the Presbyterians preferred to establish churches in more populated areas other than the small, rural community which later became known as Peachtree Corners.
Miss Ludie then approached Bishop John O. Smith, who asked Dr. Candler Budd to visit with her and discuss the offer. Within 24 hours, Dr. Budd assured her that the United Methodist Church wanted the land and would faithfully honor her conditions, including the construction and maintenance of a small chapel dedicated to the memory of her mother, Elizabeth Jane Sanders Simpson.
In 1973, the North Georgia Annual Conference took the first steps to develop the land into a retreat and conference center. Many years later, the retreat center was sold and is now maintained as a park by Gwinnett County.
Miss Ludie passed away on April 29, 1975, without seeing the development of the beautiful conference center that bears her name. She is buried with her mother in the Mount Carmel United Methodist Church cemetery in Norcross.
Faith and vision
By 1981, Simpsonwood UMC’s first minister, Dr. George R. Freeman, Jr., the son of a Methodist minister, was approached to develop a new congregation near the property. At the time, George was the Associate Pastor of the East Point First Methodist Church in East Point.
George initially approached Jim Cowart, the developer of Peachtree Station, the first upscale subdivision in Peachtree Corners. Jim had allocated land to develop neighborhood churches at the intersection of Peachtree Corners Circle and West Jones Bridge Road, the current locations of the Peachtree Corners Baptist Church and the Fowler YMCA.
An 11-acre tract of land on the corner of the Simpsonwood property and across Jones Bridge Circle was designated for the construction of the new church. The Conference New Church Development Committee allocated $150,000 for the church construction. Most of the money would be used to excavate and develop the sloping, rocky lot into a usable foundation.
In those days, metal buildings were typically erected to begin the development of a church. Once a congregation was formed and the new church had adequate financing, a permanent sanctuary would be constructed.
George strongly felt that given the potential upscale development of Peachtree Corners, people would be more inclined to notice the new church if a more appropriate wooden building could be constructed and painted to compliment the natural surroundings.
George approached a builder of modular and manufactured homes in Gainesville to price plans and specifications for the new building. He requested a large open area, unobstructed by center supports, that would seat at least 200 people, with two offices in the back and a large, double-door entranceway. George also wanted taller, narrow windows and exterior siding constructed of wood and painted to match the natural surroundings.
Constructed at a cost of $35,000, the completed building was delivered and set up. Financing for the cost of the project was obtained through the Conference Ten-Dollar Club, a large group of Methodist members who donated the sum of $10 twice each year for the future construction of new churches.
With the “trailer” completed, Simpsonwood UMC had its official beginning on Sunday, March 14, 1982, followed by the Service of Constitution on May 30, 1982. Thirty-seven charter members of the first congregation made their oral petition for Charter.
A covered dish dinner at the picnic pavilion celebrated the new Christian fellowship. Simpsonwood UMC was on its way!
Solid and continued growth
The congregation grew in size, laying a solid foundation while building for the future. Phase One of the master plan called for a magnificent 15,000-square-foot building that was to become the new sanctuary.
On February 10, 1985, the congregation triumphantly walked across Jones Bridge Circle for the groundbreaking ceremony of its permanent church home.
The new sanctuary was completed in time for the church’s first service on Sunday, August 24, 1986, followed by the consecration service three weeks later on September 14, 1986.
The “trailer,” as the temporary building came to be known, was transported across the street and located behind the Sanctuary, where it served the church’s Christian Youth Ministries for many years.
Years later, the congregation held its collective breath as the old trailer was moved a third time to its present location on the east side of the sanctuary and in back of the parking lot.
Through the years, Simpsonwood UMC has continued to grow in size and in membership, creating the need for additional space. In the spring of 1995, the church launched its “Standing on the Threshold” campaign to raise funding for the construction of an education building.
It was finished and dedicated on December 14, 1997. The building currently houses church staff and contains a library, classrooms and the Simpsonwood UMC preschool.
The new millennium brought continued growth, along with the realization that additional space would be required as the congregation grew. In 2004, the concept of a family life center was born.
A building committee was appointed, and in 2005, the “Building in Faith” campaign was launched. The church’s initial financial goals were met in September of that year and construction of the Howard Family Life Center was completed in the fall of 2007.
Many more blessings to count
Simpsonwood UMC has been blessed over the years. Under the leadership of its present and past ministerial staff, the church has grown from a handful of charter members in 1982 to a congregation of over 1,600 members today.
Beginning with Founding Minister George R. Freeman, Jr., the church grew from a concept. George served the church from his appointment in June 1981 until June 1988. That month, Dr. Robert Brown continued the Simpsonwood ministry, serving its congregation until June 1990.
At that time, the conference appointed Dr. Laurence McCullough, Jr. as the church’s third pastor. Through his 20 years of leadership, the church greatly expanded its membership, facilities and programs to include local, national and international missions.
In June 2005, Simpsonwood UMC was blessed again by the appointment of The Reverend Keith Lawder as Associate Pastor. A member of the congregation since February 1989, Keith became Student Pastor in June 2002 while completing Seminary.
Simpsonwood UMC’s future is bright. In 2021, a husband-and-wife team was appointed as co-senior pastors. Susan and Dave Allen Grady are the current pastors and have a long-range vision for the church’s continued growth and mission.
The church continues to honor its long-standing mission: “To Know Christ and Make Him Known.” Within 40 years, Simpsonwood UMC has moved from a simple trailer to a magnificent sanctuary and surrounding campus that serves a growing, faithful congregation.
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