Jordan Skelton is a football lad from Newcastle, England, and he owns the hardscrabble, Geordie vocabulary to prove it. But the young center back plays these days for Mississippi Brilla, a soccer club that is also a Christian ministry. So, he’s working hard at filtering his admonitions to referees during a match, keeping them a bit cleaner than he might have done before.
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“You know my roots,” Skelton, still just 21 and holding the flag in the photo above, told ussoccer.com, “I’m a very loud, confident person in general. I’m a Christian. But my language can sway to the bad side when I’m at a hundred-percent throttle. At the end of day, everybody doesn’t like the referee. But, I try to put a lid on it. Try my best.”
(The Brilla Boys walk out with youngsters at a home game in PDL)
It is a delicate balancing act, for sure, and one that an international cast of players from Brilla will bring to the first round of the U.S. Open Cup on May 9 when the team faces the New Orleans Jesters on the road. The soccer ministry was created by founder Rusty Bryant in 1996 to change lives, inspired by a pickup match during a mission to Costa Rica. Somewhere along the way, however, Bryant decided he could win a few championships, even while he was trying to save souls.
Titles & Bibles
With those dual goals in mind, the Mississippi Brilla Soccer Ministry evolved into more than an athletics facility for local talent. In 2006, it became a real soccer club that recruited promising international players, aiming both to capture titles in the Premier Development League (PDL) and to preach the gospel along the way.
The match against the Jesters, from the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), is asking a lot from Brilla – which plays its home games before relatively small crowds on a high school field in Clinton, Mississippi, which has a population of just 25,000. Bryant, however, and unsurprisingly, believes anything is possible. After all, the club reached the national PDL semifinals in 2017 and is returning 10 players from that team that reached such surprising heights.
(Jordan Skelton of Newcastle, England clears the ball for Mississippi Brilla)
“We’ve been willing and open to change as needed,” said Bryant, the ministry’s executive director and founder. “Now, most everything we do focuses around that team. We’ve gotten really intentional about bringing in players from around the world who fit our mission. We pride ourselves in bringing in the best talent. We expect a different standard on how our players treat other teams and referees, but they’re boys and we let them be boys.”
A Global Roster
Thirty-nine different countries have been represented on Brilla’s rosters throughout the last 12 years, including four new ones this spring: Greece, Denmark, Lesotho and Switzerland. This is an amateur team, so the athletes are offered only room, board and good fellowship. They live most of the season in dormitories at Mississippi College, a Christian school in Clinton. At other times, they are housed and fed by local Clinton residents who are fans of the team.
“The whole community of Clinton comes together for us,” Skelton said. “We’re given a pass to the cafeteria at Mississippi College. We have access to food there. But in the first few weeks, the college isn’t open yet and we’re literally fed by families in their houses. There are 28 of us, so it’s not a five-fingered buffet, it’s a real spread.”
(Brilla had much to celebrate in 2017 & they're hoping for more at #USOC2018)
Skelton was recruited by Brilla coach Mark McKeever while playing soccer at Lander University in South Carolina. McKeever, who coaches at Young Harris College, spotted Skelton in Peach Belt Conference games and liked what he saw from the defender. Skelton will arrive for his second season at Brilla a couple of days before the U.S. Open Cup First Round match, and the start of Brilla’s season.
Expectations; Not Demands
Like all the club’s players, Skelton is not asked to sign a morals contract, and is not expected to proselytize during or after matches. There are, however, certain expectations that come with the concept of a soccer team that is also a Christian mission.
“There’s evangelism within the team,” Bryant said. “We always bring in a handful of strong believers; they’re living with rest of the team. And there are ministry events where the players share the gospel at prison visits and at camps. But we don’t ask them to do anything with other teams. We understand how that can be a turn-off for people. So much is based on relationships.”
Skelton says the players are given the freedom to participate in, or opt out, of the religious activities. His own family background is complicated in this regard. His mother was fervent in her religion, while his father was not. The defender, who generally joins in the mission work at Brilla, hands out Bibles to campers and prisoners.
“What I liked was it wasn’t forced down your neck,” he said. “It is there and is encouraged, but it isn’t as if you have to do it. I have friends there, whenever someone say, ‘Let’s go to church’, they say, ‘I’m not going,’ and that wouldn’t be found offensive. “It’s not as if you don’t believe, you don’t play.”
(Sinclaire Sandy in action for Brilla on a sunny day in Mississippi)
Bryant points to a variety of success stories to have risen from humble beginnings with the Mississippi team, including Michael Azira, now a holding midfielder with the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer.
Brilla’s Pipeline to the Big-Time
Azira played for Brilla in 2010-11, after arriving from Uganda. He met his future wife during that period and has since credited much of his accomplishments to the place where he spent that formative season in a new country.
“When I played for Brilla, it was the first time that I realized that it wasn’t just a dream anymore. It could actually happen,” Azira said recently. “It was about more than just soccer. It was the relationships, relationships that are still strong today. We were, and still are, a family.”
(Chakib Hocine & Javen Palmer celebrate the good times)
Another former player, Scott Lucky, came from California and never left the area. He met his wife in Mississippi, was baptized in a local swimming pool and is now a college minister at the Parkway Baptist Church in Clinton.
For now, the current roster is more focused on its first-round Open Cup game, and then on a potential PDL national title. “I haven’t experienced the Open Cup, but it’s a great opportunity,” Skelton said. “We have a straight and honest goal of winning the PDL title. Winning the U.S. Open Cup, that may be a big goal. But if we can win one or two rounds, and go up against a big, fancy, professional team, that’s great. And I know we’ll give them a match.”