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Church adopts team, but benefits are mutual

Church adopts team, but benefits are mutual

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church adopts team, but benefits are mutual

March 10, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0811}

An e-Review Feature
By Sarah Alsgaard**

LAKELAND — It’s the last quarter, with only four seconds left on the clock for the Class 3A Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) girls basketball state championship game. The Dunbar High School Lady Tigers are three points behind the Parkway Academy Lady Panthers. The Tigers grab the ball and aim several shots at the basket. 

Cypress Lake United Methodist Church member Rob Liddle (center) cheers for the Dunbar High School Lady Tigers. About 25 church members regularly follow the girls to their games as part of the church’s commitment to be in ministry to its community. “Barriers have been broken, binding relationships have been formed, and it has changed lives because of love — love of the game, love of the person and love of Christ,” Liddle said. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard. Photo #08-0772.

Even though fans of the Tigers and Panthers were cheering wildly, no one was cheering louder than Rob Liddle. His voice boomed during the entire game, rallying the rest of the Tigers’ fans to join him. His wife, Karen, had packed throat lozenges just for the occasion, which he used during halftime.
“I think we’ve been coming, what, about three years?” Liddle said. “I think every year I get about 10 games better. Never been kicked out of one, and I’m a little loud, but it’s fun to support them.”
Liddle is a member of Cypress Lake United Methodist Church in Fort Myers, and together with parents of players and fans from the church, he traveled from Fort Myers to Lakeland to support the team during its state championship game.
“We’ve been following them for three years, and we’ll do it next year,” he said. “It’s one of our church’s missions.”
That mission began when Cypress Lake United Methodist Church member Richard Dickey’s daughter, Kylie, started playing basketball with the Tigers several years ago.
“I made a relationship with the coach, and he’d come to me at times saying that we didn’t have enough money for shoes or team transport or spend the night or be in tournaments,” Dickey said. “So then we got a following of the church that came out and financially supported them and also with the fan support.”

Those fans help transport parents to games. They buy shoes, hold church dinners for the team, and help with tournaments and summer camps.

Nearly three years ago members of Cypress Lake United Methodist Church adopted The Dunbar Lady Tigers, a local high school’s girl’s basketball team. Since then church fans have attended games, bought shoes, transported parents to games and formed relationships with the girls, thier parents and leaders at the school. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard. Photo #08-0773.

About 25 church members faithfully follow the team, taking the church bus on road trips to the team’s games. At the end of each game, Liddle says, they always “give high fives, praise their play and get a few hugs in return,” and after one game, church members followed the team to Burger King so they could spend more time with them. 

“It’s a mixture of spiritual healing; (the girls) are just like one of us,” said Chuck Morse, a church member and fan. “They can be our own granddaughter or daughter without any problem.”

Liddle expects that many of the team’s church fans will attend the graduation ceremonies for the seniors on the team. “We are proud of them as players and as persons,” he said.

The trip to Lakeland for the championship game wasn’t the first for church members. They had made the trek just two days previously for the semi-final game. At both games church members were dressed in green and orange, the school’s colors. Some wore beads; some sported sweatshirts with the Dunbar logo on it.
“I love the fans from Cypress, and I think they’re very big supporters, and they motivate us,” said Brittany Brown, a senior at Dunbar High School and forward for the Lady Tigers. “I mean, some of those people are retired, and they could be at home sleeping or doing anything else, do anything in their free time, and they come watch us.”
Carl Burnside, principal of Dunbar High School, has attended many Lady Tigers’ games and is impressed by the church’s fans.
“I think what’s really powerful about this (is) they’ve really adopted this as a ministry of outreach, because not only have they made financial contributions to the program, but they’ve given of themselves,” he said. “They’re really thinking about the Scriptures that deal with love and charity, the greatest of these being love. They take that to the highest level.”

Liddle says the giving isn’t one-way. This month the team’s head coach, Dwayne Donnell, will be attending and speaking at the church’s United Methodist Men’s meeting. Burnside, a church organist at Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church, has taken his church’s gospel choir to Cypress Lake to be part of the worship service there.

Dunbar Lady Tigers forward Chelsea Gordon embraces a member of Cypress Lake United Methodist Church after the Class 3A Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) girl’s basketball state championship game in Lakeland. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard.  Photo #08-0774.

“I see no boundaries, no limits and no end to this beautiful and caring relationship,” Liddle said. 

Despite the team’s efforts to score in the last seconds of the game, the Lady Tigers lost to the Lady Panthers 43-45. The Lady Tiger fans yelled out such words of encouragement as “hold your head up high” and stayed in the arena well after the game had ended. They all stood and cheered loudly when the players were given silver medals.
After the championship, the members of Cypress Lake United Methodist Church waited outside the complex for the players. When the players came out, each church member hugged the players and shared additional words of encouragement.
“They’re the best thing that ever happened to the Dunbar High School community and our high school team and for our school,” Donnell said.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is a freelance writer based in Lakeland.