A sporting chance for everyone

April 6, 2018


Sport and Australians go together like snags and sauce, so it’s no surprise that The Salvation Army sees involvement in sport as part of its mission to show Christian faith in action, Julie Houghton writes. 



Claire Gilbert is youth services coordinator with Eastern Salvo Care, where she runs non-contact boxing classes for girls aged 13 to 18, in conjunction with local gym Fit Body Fit Mind in the Melbourne south-eastern suburb of Frankston.

Claire was doing some non-contact boxing classes herself, and thought they would be a great way for girls to learn anger management and emotional regulation.

Finding the right gym which would accept a diverse range of girls was vital.

“We looked for a gym that was youth-focused and would make the young people feel comfortable without any judgment, and we found Sheridan at Fit Body Fit Mind gym, who knows how to engage the girls and they feel comfortable there,” Claire explains.

The classes have been running since June last year and have 25 girls participating.

Most weeks a female youth resource officer from Victoria Police joins in and partners a different girl each session. Other local youth experts also visit to inform the girls of support services that may be useful.

“The girls feel that they belong, and all the referrals for girls’ boxing come from either The Salvation Army or Headspace [a national youth mental health foundation], so each girl comes with her own set of barriers and issues,” Claire says.

Claire says the biggest result is the improvement in the girls’ self-esteem, and they get the chance to link into other programs that may help them.

Feedback from the girls shows the positive impact the boxing classes are having. 

Some girls said the weekly classes would be even better if they were held twice a week, and several said they felt fitter and stronger and eat in a more healthy way, with one even saying that she now reads labels and checks the sugar content of food.

Perhaps the biggest impact these classes have had on the girls is the social and mental benefits they receive.

“Making friends and getting out of the house.” “The classes improve my mental health and make me feel happier and more confident talking to customers at work.” “Self-esteem has improved and the classes get my anger out,” some of the girls commented in a recent feedback survey.

At the other end of the country, sports-mad Major Ben Johnson from Cairns Corps (church) sums up succinctly why the Salvos should be involved in sport in Australia.

“It gets us off our butts and stops us theorising about how to save the world and gets us engaged with people—sport helps break the ice for the deeper things,” he tells Warcry.


Ben has been involved in sporting programs for the Salvos in both New South Wales and Queensland.

In Sydney he played Churches Cricket as a men’s ministry for more than three years (where he still holds the record bowling figure of 9/49 in an innings!). When he relocated to Batemans Bay, he began playing in a local club and sponsored players from welfare contacts to become involved for the seven years he lived there. 

Next stop was Bundamba near Ipswich in Queensland, where he helped run a cricket team in the Queensland Churches Cricket competition, and broadened his sporting reach to running three basketball teams, as well as more than a dozen cricket carnivals and 20 basketball carnivals. Currently he has started a basketball outreach program in his new posting at Cairns.

The point of difference from normal sporting involvement is that all four teams were comprised mostly of refugees and asylum seekers, aged between 15 and 30, so sport became a way to include them in Australian life and provide care.

Ben is clear about the impact his sporting ministry has had on the participants.

“It’s great for building a sense of community and teamwork, building self-esteem and support networks, and of course helping at-risk or drug-dependent people to make healthier life choices,” he explains.

But it’s not just the participants who benefit from this ministry.

“It helps me as much as it does others. Healthy interaction and competition fuels us for inspiration in other areas of life.”

Another Salvo sport program that has been running for 50 years is Victoria’s Salvo Basketball competition, which runs out of Box Hill in Melbourne.

Matt Atkins is a soldier (member) of the Reservoir Salvation Army, and has been running Salvo Basketball for eight years. Currently the competition has more than 200 players from 10 to 50 years of age, of which a third are women.

Matt is very clear about the aim of Salvo Basketball.

“We aim to build a safe sporting community that can come together to enjoy the game of basketball, so in the past we have asked teams to leave that are disruptive to the safe and sporting values we hold as a focus for our organisation—we want to be seen as a place that people can come to enjoy playing sport in a positive environment,” Matt explains.

As a not-for-profit competition, fees are lower, allowing a greater diversity of people to enjoy the sport, and there are specific rules like not playing women’s games late at night, and enforcing ‘sin bin’ rules for those who offend, so that negative situations don’t escalate.

While healthy competition is part of sporting life, Matt says that Salvo Basketball wants to be known as a competition run by the people for the people.

Salvation Army founder, William Booth, was a big advocate for physical fitness, saying that, “For the sake of saving the soul I seek the salvation of the body” and Ben, Matt and Claire are putting this idea into practice.

Matt says that running Salvo Basketball “shows me how sports and ministry work so well together”, while for Claire “by far the most satisfying thing for me is knowing that the girls come from all different walks of life and have lives that are full of challenges, but for that one hour a week they are equal and they are all happy”.

And Ben?

“I love God, I love sport, and I love people…it seems a good combination.”


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