A couple Friday nights ago I found myself walking onto the floor of the Palace of Auburn Hills, the cavernous arena where the NBA team Detroit Pistons plays their home basketball games. Growing up in the Detroit area, the Pistons were my favorite team as they won consecutive NBA titles and played before raucous capacity crowds. My buddies and I went to lots of games, always sitting seemingly as far away from the court as possible while cheering on the BAD BOYS at the Pontiac Silverdome in legendary battles against the Lakers and Celtics.
I never stepped on the floor of the arena as a young fan, but have never tired of going to games there over the last 3 decades since my high school years. However, I have found myself in much different stadium settings over the last 10 years as I have become aware of things that are happening in our world that I never knew could possibly be happening during my high school and college years focused on cheering on my favorite sports teams. There is one particular soccer pitch in a small rural village in Zambia where I have actually been to more often than the Palace in the last several years of my life. Things have obviously changed in my life as I have learned about the devastating impact of diseases like HIV/AIDS and Malaria.
In 2012, I was with several soccer players from Cornerstone University when we heard the story of a mom whose 15 month old son Alex died in her arms walking to a medical clinic because he had been bitten by a mosquito one night while sleeping in their one bedroom hut during the rainy season in Zambia. That story of deep personal loss and grief from an eminently preventable situation and disease left us with a need to respond that simply would not go away when we returned to our homes and normal lives free of global pandemics.
Malaria was not just some sort of tropical disease any more you took pills to avoid if you traveled to a more dangerous and exotic part of the world. It was something that impacted daily the lives of many of our friends and ended the lives of way too many kids before they even reached the age of 5 and had a chance to pursue the future God had for these beautiful and talented boys and girls. Malaria had become personal and we longed to know how we could keep other kids from living the tragedy Alex’s family had experienced.
We quickly discovered that an insecticide treated bed net could do something brilliant and significant when people were able to sleep under them at night. It was the tool needed to wipe out fear, to wipe out economic hardships caused by illness, to keep children from dying before age 5 and losing out on a life and future they were created to pursue. And this powerful bed net only cost what sports fans would normally pay to watch a college game…
So an idea was hatched in the minds and hearts of a group of college athletes. What if we invited our fellow students, parents, and soccer fans to pay an admission price or purchase a t-shirt when they came to watch us play, and those funds would provide a bed net for a family like Alex’s in sub-Saharan Africa? It was simple and something they could do in response to what they had seen and now felt responsible to respond to after their trip to Zambia.
NIGHT of NETS was born 5 years ago on the Cornerstone University campus and it’s grown beyond our wildest dreams. Several other CU teams have hosted games or matches and many other teams on high school and college campuses in west MI and across the country have joined our campaign to help prevent the devastating impact of malaria in tens of thousands of families’ lives in sub-Saharan Africa. Over 20,000 families have received a bed net through funds raised at athletic contests and we’ve seen families live differently on our regular trips to Zambia because they have access to the nets that keep one of the world’s biggest health threats out of their homes.
And we’ve been so encouraged by the new friends and partners we’ve discovered who share the same dream that we have of wiping out malaria in our lifetime. One of the great discoveries of my life has been that you find unity, friendship, and joy in coming together to serve others, to use your blessings to bless others, to pursue visions that are beyond the needs of oneself and that can empower people to create and dream and live a new and wonderful and full life.
I’ve loved discovering that God loves to connect our own personal loves and interests to doing good and sharing the Gospel in word and deed so that the things He has made us to love are used to do extraordinary things that leave us truly fulfilled and lives truly changed. There’s nothing more beautiful than the great passions of our lives running head on with the greatest needs in our world.
Sports continues to become more and more prominent and influential in our American culture. Night of Nets taps into that national passion and cultural interest by leveraging the power of sport to raise awareness and funds to provide bed nets that are so desperately needed in our world still today. A deep love for the beautiful game of soccer connected us quickly to the Zambian people and culture, and it has always made sense to see our athletic endeavors as more than just a game. Night of Nets connects two worlds through something loved by people all over the globe.
I’ve loved playing and watching basketball for much of my life. The Detroit Pistons have been my favorite team for over 30 years, often to the chagrin of my pals from Boston and Chicago. Walking onto the floor of their arena was honestly one of those moments you never expected to happen, but was one that you pumped your fist in secret about despite being much older than when you cheered for names like Isiah and Kelly and Bill and Vinnie.
Growing up, I would have thought that the path to the Palace floor would have been through extraordinary play, brilliant business acumen, or possessing incredible personal wealth. Yet my path first went to a dusty village road in Zambia before heading to a place filled with bright lights, well dressed people, and men much, much taller than me.
I mean who would have ever really believed that the reason I ended up on the floor of the Palace, smiling for 60 seconds on the Jumbotron, and being on a postgame panel with NBA veterans Steve Blake and Anthony Tolliver behind the Pistons bench was that I cared about kids in Africa and tried to do everything I could to prevent the spread of a non-Western world disease I knew nothing about a little more than a decade ago?
As I stood on the floor before the game began this thought once again came to me: Only God can dream this stuff up! The Kingdom of God is truly an upside down entity where we find ourselves being lifted up when we care for those who have no voice and no value in the world’s eyes. It’s a place where people who have lived in communities where the neighborhood sprays each spring to keep mosquitos from bugging folks on their patios find themselves praying and for an end to malaria because they have friends deeply impacted by the bite of the same insect on the other side of the world. It is a life where WORLD MALARIA DAY is prominently on one’s calendar right next to a slew of traditional holidays.
Being honored and getting to enjoy a pregame spread with important people before strolling across the floor of my hometown team was definitely a highlight moment in my life; and yet it truly can’t compare to the moment where I’ll had a mother in a Zambian village a bed net she’s been praying for 6 weeks from now. It’s those moments that I treasure most in my heart.
It is World Malaria Day and I’d love to see everyone who reads this blog purchase a bed net for a refugee family at risk in Africa today. This simple small act will do more than you can imagine; and giving to others strangely ends up giving the giver what they truly need. It’s the upside-down, counter-cultural, life-giving Kingdom of Jesus way…
May we end malaria in our lifetimes together and change history…and just remember, you never know where you’ll end up walking one night because you did something to meet the needs of another…
For more info about the NIGHT OF NETS initiative visit our website: www.cunightofnets.com
To purchase a bed net for a refugee family in Africa visit the Nothing but Nets website at: www.nothingbutnets.net
To participate in the NIGHT of NETS 5K on the CU campus on APRIL 30 visit: