BANGUI, Central African Republic -- The Central African Republic is one of the world's least developed countries. Armed militias, bandits, high crime rates and years of political instability only add to its problems.
One American group is trying to change the country's destiny by focusing on young people.
Misery in the Heart of Africa
Recently CBN News traveled to the African nation to find out how the game of basketball is bringing hope to the country's people
"Life is extremely difficult here," said Theodore Kapou, bishop of the Apostolic Church.
This is a country that has truly suffered.
"When you are used to suffering, suffering becomes normal," said George Offong, a Nigerian missionary who runs Adonia Missions International in Bangui.
The Central African Republic is a landlocked nation surrounded by some of the most dangerous places on earth.
Political Chaos Springs Hope
Since gaining its independence from France in 1960, the Central African Republic has endured 11 mutinies, numerous rebellious movements both in the south and the north and today is one of the poorest countries on the African continent.
Two friends from two different backgrounds and living thousands of miles apart, are trying to change the country's outlook.
Kapou is a native of the Central African Republic. He runs the largest network of churches in the country.
"We can see the hopeless, but God is our hope and a nation that puts its trust in God will be blessed," Kapou added.
Rob Hoskins is an American. He runs OneHope, a ministry focused on sharing the gospel with young people around the world.
"It seems like in the most desperate situations that's when God sends the winds of His spirit," Hoskins said.
Basketball Opens Doors and Hearts
Their friendship caught the attention of the nation's government. The two met with top leaders and were given unprecedented access to reach the youth with a biblical message of hope.
Hoskins says the key was to use the game of basketball, a very popular sport with young people, to reach the next generation.
"It's like a magnet," Hoskins told CBN News during a recent trip to the African nation. "I mean you show up with a basketball and kids just come from everywhere because they don't have many basketballs. They don't have any infrastructure, so the very little that you do produces amazing results in this country."
So Hoskins brought in 5,000 basketballs and a team of Christian players from Indiana. They operated daily basketball clinics in the capital city. It was a big hit, attracting hundreds of young boys and girls.
"Some came in and kicked off their flip flops and played barefoot. I saw a kid today play in crocs," said Loel Hochhalter, one of the basketball coaches recruited by OneHope.
"Some kids have shoes. Some don't. Some have incredible ability. Some don't. Some have a meal to eat. Some don't," he added.
Forty percent of the country's population is under the age of 15 and many of these kids face an uncertain future.
"Everything changes for them," Hoskins said. "For that moment that they are playing, that they are interacting and having fun, they forget about everything else."
In another part of town, Adrian Crawford, a former Florida State University basketball star, held drills with players from Central African Republic's national basketball team. OneHope asked him to come to Central African Republic to help coach at some of the basketball clinics.
"We focused on footwork, shooting mechanics, scoring of the move. We worked on defensive principles, defending ball screens," said Crawford while practicing with the national team.
Leaving a Biblical Legacy
For Adrian and the folks at OneHope it's ultimately more than just about the game of basketball. It is about instilling biblical values in hearts of the children.
"We took 15 - 20 minutes every day in the camp and just shared the gospel, shared the word, told the kids why we were here," said Dustin Denton, who came to Central African Republic with a team of members from Indiana's Connection Pointe Church.
"I really encouraged them, no matter where they are, whether they don't have a relationship with God or they've been serving God for a period of time," said Crawford. "It's all about having intensity about your faith. Be as disciplined as you are in your sport, be that same way in your faith."
For two friends on the Central African Republic national basketball team those words were life-changing.
"I used to think the word of God was a joke," said one player. "But after spending time with Coach Adrian I saw in his life what it means to be true follower of Christ."
"This basketball outreach is a turning point in my life," said another player. "I never used to pray before games. I never thought I needed God in my life. These last few days have taught me otherwise."
Love for God's Word
While the Indiana team focused on basketball clinics, a team from France focused on presenting the gospel to high school kids through drama.
"God is doing amazing things around the world, but there are still so many children who have not heard the name Jesus," said Pierre Chiner a member of OneHope's French team. "We are trying to change that here."
Each child is given a Book of Hope, an interactive Bible-based magazine.
"So it's not only the scriptures that they are being given but there's articles that really explain to them the word of God in a way that they can understand it and allow children to fall in love with God's word," explained Hoskins.
The government has given OneHope and Kapou's network of churches the green light to teach classes based on the Bible in public schools.
"Whether it's in the areas of education, health, the economy or sports, only God can transform our society and bringing lasting peace," Kapou added.
Changing a Nation's Destiny
In the evening the American, French and local believers took to the outskirts of the capital going door-to-door handing out gospel tracts.
Just before sunset. The teams regrouped. A screen is set up. The film projector and the audio speakers come out and are set in place.
Hundreds of people gathered to watch a presenation of the GodMan, OneHope's animated film about the life of Christ. Later, a gospel invitation was given and many stood to receive Jesus Christ into their hearts.
"I've never seen such a movie on the big screen," said a young girl who watched the film. "What touched me most was when I saw Jesus Christ die on the cross."
"We've done so many bad things to each other in our country," another person in attendance remarked. "We've killed each other. We've stolen from each other. This is why God sent his Son to die for us and to save us from our sins."
It's that message that Hoskins and Kapou hope will one day make the difference in changing the destiny of the nation.