This article first appeared in the summer 2013 issue of Timbrel, the magazine of Mennonite Women USA. Timbrel has been replaced by an online e-newsletter, Grapevine. Though Rebekka Stutzman no longer plays handball with a club team, she plays with her 11-year-old son, "teaching him that not just the ball, but also prayer, can be passed on through our hands."
European team handball is all about using your hands — throwing, catching, dribbling, swatting and scoring. Your fingers are taped, due to injuries, and your hands are grimy from the sticky substance you applied for a better grip. Handball is a fast-paced game in which two teams, consisting of seven players each, compete to score goals by throwing a ball into an indoor-soccer-sized frame. It blends elements of soccer — you score by getting the ball into the goal; basketball — you dribble and pass the ball; and ice hockey — it is rough and you get penalty minutes for fouls. European handball is the second most popular sport in Germany, after soccer. It has its own professional league system.
I started playing handball when we moved from East to West Germany in 1992, a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. One thing I came to appreciate about handball is that it is a team sport with a communal character. For several years, I played for a club team, which meant training during the week and competing in games on the weekend. Our team competed together, traveled together and hung out together. We went through the ups and downs of our wins and losses together, amid the triumphs and troubles of our lives.
I have spent countless hours with other handball players. Many of my friendships and close relationships have been formed through handball. I have been able to live out my faith in this community. God was constantly opening opportunities for me to be a witness. It was a unique opportunity because of the way church and faith have moved to the margins of German society. Many German people spend their weekends with their sport clubs, so I was able to develop relationships with people I wouldn't normally meet on a Sunday morning in church.
In the Bible, I see that Jesus was relational and spent time with people, meeting them where they were. For me, handball became not only my hobby but also a relational ministry. It led to moments in which I joined hands, which were usually taped and bandaged, in prayer with a teammate, as she suffered from a painful skin condition, which also affected her ability to play handball. She had tried various treatments, but none of them had the soothing effects she had desired. One afternoon, I prayed with her for healing. It took a while for her skin condition to finally go away, but, more importantly, faith had started to grow in her.
Our paths split for a couple of years. I got married and moved to attend seminary in Los Angeles, California, with my American husband. While my friend and I were physically separated by the ocean, it would always blow my mind and touch my heart how my handball friend would sign off on her letters and emails, Gottes Segen (God bless you). This is not a phrase that German people normally use. I knew that God was present in her life.
After six years in the United States, we moved back to Germany and went to visit my friend for her birthday. Upon our arrival, after a five-hour train ride, my friend became emotional, as she shared how, just that afternoon, her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I asked her if I could pray with her. Once again, our handball hands, used to playing a rough sport, joined in prayer.
God was in our midst. Later, as her mother stopped by, a beautiful double rainbow appeared in the sky. We talked about the rainbow's meaning and the meaning of faith in this situation. It was a comforting sign.
As I reflect on this experience, I can only say that God was at work and listened to our prayer, as our handball hands joined. It became evident that there is more to my handball experience than just playing a sport. I am convinced that Jesus' command to his disciples to go and spend time where they are welcomed also applies to us today. My handball experience taught me that we can be witnesses in all aspects of our lives. I pray that God may continue to bless and transform our hands, so they might become instruments of God's grace, healing and hope.
An update 10 years later, in 2023: I am not currently playing on a handball team, but I continue to play at the local park with our 11-year-old son, Immanuel, who just started playing on a team. This is the same age I started playing on a team. I am teaching him that not just the ball, but also prayer can be passed on through our hands.