Cleveland-based Christian group takes equipment to baseball-loving Iraqi refugees

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by Lynda Edwards in Life Entertainment
Breakaway Outreach Co-founder Jimmy Larche, right, loads donations from the Chattanooga Choo-Choo’s Director of Sales Annie Still to share with Iraqi, Syrian and Sudanese refugees in Germany. In the background, Larche’s wife, Cindy, left, German visitor Finni Eigenbrodt and Adam Bowerman examine the gifts.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.
Gallery: The gift of fun: Local Christian group takes equipment to baseball-loving to Iraqi




The first stop is AT&T Field, where the Chattanooga Lookouts play.

Breakaway Outreach Pastor Johnny Larche, his wife Cindy, their 12-year-old son Zach and their German house guest, Finni Eigenbrandt, are crowded into a business lobby with a coffee table composed of a glass oval atop a sculpture of a player sliding into home. Lookouts Ticket Partnership Director Andrew Zito carries in a box full of T-shirts in Crayola-bold blue, red and other colors — a perfect gift for Iraqi refugee children now living in Germany who are crazy about baseball and love clothing emblazoned with American logos.

“I’m hoping I’ll have more for you in your next visit,” Zito tells the Larches. “It’s great that you’re doing this for those kids.”

On a mission trip this summer, the Larches plan to bring the gifts to Germany and start coaching baseball teams composed of the refugee children. Their group, a Cleveland, Tenn.-based nonprofit, has about 25 churches in the Chattanooga and North Georgia area that volunteer for outreach programs to domestic violence shelters, children of prison inmates and kids in homeless shelters.

The kids from Iraq carried their love for baseball with them when their families were forced to flee the region’s continuous violence. The Larches will be visiting German refugee housing — initially built for French officers overseeing post-World War II Germany — in Osnabruck, a mountain town of medieval turrets and stone houses in a forested valley. Eigenbrandt is a volunteer with one of Breakaway’s sister churches in Germany, and she brought kids from the camp by train to a Berlin sports camp where they could use batting cages and practice another American pastime, basketball.

Iraqi schools often taught baseball as part of physical education classes in the 1990s, but it became difficult to get equipment due to the U.S. trade embargo and then the war. Still, a Baghdad gift shop owner managed to launch the Iraqi national baseball league in 2003.

Summer heat in Iraq easily tops 110 degrees in much of the country, but the Iraqi league teams would still run onto ragged playing fields and fans would risk IEDs to travel to the games. The league’s five teams were scattered across provinces from Ninevah — far in the north of the country and where scholars believe the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon were found — to the port city of Basra, where Sinbad the Sailor legends were born. According to the McClatchy News Service, Iraq’s national baseball team shared a single bat and nine battered gloves as late as 2009.

“I’m hoping some of our sister churches will donate used baseball gloves, maybe some cleats. When the kids get an old, beaten-up glove, their eyes glow and they smile like they’ve been given the greatest birthday present ever,” ” the 40-year-old Larche says wistfully. “They would be so happy with used baseball equipment.”

This past Christmas, Breakaway’s partner church in Bramsche, Germany, hosted a Christmas party for the refugees with carols and Bible verses in Arabic and English. Thousands of the Iraqi refugees are Christians who lived in Iraq until criminal gangs and extremist militias targeted Christians in the chaos that ensued after the 2003 invasion.

Several Cleveland Baptist, Methodist and Church of God congregations donated Christmas cards to the refugees last year, and Larche is still hopeful some will help with the baseball camp this year. But he has already heard from some churches that 2016’s increasingly poisonous political rhetoric in the U.S. is frightening Tennesseans from helping desperate refugees, not because they fear ISIS but because they fear attacks from conservative Christians.

“Some churches are afraid because the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric has become so hateful and so extreme,” Larche says as his radiantly upbeat expression fades into sadness. “I understand. They are afraid of losing tithes, afraid someone in the congregation will get angry. There’s suddenly a level of fear directed toward the most helpless and brutalized population.”

The fact that so many of the refugees are Christians who suffered torture, kidnapping and eviction from their homes for their faith doesn’t seem to help.

“I’ve heard Christians who want to justify their attitude say that the refugees are really Catholic or Orthodox and that isn’t the same as being Christian,” Larche sighs deeply. “That is what Jews in Christ’s time said about Samaritans because they were wanderers. They worshiped the same God but somewhat differently. I try to explain that is precisely why Jesus chose the Good Samaritan in his parable to illustrate his highest law: Love God and love thy neighbor as thyself.”

His son, Zach, has heard kids his own age say that all refugees are terrorists or hate America.

“I can see some of them change their minds when I talk about the kids in the sports camp that I’ve met who love the same books and games and movies,” he says. “It may be that it’s harder to hate someone who seems more like you.”

Zach will serve as an assistant baseball instructor and equipment manager at the refugee camp. Meanwhile, Eigenbrandt plans to volunteer to help with the new teams. She saw her first baseball game at AT&T Field on Wednesday.

“I think baseball is a really nice and interesting sport,” she says later. “I sometimes find it hard to understand and follow because the rules are not always that clear for a foreigner. Nevertheless it is a lot of fun to watch it.”

After a stop at McKenzie Arena to pick up some T-shirts donated by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Jeff Covington, manager of the Sports Spectrum store on Highway 58, donated baseball pants, hats and shirts to the refugee children so they could assemble basic uniforms.

“As a company we have been blessed many times over,” Covington says. “When approached to give to these type of missions projects, you remind yourself of your good fortunes. Merchandise of this type can seem like gold to kids who have so little.

“It is easy for us to give when you know it is going to such a good cause. To know that you are impacting young kids who desire to play sports on the other side of the world with merchandise that you have supplied is quite gratifying. The blessing is truly ours.”

Chattanooga Choo Choo Director of Sales Annie Still donated gift boxes of brightly colored T-shirts emblazoned with the names of local tourist attractions. The Iraqi refugee children now live next to kids whose families were forced to run for their lives from mayhem in Syria and Sudan. All of them love shirts adorned with American cities’ names or sites.

“We get requests all the time from charities wanting money or several nights stay in the hotel,” Still says. “This organization (Breakaway Outreach) asked for so little. We were downsizing the gift shop to make room for a new ice cream parlor and arcade, so we had plenty of shirts to give. And (Cindy Larche) told us that would make the children so happy. It was easy to say ‘yes’ to such good people.”

Contact Lynda Edwards at 423-757-6391 or