What do you get when you bring youth work, faith and women’s rugby together? A winning combination that’s proving to be life-changing for Auckland teenage girls, and highly rewarding for 26-year-old youth worker Lai Lokeni.
When I was asked if I would like to try rugby, my immediate response was, ‘Heck no!’ The thought of me tackling anyone was just too funny! Clearly God had other plans and I can’t believe the opportunities I’ve had to support young women and see them begin to live their best lives. I get to be a role model as a female rugby player and a woman of faith and purpose. How good is that?!
When I was selected for the Auckland Thunder women’s rugby squad last year, I didn’t want the influence I have in my job to be compromised by the commitments that were required of me as part of the team. I am a youth worker for the Roskill South Youth Development Team at Royal Oak Community Ministries in Auckland. I know God’s purpose for me is youth work first, rugby second. However, God has made a way for me to not only play rugby but, more incredibly, coach the Waitakere Women’s Under-15 team as part of my role as a youth worker!
I recently had a struggling teenage girl referred to me, who I managed to convince to come along to training. ASPIRE programme components are integrated into my coaching strategy—there’s more than just rugby going on—and my new recruit loved it! She said, ‘No one laughed at me. I felt safe.’ She assumed that when she dropped the ball the first time it was passed to her, she would be mocked. But she wasn’t.
This young woman is making solid progess and willingly attended ‘Summer Peak’ at The Salvation Army’s Blue Mountain Adventure Centre in January. She now talks more openly with her mother, is motivated and beginning to believe in herself. Youth work, God and rugby—who would’ve thought it?
I came to faith myself through the influence of youth workers. Without the care and mentoring of then-youth workers Lieutenants Andrew and Maree O’Brien (now Corps Officers at Manukau Corps), and Jono Bell (Territorial Director of Community Ministries), I would not be where I am today. They dragged me along to an Easter Camp at Mystery Creek in 2009, with the youth from the Faith Factory, Waitakere Central Corps, and over the weekend I encountered God personally for the first time.
A few years on, and because a bunch of youth workers believed in me and loved me, I’m now a trained youth worker, too. I’ve completed a Diploma of Ministry at Laidlaw College, and through the Salvation Army’s LAB apprenticeship programme, I’m also a Praxis graduate. Now God has taken my interest in rugby and used it as a tool to change young lives.
It’s amazing how God can take our interests and our purpose and bring them together in ways you couldn’t begin to imagine. We just need to open ourselves up to the possibilities.
(c) by Lai Lokeni - 'War Cry' magazine, 23 February 2019 p11. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.