Soccer is a sport of passion and love, and without a doubt, it is among the most popular and loved games in the world. One player from Uruguay started on the soccer field and is now serving on the streets of Charlotte.
Gustavo Bentos was a strong force on the field, however, his end goal was to serve the church.
“I played professional soccer for 20 years and that was the reason I came to Charlotte in 2008,” Bentos said. “I came for six months with my wife, but God had other plans for me.”
After studying at a seminary in Chile, Bentos decided to accept an offer to play with the Charlotte Eagles. The Eagles use their soccer platform to communicate the message of Jesus Christ through the environment of soccer.
“They invited me to help use soccer as a tool to reach people for Jesus,” he said.
After serving at a church in an affluent neighborhood in Charlotte, Bentos found his calling as pastor at Northside Baptist Church.
“The demographics that we see in this part of the town is very much in need,” he said.
The affordable housing crisis in Charlotte has had a profound effect on tens of thousands of families who are displaced and living a hotel or motel where many families and their children live.
“When I talk to my family back in Uruguay, it’s hard for them to understand that people here in the states don’t have enough food. Kids are living in hotels up to four or five kids in a room. It’s heartbreaking.”
With the challenges that people face in the area that surrounds the church, Bentos sees an opportunity to help.
Over the past summer, the church has been feverishly serving families in the Hidden Valley community of Charlotte. Northside partnered with several nonprofit organizations to provide tens of thousands of meals to those in need.
“God brought us here to the north of the city and we actually started seeing the needs of the people and the community,” Bentos said.
On this Saturday, members of Northside gathered at a hotel where some of Charlotte’s thousands of displaced families call home. With little or no kitchen facilities in their rooms, families find it daunting, if not impossible, to have hot meals.
“As a church, we want to do better,” Bentos said. “I’m a preacher and I like to talk about the word of God. I want to share the Bible. Sometimes people don’t just need the Bible. They need a good hug. They need someone to say, ‘I’m here with you.’ They need to count on us. It’s not just praying, but that we will do everything in our power to help.”
That need can be amplified in the Hispanic community. Many families have limited resources, fear deportation and are out of work.
“There is a lot of fear in the congregation and the community. I can tell you firsthand, because we have some people in the church who are facing the same thing,” he said. “This is a special country, but sometimes people just need a hand up.”
Being empathetic to neighbors is one of the touch points for Bentos and the crew from the church.
“We all just need to be available. There are so many small gestures that we can do that can really change the life of someone,” he said.
As people lined up to be fed, there was an overwhelming sense of goodness that was followed up with a smile and sometimes a brief conversation. Young children ran to see who was the fastest. Food was plated up to take back to hotel rooms. Warm smiles were shared. Some conversations were shared in English and some in Spanish, but the overall feeling was one of love and giving.
“When we look in the eyes of these people, we don’t know what their situation is, and you never know if you are helping or not,” Bentos said. “We want to do whatever we can just to help the people in this situation. We want to love.”
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