Missionary Athletes International’s Urban Ministry is a relational ministry operating in Charlotte, Chicago, Los Angeles. The program teaches sports ministry to college graduates, using youth soccer team coaching and a 24/7 residential presence to build long-term, character-building, mentoring relationships with underserved inner city youth (ages 5-18). MAI does this by recruiting, training, supporting, and placing college graduates like Jessie Niemi into these at-risk neighborhoods.
Although Jessie recently finished her second season as a solid contributor playing with MAI’s Charlotte Lady Eagles, it is clear that her best contribution has been off the field, as a volunteer residential sports minister and a youth soccer team coach with MAI’s Charlotte Urban Eagles while living with two other Lady Eagles in East Charlotte’s Birchcroft Apartments alongside many recently arrived refugee families.
Jessie grew up in Swartz Creek, Michigan (pop. 5700), where she excelled in both soccer and basketball at Swartz Creek High School. Jessie knew she wanted to play soccer collegiately, and chose Marygrove College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Detroit. Jessie was a star defender on the Marygrove Mustangs’ women’s soccer team, helping her team win the 2009 USCAA National Championship as a freshman. She went on to become the only four-time USCAA first-team All-American in conference history.
After graduating in the spring of 2013 with a degree in Social Work, Jessie attended MAI’s Chicago Eagles Summer Academy, an intense three-month program where collegiate soccer players from across the country train and compete in the U23 Division of the Illinois Metro Soccer League while gaining invaluable sports ministry training in Brazil and then applying that training coaching more than a thousand youths attending Chicago Eagles soccer camps throughout the summer. The Academy gave Jessie a much clearer idea of what sports ministry is and how she could become a sports minister.
“The Academy blew my mind,” Jessie says. “I went to college with idea this of playing soccer for the Lord. The Academy showed me how. I was just blown away that sports ministry training actually existed and that other people had the same idea that I did. I learned so much about sports ministry and it set a fire in my heart to experience a deeper walk with the Lord.”
Jessie found out about MAI’s Charlotte Lady Eagles while she was in Chicago and joined the team for the 2014 season.
“The loving relational community I found in both Chicago and Charlotte is what I think really drew me to MAI as a whole,” Jessie says. “MAI understood what I experienced in Chicago so it was really engaging going to Charlotte knowing that MAI’s Charlotte Lady Eagles are on fire to do sports ministry too.”
During Jessie’s first season with the Lady Eagles she improved as a player, but Jessie says: “My real growth came spiritually through my relationships with my teammates and the further sports ministry training MAI provides through its excellent Lady Eagles’ coaching staff.”
“It’s like a family,” Jessie says. “You spend so much time training, and then off the field, between team dinners, Sport Ministry Training, traveling for game and everything in between, you really bond with the team and with the girls. I’m able to pour into my teammates’ lives and they’re able to pour into mine and we’re just walking and growing together in Christ.”
After a successful first season with the Lady Eagles, Jessie decided to stay in Charlotte to work withUrban Eagles as a volunteer in Birchcroft, where she has lived and served as a sports minister and coach for the U13 Urban Eagles girls’ team for the last ten months.
“It’s been the coolest thing ever,” Jessie says. “I think probably the most unique thing is just learning how to be a neighbor. Kids from refugee families are always knocking on our apartment door to learn something or we’re outside playing. By just being present living here, I’ve learned the importance and value of actually being neighbor getting to know my neighbors by serving their children almost every day.”
“I’m not just their coach” Jessie explains. “I’m their friend, their neighbor, their tutor, and kind of a mentor as well. It’s cool because you’re just kind of walking through life with them. As things happen in the neighborhood, we experience the same things as they do and can help them deal with stuff as things arise. So it’s not like I’m coming in once a week or a couple times a week and then leaving. Thankfully I’m integral part of the community. All of us at MAI like it that way!”