Moving Pieces

Born in one of the most impoverished villages in the world, nine-year-old Phiona was forced to grapple with life in the slums of Uganda after her father died of AIDS. When Christian missionaries began investing in the children of her slum and taught them the game of chess, her life changed forever. In 2016, her story of hope, faith and courage was captured in the award-winning Disney movie Queen of Katwe.

Phiona can trace her story back five decades before she was born to Santa Barbara, California, as Russ Carr made a head-on tackle at football practice and his lip collided with a teammate’s cleat. As an eager high school athlete with a bloody lip, Carr never dreamed the impact he would make on teenagers all over the world, especially in the slums of Uganda. While cleaning his wound, Carr was approached by Jay Beaumont, a Young Life leader. Beaumont, a college student at Westmont, had been faithfully attending the Santa Barbara High School (SBHS) football practices and cheering on the players. Beaumont checked on Carr and then asked the famous question, “Have you heard of Young Life?” This encounter led to a lifelong friendship and the beginning of SBHS’s Young Life club.

In 1951, Carr met Jesus at a Young Life winter camp in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California. He was captivated as Young Life’s founder, Jim Rayburn, spoke about Jesus in a way Carr had never heard before. Rayburn spoke passionately to the group of 300 teenagers and then invited those ready to begin a relationship with Jesus to come forward. With tears in his eyes, this tough high school athlete got out of his chair in the back row of the crowded auditorium and embraced Jesus.

Carpinteria to Kaiserslautern to Kampala

This decision became the foundation of his life and led Carr to eventually create international ministries to work with some of the world’s most broken and hurting kids. In his words, “This moment was a turning point; I was never the same. After camp and for several years, many Young Life leaders like Lynn Berntson, Jay Beaumont and Harry McDonald would disciple, encourage and challenge my wife and me. The investment of those dear friends would help shape the way we led others.”

Following high school, Carr and his wife, Sue, served as leaders in Santa Barbara and then started a new Young Life club at Carpinteria High School, comprised of students from mostly rural areas. They performed skits, led games and shared about Jesus with a group of young people rarely touched by the gospel.

After nine years of coaching, training and working with Young Life, the Lord provided a new teaching job that led Carr, Sue, their three children and 17 suitcases to Germany in 1964. After saying goodbye to all their friends and family, the Carrs struggled to adjust to life overseas; but Carr encouraged his family by saying, “Testing always seems to follow when you take a step of faith. We must continue to pray and trust that God will provide for us.” The family’s commitment to prayer was critical as God prepared them for difficult work in developing countries. Only weeks into their new life in Germany, God burdened the Carrs’ hearts for the students in their city and they started Young Life in Kaiserslautern. This club grew to become the largest in Europe.

Upon returning home to the States, Carr became a professor and soccer coach at Westmont College, where the athletic field is now named in his honor. In 1987 Carr’s Young Life roots, love for kids and passion for sports led him to create the Sports Outreach Institute (SOI) in Uganda. This organization would introduce hundreds of kids to Christ through athletics.

SOI began work in several slums in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, one of which was Katwe. At this time, Uganda was recovering from 20 years of civil war and dealing with the new horror of African warlord Joseph Kony who abducted children for his rebel army. It was a critical time for Carr and the SOI to move into the slums to spread hope and transform lives.

A New Game

Carr and his team began to hire and train slum leaders and coaches like Robert Katende to work with the children of Katwe. Katende understood the daily challenges these children faced as he also grew up an orphan in Kampala’s slums. He survived a childhood riddled with heartbreak and near-death experiences, but his background inspired his passion to radically love these kids and offer them something new.

In the midst of building his athletic programs, he noticed several children were uninterested in playing soccer. After much prayer, Katende suggested introducing these kids to chess — a radical thought as most could not read or write and had never heard of the game. Carr responded by saying, “If God is leading you to do it, you must try!” Soon Carr and others were providing chess sets for Katende and his newly formed chess team.

As the Katwe kids began to learn the game, Katende, against strong opposition, entered his students in local tournaments. To the bewilderment of the local chess clubs, the slum children began taking home trophies to their huts in Katwe. Some even performed and medaled in tournaments in other African countries! The Disney movie famously quotes one student who says, “Can you do big things from such small places?” Katende and his team of believers empowered these children to dream big and recognize their value as children of God.

Crown Her the Queen!

One of these children is Phiona who, alongside her mother, worked hard selling corn in the streets to support their family. SOI provided meals to the hungry children of Katwe and at the urging of her brother, Phiona finally came to receive food. She watched as other children played chess under Katende’s coaching and was mesmerized by the game. Katende persuaded her to learn and she not only quickly picked up all of the rules, but also began to brilliantly master the strategy. Eventually, Phiona would become the women’s chess champion of Uganda, the Queen of Katwe.

Phiona’s life changed when she encountered a Young Life alums’ team of coaches passionate about kids meeting Jesus. Her story would soon be captured in an ESPN Magazine article and a book. In 2016, Disney produced Queen of Katwe, and the world watched as one girl from the slums of Africa gave hope to her community.

Sixty-five years earlier, as Jay Beaumont sat on a bench connecting with Carr, who could have imagined what God was planning? Young Life leaders pour into teenagers every day without any idea of the ripples their lives may make in the Kingdom of God. Carr encourages all those on the front lines of ministry to “be courageous! Dance around any doubt and break through the façade of the ‘impossible.’ Remember, nothing is impossible for God.”