Q&A with Lutheran author Ellie Roscher, who wrote Play Like a Girl about a girls soccer team and school in Kenya—and how sports, faith, feminism and global missions can work together.

I first met Ellie Roscher a few months after moving back to Minneapolis when two pastors heard about my sports-writing background and upcoming book project. The two people (on two different occasions) said the same thing: “You have to meet Ellie Roscher!”

Roscher, 38, is the author of two books, a mother of two, a speaker, a former college gymnast and currently the director of youth and story development at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Her first book, How Coffee Saved My Life, is based on a newsletter she wrote to family and friends while serving with ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission in Uruguay. It’s now among the must-read books for young people traveling abroad to serve God and share the gospel.

Roscher’s latest book, Play Like a Girl, tells the story of a girls soccer team in Kenya that spawned a school and fosters opportunities in education, athletics and the arts for young women in Kenya. It’s available at your bookstore or amazon.com.

I caught up with Ellie last week in the midst of an exciting World Cup as she prepared to share her book at Minnesota’s USA Cup, one of the world’s largest youth soccer tournaments.

Angela Denker: You were a college gymnast who was coaching gymnastics and softball and teaching religion at a private Christian high school when you first heard the story of the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy (KGSA). Why was this such an important story for you to tell?

Ellie Roscher: My professional life honestly felt pretty discontinuous until I heard the story of KGSA for the first time. It was this bizarrely serendipitous moment where I was teaching gender equity and the importance of educating girls to a bunch of really powerful girls in Minneapolis. Everything in my life came together in this story of these girls who were working in a place where they’d experienced extreme poverty.

I was a theologian and a raging feminist, and they were looking to share their story more widely.

I knew the data about the importance of educating girls and giving girls the chance to play sports, but this was a very specific story. I knew more people needed to know about it.

As a female athlete and as a coach of female athletes, I knew it because I had lived it. As soon as these girls beat the boys at soccer, they got it. They knew they deserved to play sports, to go to school; they knew their bodies deserved to be protected.

Denker: During the process of writing this book, you became the mom of two boys. How did you balance those various vocations, and how did becoming a mom affect your storytelling?

Roscher: While I was editing my book, I was pregnant and had a 2-year-old at home. I really don’t remember how I did it, but thinking about the girls in Kenya and their strength and audacity reminded me that what I was going through was not even comparable.

My second baby was 6 months old when the book came out. I realized I was supposed to raise men—men like Abdul (the founder of the Kibera girls soccer team)—who would use their privilege to support women, and this book is just such a cool way for me to be out in the world interacting with girls.

Denker: Many Lutherans today worry about the future of our church, and they point to things like youth sports as taking kids and families away from church. In your writing of this book and your work with young adults and young athletes at Bethlehem Lutheran, how do you see athletics and church working together in the lives of young people?

Roscher: The church isn’t dying, but it is looking different. It has less to do with four walls and one hour on a Sunday morning. I find that really exciting! The young people I work with desperately want their faith to be running through every aspect of their lives. They have to see Jesus everywhere or they’re walking.

I love to talk theology with athletes because they get it; they know you can experience faith through your body. We do simple things like different prayer postures and put our bodies in a different shape to pray.

Some kids experience God in the most pure way on a canoe. For some kids, it’s out on a baseball field. For some kids, it’s in worship. There’s no right answer, but I want to help them seek out those places where they find God—and give them more than one option.

Angela Denker
Angela Denker is an ELCA pastor and journalist. Her book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump, was published in August 2019 by Fortress Press.

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