WINONA LAKE, Ind. – Every year at this time, Grace’s ever-present Director of Athletics Chad Briscoe makes a pilgrimage to Virginia.
Briscoe, in his role as Grace’s energetic, enthusiastic AD, rarely departs from the tried and true red and black colors in his daily attire. But for this trip, he trades out his red Lancer hat for a blue and red-logo cap and spends a week running a men’s slow-pitch softball tournament in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley.
The reason why? Well that is a story 40 years in the making.
Bridging Two Continents
Forty years ago this weekend, a small softball tournament was started in Johnson City, Tenn. The Interstate Church of God Softball Tournament got its start in 1978. What it has turned into today would be beyond belief back in the tournament’s early years.
The Interstate Tournament is the brainchild of the Briscoe and Kurrle families. Twila Briscoe and Tabita Kurrle met as students at Anderson University in 1962. The two ladies became fast friends, starting a relationship that has impacted thousands of people across two continents.
The Kurrle family serves as missionaries to Paraguay. The Briscoe family, Twila and her husband Charlie, and young children Chad and Brooke, decided to support the Kurrles with a softball tournament.
The tournament had humble roots in that first year. Six teams competed and helped raise funds for the mission work in Paraguay, but that number nearly doubled the next year with 10.
With Charlie’s vision and leadership as Tournament Director, the Interstate Tournament grew into a unique, annual event that needed a larger venue. The Roanoke Valley in Virginia became the new site and remains the host now.
Becoming A Family Affair
When Charlie Briscoe retired from ministry in 2002, he passed on the tournament leadership to Chad and Brooke. Chad has then been the Tournament Director since 2002.
Chad has helped the tournament blossom in recent years, climaxing both in terms of team participants and in funds given to Paraguay.
To fully grasp the demands of running the Interstate Tournament, one needs to look at the numbers. This year, 64 teams will play in the weekend tournament on multiple fields, the second-highest number of teams in tournament history. Thirteen states are represented in 2018, stretching all along the East Coast from Florida to New York, branching into the Midwest across Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.
The worship service, perhaps the signature moment of the entire weekend, averages between 1,500-2,000 attendees. Nearly 1,000 softballs — 976 by Chad’s estimation — will be used over the weekend.
Chad directs the entire operation, from securing facilities to directing the tech requirements, hiring umpires, overseeing the worship service, creating logos and promotional materials, updating the website and Facebook page and fielding calls practically year-round.
Building A Legacy
But numbers alone do not tell the full story. The greater impact can be seen with a closer look at the worship service.
Chad calls the service the “highlight of the weekend,” and it’s easy to see why. At the service, Chad explains why the Interstate Tournament has the tagline “Softball for a Reason.”
The Kurrle family and other missionaries in Paraguay rely on the funds raised from the softball tournament. Throughout the years, the money from the Interstate Tournament has directly funded crucial ministry venues in Paraguay, including building a new school, church buildings and a radio station among others.
Technology has made the tournament’s mission even more impactful. While in the early years of the tournament, Charlie and Twila would only have a hand-written letter from the Kurrles to read to the participating teams, the worship services now feature videos and images directly from Paraguay.
Bill Bryant was instrumental in spearheading the work with the softball video, implementing it in the early 2000s and continuing until his death in 2015. His emphasis on video in the worship service has helped the softball players and their families see the real impact from their dollars.
The donations have increased as a result. Over the past five years, between $20,000-30,000 is raised annually at the worship service for mission work in Paraguay.
“The thing is, in a third-world country like Paraguay, anything that we raise is basically doubled,” Chad said. “The money goes so much further down there; it really goes a long ways and has the potential to impact a lot of lives.”
Believing In The Mission
Raising money for the valuable mission work in Paraguay would be reason enough for Chad to run the tournament. But the tournament’s mission doesn’t just impact a South American country.
Every year during the worship service, dozens of lives are committed to following Jesus. It has become a life-changing pilgrimage for hundreds of softball players, umpires and families over the years.
The tournament has become a bit of a “spiritual journey” in Chad’s words for many people. “This isn’t just a softball tournament any more. There are a lot of people who have come and found the Lord, found community and even redemption because of what they’ve seen and heard at the tournament.”
There are stories told of people who have come for 30-plus years to the tournament. People who have found their soulmates. People who have been so impacted by the softball tournament that they name their children after parts of the experience — Roane and Oakley, for example.
For Chad, emotions were easy to hear in his voice as he talked about seeing men, women and children come to a decision on their faith at the worship service. Or when he gets to stand back and watch “a little bit of heaven” with grown men from different states hugging as lifelong friends, connected by the tournament.
“Some of my closest friends in this world I only see once a year. We keep in touch throughout the year, but I only get to see them once at this tournament. For me, to see that type of rich fellowship helps show that what’s being done is truly drawing people to Christ,” Chad said.
Batting For Eternity
This weekend’s tournament will have an even more focused and celebratory tone as the 40th edition of the Interstate Tournament. A book written by Grace alum and longtime tournament attendee Stephen Copeland will have a soft launch during the chapel service. The book, titled “Where the Colors Blend,” captures many of the stories about the people and experiences that have shaped the tournament over the past 40 years, including the author’s own life-changing journey.
“There’s a greater purpose of peoples’ faith journeys as well as God’s grace and restoration with this tournament,” Chad said. “Softball is just the vehicle. We do this tournament to raise money for Paraguay and to see lives changed for Christ. Our family is happy to serve and do this as long as this platform of softball exists.”
Chad was honest in pointing out the bad timing of the tournament every year — typically a week or two into the school year at Grace. But the support of Grace’s president Dr. Bill Katip has enabled and even encouraged Chad to leave his AD post for a week.
The week is far from a vacation for Chad. When he walks off the field after the final game at 1 a.m. on Monday morning, he will be “bone-tired.” But the fatigue-riddled bones are paid off well with a faith-filled weekend.
“I come back tired but also spiritually renewed,” Chad said. “You’ve spent every ounce of energy, but still your cup runs over with life because you’ve had an encounter with the Lord through this sweet fellowship.”