Adopting love, abandoning labels


This summer, my roommate and I watched every United States World Cup match at a soccer pub called Courtyard Hooligans. You might have seen “fan reaction” videos from Hooligans floating around the Internet, as many of the clips found their way onto sites like USAToday.com and FoxSports.com.

If you watch the video, I think you’ll see how the atmosphere at Hooligans kept us coming back—hundreds of USA fans jam-packed around television screens, screaming, chanting, and singing all as one.

Now, going to Hooligans might not have been the most comfortable or convenient place to watch a game—that’s what your living room sofa is for. It was a half hour away (located in uptown Charlotte, NC), and we had to pay for parking and arrive at the pub 90 minutes early (the length of an entire soccer game) just to make sure we got in. Even then, there was a long line. By the end of the match, I’d be exhausted from yelling and drenched in sweat from baking in the hot, southern sun for multiple hours. Oddly, the heat never seemed to bother me during the game, nor did the fact I’d have 10 different people’s sweat on my skin by the final whistle. Hooligans was the only place on earth I wanted to be.

During the USA’s third game in Group play against Germany, we actually tried watching the game elsewhere—at a place that was much closer to our apartment and had air conditioning. But five minutes after sitting down, we were saying to one another, “It is isn’t the same, let’s go to Hooligans.”

Later that day, I remember standing in the middle of a sweaty crowd at Hooligans thinking to myself, “What is it that makes this place so special? Why do I keep coming back, game after game?”Perhaps the fact that it was the World Cup had something to do with it, but the truth is that I could have watched the exact same game on my couch at home. I knew being in a happening place like the heart of Charlotte had something to do with it, but there were plenty of other restaurants and bars around; and there was a reason people waited in line for hours to get into Hooligans specifically. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was the people that made it such a great experience.

We were all united—one nation, one team—under one flag, and our differences were set aside. There were no agendas but the desire to win. No labels but fans of the red, white and blue.

I started thinking about “labels” and how this idea applied to relationships and ministry. The atmosphere at Hooligans seemed to offer something I could learn from. At Hooligans, our labels (political parties, religions, denominations, job titles, sexual orientations, etc.) were set aside because, for once, we saw only our similarities.

Sports transcended our labels and unified us all under a common cause.

We were there to cheer on the Yanks. Nothing else. I couldn’t help but notice how refreshing this was.

I began to wonder if this unity could be replicated in everyday relationships and different avenues of ministry. The “religious,” I’ve found, are particularly bad at placing labels on people. Labels are comfortable, so I get it. But, like Hooligans, I’ve found that embracing our similarities go a lot further than pointing out our differences, which is what labels ultimately are.

These are a few similarities I continually return to:

1) I am flawed. I have my own struggles. So who am I to judge someone else

2) I am a work in progress. I do not have it all figured out. Each person I meet, whether they believe what I believe or not, offers something I can learn from.

3) I am loved by the Most High. The most valuable thing we can do in relationships is help people awaken to their own belovedness.

The last one isn’t about changing someone; it isn’t about a label-driven agenda.

Rather, it’s helping that person see what is already true of him or her, that he or she is uniquely designed, beautiful and loved by God.

Aren’t we all the same in both our fallenness and the truth at our very core, that we are loved?

Reading through Galatians the other day, I realized labels have always been an issue within the church. In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul calls out Peter for succumbing to the pressures of labeling and valuing the circumcised (Jews) over the uncircumcised (Gentiles), thus communicating to Gentiles they had to follow Jewish law in order to become a Christian. This, of course, is not the gospel, and you can almost see Paul’s nostrils flaring as he calls out Peter.

Paul revisits the gospel as he closes the chapter—that Christ died for all, Jew or Gentile, and that we are all his beloved sons and daughters. “And the life I now live in the flesh,” Paul says, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Love, perhaps, is what breaks down labels—once and for all.

By Stephen Copeland

A version of this article was published in Sports Spectrum Magazine.