Woody Woodfin realized the only way he could reach out and connect with middle and high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic was on public basketball courts in their neighborhoods.

New Nets Bring New Life


Standing at Ground Zero in New York City a month after 9/11, newly arrived Cru® High School staff member Woody Woodfin and his wife, Renee, stared in stunned silence at the twisted wreckage of the Twin Towers. They had watched the planes fly into the towers on television. But seeing the smoke and smelling death in the air, along with parking garages full of cars that never got to go home, they felt helpless and scared, Woody remembers.

The couple joined staff with Cru in 1996 to work with high school students in their hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Five years later, their leadership asked the Woodfins to go to New York City to help children and adults still reeling from the awful terrorist attacks. God would use their obedient response to launch a national ministry that now reaches thousands of kids, even after the 2020 pandemic locked everything down.

Intersecting two streets

Upon arrival in New York, Woody and Renee set up tables at Ground Zero and other areas of the city, offering prayer and encouragement to children and adults alike. They handed out “survival” kits with candy, trinkets or toys; a Bible; and encouraging Christian literature, such as Would You Like To Know God Personally?

“What are you guys doing?” a police officer said to the couple after they had set up a table in Jamaica in the Queens borough of New York. “You can’t have anything out here.”

“We’re just here to bless the kids, sir,” Woody told the officer. “With all that’s happened, the kids are scared. This kit, with toys, chocolate, and a Bible, will help them.”

“There are Bibles in those?” the officer said. “Anything that’s got the Bible in it, you can hand out. These kids need that.”

Renee and Woody pressed forward to establish relationships in other city neighborhoods. As he continued to get to know kids, Woody realized that they needed help not just recovering from 9/11, but also in their everyday circumstances.

“They need an advocate, a friend. If we get them early enough, we can change the trajectory of their lives,” he says. “We’d rather direct a kid than have to rebuild a man.”

“They need an advocate, a friend. If we get them early enough, we can change the trajectory of their lives. We’d rather direct a kid than have to rebuild a man.”

Woody Woodfin

He walked around neighborhoods trying to meet kids, but he realized the only way he could connect with them was on public basketball courts in their neighborhoods. As he played basketball with them every day, he had an idea. Since he couldn’t get into high schools to talk about Jesus, he would do it on the basketball court.

Woody had friends who worked on Wall Street and thought, Why not get one street to help the other?

In 2005, he asked them to sponsor a basketball tournament, calling it Street2Street. They agreed, and their giving enabled him to buy nice jerseys and trophies, new basketballs and new nets on rims at city-owned parks and playgrounds. The first tournament in Sunset Park, in the Brooklyn borough of New York, brought out 128 kids. When Willie Alfonso, chaplain for the New York Nets, spoke and asked them to invite Jesus into their lives, 25 kids stood up. Woody had never seen a response like that in his four years there. When he asked kids if they’d ever heard a message like that before, their response was, “No, I never heard anything like that before in my whole life.”

Elated by the tournament’s results, Woody tried to be faithful back in the job he’d been given, meeting kids on street corners, trying to get into high schools, but he couldn’t get Street2Street off his mind. Because there was so much interest in another tournament, Woody recruited more donors and volunteers and hosted two tournaments in different neighborhoods the next summer, with similar results.

Over the next few years, he and his team put on as many as 25 tournaments per summer in several neighborhoods, sometimes two or three in the same weekend, with a few hundred kids at each event.

From the basketball court to church

Woody viewed these tournaments as bridges between the basketball court and the church. He recruited and trained youth pastors as partners. The events raised their visibility, giving the pastors a celebrity-like status in the neighborhood.

“I used to only have relationships with kids whose parents came to our church,” Woody remembers a pastor saying. “Now I walk down the street and see all these kids yelling ‘hey, pastor, hey, pastor!’ in the subway, at the pizza shop or at the corner deli.”

But having 65 kids suddenly dropped into their groups was overwhelming for these already overworked youth pastors. They loved reaching kids for Christ and appreciated their increased profile in their communities, but they didn’t have the capacity to go deeper with so many kids.

An expansive vision

If that weren’t enough, Woody also faced a major setback. He’d been promised a substantial financial gift for Street2Street and had assumed it would be given. Woody made plans and commitments accordingly, but it fell through at the last minute. Because he couldn’t “close the deal,” people questioned Woody’s leadership. Advisory board members left, taking their money and connections with them.

“It was a perfect storm of finances and leadership issues,” he says, wincing. “I thought we were gonna lose the whole shootin’ match.”

Because he was spending so much time and energy on Street2Street, in 2009, Woody transferred from Cru’s high school ministry to their sports ministry, Athletes in Action®. He also served as a chaplain for local baseball teams and assisted with other events. As a sports guy, Woody loved it all, but his heart always gravitated back to the neighborhood kids and his basketball ministry. With so much on his plate, he couldn’t do it all well, so, in July 2015, Woody left Cru staff to focus on overseeing Street2Street full time.

Woody and his team set out to reach 20 different urban communities all over the country and share Christ with 20,000 kids. God also expanded his vision to do more than hosting events. In the parable of the talents, Jesus teaches that those faithful in a few things will be entrusted with more. Woody felt God saying, I can’t give you more fruit or finances or opportunities till you’ve done what I’ve told you to do with what you’ve been given. Kids weren’t connecting with churches and growing spiritually like he’d hoped. Many of them were struggling academically, so in addition to focusing on sports and faith, Street2Street added academics.

They hired a part-time academic advisor also employed by the school system. The academic advisor asks kids if they’ve ever seen their report card. Many kids never have, so he prints it out for them to help track their performance. He also asks about their home life and what they’re dealing with.

“They’re not what you and I dealt with in high school,” Woody says. “These kids struggle with survival, not just studying.”

Street2Street also exposes the kids to professional sports chaplains and successful business people. “They look like these kids, they grew up like these kids, and they’ve become successful, hopefully, like these kids are gonna become,” says Woody. “We’re trying to give them a better vision of what their life can look like. They come to our program, play in a great gym, with great jerseys, academic support and great people around them, and they say, ‘Man, I can do that, too!’”

One eight-grader saw a Wall Street businessman coming in to coach, and thought, I want to do that. I want to be that guy. Recently, that young man graduated from business school and is already investing in real estate. He caught a vision from the program that he never would have had otherwise.

A pivot in the game

By January of 2020, Street2Street had done multiple annual events in all five boroughs of New York City; in Paterson and Newark, New Jersey; in Tennessee; Washington, D.C.; West Palm Beach, Florida; and on Native American reservations. Then COVID-19 arrived, and everything shut down.

After seeing his daughter doing physical training with clients on Zoom, Woody set up a Zoom account, trained his staff and moved Street2Street online. All through the spring, they provided online academic help, chapel and even physical workouts.

Discovering that after Street2Street’s activities, all the kids were staying online to play networked video games, Woody wanted in. His staff members started playing video games with the kids and hosting virtual tournaments. When the pandemic hit, New York City closed down more than 100 neighborhood parks. “Kids want to stay in their own neighborhood,” Woody says, “so they’re gonna be looking for stuff to do, probably online. If they do, they’ll find us playing video games.”

As of the end of 2020, hundreds of kids are involved with Street2Street online. The ministry has accomplished its goal of reaching 20,000 kids, and their 20th “neighborhood” was virtual. “Because the post-COVID world is going to be scared,” Woody says, “we’re going to continue virtual events and activities.” They’re also establishing a Street2Street community center with athletic training, academic support and spiritual enrichment.

“It’s said that people are closest to God when they’re at play. I believe that,” Woody says. “I call myself the doctor of play. I love organizing sports for kids because it’s so fun to watch their faces light up. One young man got a brand-new jersey for the first time and said, ‘This is the nicest gift I’ve ever received.’”

Woody says he and Renee see that reaction often. And that spurs them on to keep going.

Reach out

How have you seen God reach young people in unexpected ways during the pandemic?

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Michael Chapman
Words by

Michael Chapman

Born in Colorado, Mike majored in acting/radio, TV and film at Kansas University. Since 1983, he’s served with the campus, Hollywood and military ministries of Cru® and now works at Cru’s World Headquarters at Lake Hart in Orlando, Florida. He and his wife, Michelle, have two children, Angel and Eric.

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Guy Gerrard
Photos and illustrations by

Guy Gerrard

Guy isn’t much of a city person. Paddling down the Wda river in northern Poland with participants of a Cru® summer mission project describes a great place for him to photograph. He likes being outside, doing anything with water, and he enjoys making things with his hands. Guy serves as a photographer for Cru.

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