Carla Swensen-Haslam and teammates from the U20 Colombia Women’s National Team distribute Christmas toys to children in a rural area of Valle del Cauca, Colombia in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Carla Haslam)
How gospel love fueled a Latter-day Saint’s training stint with Colombia’s U20 National Soccer Team
Former BYU soccer player Carla Haslam revisits a memorable Christmas season in South America
By Carla Swensen-Haslam
29 Dec 2022
“Why don’t you take communion when we attend mass?”
“What is the difference between the Book of Mormon and the Bible?”
“Why don’t you drink coffee?”
These are a few of the many questions I received from my teammates while playing soccer in Cali, Colombia.
As a dual citizen of the United States and Colombia, I was given the opportunity to train with the U20 Colombian National team as they prepared for the upcoming 2016 Rio Olympics. Ultimately, I was not selected for the Olympic squad — but the experience changed the trajectory of my life in multiple ways.
For one, it encouraged me to get in touch with my Colombian heritage and ancestry. I learned that I came from strong men and women who found joy in their families and fulfillment in hard work. The experience also inspired me to attend law school and become educated on how public policy affects impoverished communities.
But perhaps the most meaningful blessing that came from my time with the Colombian team was the knowledge of one eternal truth: People will listen if they know that you love them.
In the scriptures we read the apostles left their worldly possessions and traveled by foot with the Savior from town to town (Luke 8:1). They ate together. They rested from their labors together. They ministered together. From walking the sands of the Judean desert, to enduring the raging tempest of the Sea of Galilee, they were rarely apart. And perhaps the love and adoration the apostles had for Christ came from spending so much time in His company.
Similarly, the love I shared with my teammates came from our togetherness. We lived together, ran fitness tests together and shivered in countless ice baths together. While their religious beliefs were different than my own, our friendship was grounded in love for one another.
Love is a powerful commodity. It is universally understood and transcends all cultures, nationalities, languages and worldly status. Perhaps love’s immense power comes from its divine nature – a characteristic of our Heavenly Parents who “so loved the world…” (John 3:16). And while fear or anger may motivate for a season, love is the only force that motivates for a lifetime.
Because I loved my teammates, I supported them in the Catholic worship that brought them hope, guidance, and joy. I accepted their invitations to attend weekly mass, prayed with them, listened to their testimonies, and participated in their nightly "novenas" (a devotional consisting of the recitation of a set prayer, frequently performed in the nine evenings leading up to Christmas Eve).
And because they loved me, they took interest in my beliefs as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It did not take long for my teammates to notice I was different, and they began to grow in their curiosity. There were many afternoons spent sitting on the cold tile floors of our hotel where I shared my favorite scriptures from the Book of Mormon and testimony of the Savior. We usually ended each religious discussion with a prayer and would take turns talking to God as His daughters.
My experience in Colombia was magnified by the Christmas season. If you’ve been to Colombia, you know Christmas there is magical. The streets are filled with music and the aroma of fresh food. The churches hold weekly choir programs and Christmas sermons, with life-size nativities on every street corner. These constant reminders of the Savior caused me to reflect on my own priorities and relationships. It was in our frequent conversations about the baby Jesus that our many differences seem to grow smaller and smaller. It was through Him that we became of one heart and one mind.
I learned that the Savior’s love was not dependent on minutes played, shots on goal or national team caps. It was not dependent upon religious differences or cultural beliefs. All He asks is that we love others as He loves us. He was the ultimate example of loving people as He taught them.
When we truly come to love others, their experiences and beliefs become meaningful to us. We actually start to listen – even when we disagree. Similarly, our friends and family are more likely to listen to us when they can feel of our love for them. It breaks down barriers and opens our hearts to connecting more deeply with our fellow brothers and sisters.
Carla Swensen-Haslam following a 2013 session training session in Cali, Colombia, with the U20 Colombia Women’s National Team. (Photo courtesy of Carla Haslam)
Carla Swensen-Haslam (3) controls the ball during a NCAA soccer game in Provo, Utah, between Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University. (Courtesy: BYU Photo)
A former BYU soccer player, Carla Swensen-Haslam is an attorney, a television sports broadcaster and Baby Lucia's proud mama.