Wheels whir as the small, crouched boy speeds his skateboard up the slope of the plywood ramp, latches the trucks onto the wooden lip, then, with a grinding swoop, sails down until the board meets the grainy asphalt and screeches to a halt. Loud, flat music interrupted by static from the shoddy sound system permeates the parking lot of the small Bonita Valley Baptist Church. Across the lot, another shaggy-haired boy with muttonchops leaps up onto a crate-like box and slides his board jarringly across the edge while the afternoon sun beats down.
The blare from the speakers abruptly ceases, and the sweaty skater crew seems to lose their rhythm; a few boards roll aimlessly away toward the sanctuary doors at the front of the church. A stocky man with a pleasant face and an easy gait claps his hands and calls the skaters over. As they congregate in the dip of the center ramp, decks on laps, Pastor Mark Strouse stands over them.
"Romans 6:23, the Bible says that the wages of sin is death," he intones. "Now, maybe you've heard of hell and think it's a place where all your friends are gonna be hanging out and partying, but it's not gonna be like that at all."
The shepherd isn't mincing words with the flock today, and judging by the squirming and fingers drumming boards, he knows he has to get straight to his point.
As skaters are being kicked off public streets, churches are erecting makeshift skate parks where sermons are force-fed in exchange for a free skate. From Lubbock, Texas, to Jacksonville, Fla., to the 11,000-square-foot indoor behemoth in Oregon, skate ministries are gaining a foothold in the fight for youthful souls.
This church-parking-lot-turned-skate-haven in Bonita is Eternity Skate, an impromptu park the church sets up about once a month to draw in "unsaved" skaters. It's skating served with scripture. The gritty, anti-authoritarian culture that once characterized skateboarding has, over time, deteriorated and melted into the mainstream, becoming a target for evangelists eager to proselytize to a new generation.
Pastor Mark tells the kids that eternal life in heaven, like the swag he raffles off after the sermon, is a free gift for the taking, but they have to reach out and accept it. He offers salvation, prays with them, reminds them to keep their helmets fastened at all times and dispenses the freebies: a few T-shirts from a local Christian skate shop and a deck signed by Wuv Bernardo of the San Diego Christian rock band P.O.D. (Payable on Death).
Though not a skater himself, Pastor Mark is genuine and amiable and has skater-speak down, prefacing most of his remarks with "check it out" or "dude." While the kids bust pop shove-its and 50-50 grinds, he chills under the blue tarp at the sign-in table, licks a Drumstick ice cream cone and makes small talk with the other staff. He's wearing jeans and a sideways baseball cap, not a suit and tie, but as un-preacher like as he appears, he's candid about his mission.
"The main reason we're doing the whole skate-park thing is 'cause we want to tell people about Jesus Christ," he says. "He's the only one who can save us from H-E-double-hockey sticks."
The idea was born about a year and a half ago when Pastor Mark was driving around thinking about ways to reach the people in the community who needed salvation. All at once, the answer became obvious.
"Driving around, you see skaters everywhere, but where are they skating?" he asked. "Probably in all of the illegal spots."
It's hard to not skate at an illegal spot. Many city ordinances pretty much disallow it on almost all public property. Loitering laws criminalize busting tricks in store parking lots, and grinding a curb can be considered vandalism. Even in the rare spots where one can skate without fear of citation, skaters know that most people find them at least a little annoying.
Pastor Mark felt the Lord urging him to start a skate ministry.
Replace the oversized tent with a portable skate park and ditch the Bible-thumping preachers and healers speaking in tongues for a demo team of bad-ass, Jesus-loving, born-again skaters from Glory Skateboards. Toss out the hymnals, bring on the Spanish hardcore band Precio de Sangre and let the skating crusade for Christ commence.
"The team came, set up their ramps, and it was a great event. The kids kept asking when we were going to do this again, but I'm thinking to myself, man, this is a one-time event," Pastor Mark says, eyes gleaming as he recalls the day.
When that first revival ended and the demo team went home, the numbers looked pretty good: About 80 kids showed up and 10 repented on the spot. The kids wanted more, and the pastor says he couldn't shake that nagging feeling that God wanted more, too.
There was just one snag: money.
Apparently, the bad-ass, Jesus-loving, born-again skaters from Glory Skateboards weren't doing demos or sharing their testimony for free, or even at a bargain price for a small church with a congregation of 150. The first event cost the church $2,000.
However, after a lot more prayer, a little research and a $15,000 donation from the church, Pastor Mark canned the demo teams and purchased his own launch ramps, roll-ins, boxes and rails instead. The equipment stays stored in two large sheds in the corner of the church parking lot.
With skate ministries, or skate evangelism, popping up at churches across the nation, Pastor Mark and his team got a lot of advice: Secure liability insurance, require waiver forms for minors and enforce a strict helmet rule. But the best piece of advice they got was to make the skating a chaser to the preaching.
"You can't wait until the end of the event to preach," church member Heather Lowther says. "If you do, everyone will just leave, so we do it in the middle when we raffle off the prizes, then everyone stays and skates some more."
Lowther describes the church as conservative and says the congregation is really branching out to reach skaters and prove that Christians "aren't just stuffy and stuck up."
Pastor Mark seems surprised by the support his congregation has lent to the ministry. He admits that even though they want these kids saved, he didn't think churchgoers wanted a bunch of skaters coming to their church parking lots. A lot of Christians are still uneasy about youth culture and consider skaters outcasts.
But the commercialized skater powers that be have pretty much changed all that.
Back in the 1970s, in the days of the Z-Boys, it was easy for outsiders to stereotype skaters as antisocial nonconformists, icons of an against-the-grain culture. Evangelists saw nothing worth saving in kids they thought would rather empty swimming pools, drop acid and listen to Slayer than kneel in a pew. The born-again crowd kept its distance.
But by the end of the 1990s, Tony Hawk had gone from punk-kid boarder to renowned business and family man, raking in big bucks from the Hawk clothing line, a trilogy of video games and a remote-controlled toy skateboarder in his image. The glory days of the Z-Boys and their contemporaries were over, replaced with the era of Boom Boom Huck Jam and ESPN's X Games.
Today, American Sports Data estimates that about 12.5 million skaters, mostly young and male, swarm the streets, outnumbering the great American pastime of baseball by at least 1 million participants. Truly, a new day has dawned when skateboarding is as American as Mom and apple pie.
This new clean-cut breed of skateboarders courted by marketers and taken seriously by media are suddenly an accessible audience for evangelists. They are out in force, venerating scripture in the vernacular of young America's new favorite sport. Pastor Mark even has a website for Eternity Skate. From the page titled "The Gospel":
"We're not just talking about an Ollie or a kick-flip.... We're talking about your life! God is calling all people-including skaters-to repent! Do a 180 and turn to God, it's truly radical."
Wait, there's more:
"Now you have to decide to drop in and trust that Jesus is there to support you. Accepting God is no more difficult than dropping in on a ramp. Would you like to drop in on faith and accept Jesus Christ as your savior and know for sure that you have eternal life with the God who loves you?"
While church members haven't been quick to volunteer to help with the arduous task of setting up and breaking down the equipment, Pastor Mark has found support from an unlikely source.
Joe, 26, who preferred to not give his last name, and his brother have been skating at every Eternity Skate event for the past five or six months. They show up and help set up the equipment and stay to break it all down when it's over. They're two of Pastor Mark's biggest supporters, but they're not in it for Jesus-they're in it for the skaters.
Joe and his brother aren't Christians and they don't go to church. He says he lamented for a moment that skating used to be "more punk rock," but he thinks Pastor Mark and his crew are doing a good thing for the kids.
"Pastor Mark's not even a skater, but he does all this for kids who don't even go to his church."
There aren't any skaters that are regulars at his church, Pastor Mark says, and most of the kids at Eternity Skate say they aren't into the whole "church scene." A few of them go to church somewhere, sometimes, if their parents drag them, but most of them only show up when the ramps are out.
Second only to saving skater souls, Pastor Mark's passion is to give them a safe, less-hardcore space to hone their craft.
"OK, I was checking out this skating magazine the other day," the pastor says, "and I open it up and it's all, F-this, F-that, full of swearing and alcohol. Man, there's nothing positive there. At Eternity, we don't allow swearing, and it's drug-free."
"At other skate parks, it's more about the money than it is about the skating," Joe said. "Here, the skating's free and the food's cheap."
Across town, a group of teenage boys dressed in tight jeans and band T-shirts slap each other on the back, whistle out and sling insults as Matt, a self-described 30-year-old "hardcore, old-school skater" wrecks a tail slide and hits the cement, legs straddling the metal rail in an excruciating painful-looking fashion. Getting no sympathy from the hecklers, Matt flips them the bird and shakes his shaved head to bring himself to before slowly getting to his feet.
The Len Moore Skate Park in Chula Vista is a 65,000-square-foot park where wood and concrete ramps, pipes and bowls sprawl across two acres. The closest municipal alternative to Eternity Skate, it costs members $25 a year, plus $4 each skate session. Non-members cough up $10 a session. Minivans make regular stops to release packs of adolescent boys for their session of dropping in and rail sliding. No sermon required.
"I'm pissed off at those Jesus weirdoes who are trying to trick kids into religion by putting a skate park up in a fucking church," Matt says. That, he says, "is bullshit."
Even some of the faithful seem to agree that the new Christian bid for relevance among the youth is disconcerting.
An Episcopal minister in El Cajon, who asked to remain nameless in this story because he didn't want to offend others in the faith community, calls the effort a "watering down of Christianity to make it more palatable," or, in other words, a type of public-relations campaign for Jesus.
More palatable or not, the edgier side of Christianity is definitely making it more marketable.
A group of 20-somethings with buzzed heads and dyed mo's, goatees and faces full of metal bob their heads to the bass-heavy rap pulsing in the background. Their decks line the front of the C28 store at the Westfield Parkway mall in El Cajon and they gaze at chunky belt buckles by NOtW (Not of This World) that have the Ts cleverly disguised as slanted, ornate crosses. On the other wall, spiked black-leather belts with oversized macabre skull buckles hang on display, warning, "Bad Company Corrupts." A prayer request board that hangs on the employee door implores-God willing, of course-that some insecure soul and a girl named Ashley stay "best friends forever."
On a busy Friday afternoon, sales associate Lucas hands a customer one of the "Get Saved" pamphlets he keeps under the counter with the Bible.
"I'm livin' for the Lord all the way, 100 percent," he tells her and then points to a shirt on display that reads, "Life's good, Heaven's better."
Lucas recollects growing up doing praise and worship from hymnals, belting out songs like "Amazing Graze" and "The Old Rugged Cross." He remembers earning gold stars for memorizing Bible verses each week and then denying it around the cool kids at school. Almost 20 now, he shows off his newest calf tattoo and chats with and says "God bless" to shoppers.
He says most of the Christian skaters he knows aren't trying to convert anyone; they're just into using their talent to give glory to God. They're not that interested in what anyone else thinks.
Leading the hip and well-dressed Christian revolution, stores like C28 (the abbreviated form of 1 Corinthians 2:8, which says that if anyone of this earthly world had known what was up, they wouldn't have crucified Jesus) provide the born-again youth with all the gear they need to look extreme without compromising their values. Christian cool cats aren't hiding their faith anymore; they're wearing it on their chests with logos like "I heart JC" on $60 hoodies. Lucas doesn't even do it for the paycheck.
"I don't work here for the money," he says. "I work here because it's a chance for me to spread the word."
Pastor Mark appreciates having an ally in the community. One of his biggest frustrations is not being able to spread the word about his skate ministry. Most businesses and schools that readily promote other community events won't let him hand out fliers or put up banners because they don't want to be affiliated with religion.
Eternity Skate has seen about 200 skaters hit the ramps since its debut two years ago, and Raysan Benito, Pastor Mark's intern, says that at least three people are "saved" at every event. But even when the publicity is enough to draw them out and the message is powerful enough to yield a conversion, what happens when the party's over?
Not too much, it seems.
"The most difficult part of my ministry is following up with these kids after the event itself is over," Pastor Mark says. "Fridays are when I teach the Bible, give them a solid foundation, and I only have one skater who got saved at an event who shows up for the study. What else can I offer them? I really don't know. I'm still trying to figure that out."