Onward Christian Surfers

Los Angeles Times
May 31, 2006
By Alex Tizon

HONOLULU – If Jesus were alive today, he would be a surfer. He would mingle with fishermen and beach bums and lay his mat on the sand among the scantily clad. Instead of walking on water, he would ride waves on a carved piece of fiberglass, keeping an eye out for anyone who needed saving. This is what Dean Sabate and his friends believe.

They are surfers for Jesus. Today they are on Waikiki Beach doing what they believe Jesus would be doing. While others might see a frolicking crowd, Sabate and his group see sprinkled among the masses a few lost souls who need tending.

“This is our ministry, being out here, being in the ocean, making friends,” says Sabate, 42. He is a former pro surfer, muscular and bronzed.

“We don’t go thumping people on the head with a Bible. We come out here, enjoy the water and talk to people,” he says. “We just allow God to work.”

Lost souls include the lonely, the poor, the hopeless and the worn out. These are plentiful in paradise, though they’re not always easy to spot. In Sabate’s experience, those who seem together may be the least together people on the beach. You can hide sadness behind a pair of shades. He knows. Just seven months ago, Sabate, once considered a surfer prodigy, was aimless and living in a park on the other side of Oahu. A pastor found him, befriended him and introduced him to a group of Christian surfers. Now Sabate leads a group of “surfer missionaries” doing their thing. There are about a dozen of them here on this postcard-perfect afternoon. The sun blazes down through blue skies. The surfers spread out like a platoon on patrol.

Waikiki is a haven for tourists but also draws its share of the homeless and wayward. Everyone is a potential convert. One of the surfers, Dave Strigl, 38, takes me out on the water. We paddle on boards around Mamala Bay. His ultimate goal, as with most missionaries, is to bring people into a relationship with Jesus. But the surfers don’t rush it. They’re willing to wait months, even years, for a conversion, a sort of incremental nudging into faith. On these outreach trips, they’re mostly interested in developing friendships. The surfers’ approach in one line: “Make friends first, God will do the rest.” On the water, there’s no talk of Jesus, but death comes up.

“See that sea turtle?” Strigl says, gesturing toward an approaching shell.

“I didn’t know sea turtles came this close to shore,” I say.

“It could mean sharks,” Strigl says, smiling. It is a nudge. Sharks could cause death and death leads to the afterlife. The afterlife is a natural segue into God. That talk would come later.

The surfer missionaries do beach things: sunbathe, stroll, swim, surf, staying alert to any likely encounter with a stranger. Inside the surfers’ van, in case anyone shows interest, is a box of Christian tracts. On some occasions, the surfers gather at the beach and pray, then hand out the tracts to people who approach.

On a grassy spot above the beach, Sabate chats with a surfer named Scott, who has stopped by. He is a friend from Sabate’s days on the pro circuit. Sabate was born and raised in Hawaii and seems to bump into friends at every beach. Scott is separated from his wife and doesn’t know what to do.

“Only God can heal a broken relationship,” Sabate tells him.

On-the-spot conversions generally don’t happen. A good day is when a single conversation leads to a single invitation to a Bible study. The main thing, according to the group’s philosophy, is to hang out with the needy like Jesus did. Jesus preferred the company of those on society’s lowest rung: prostitutes, tax collectors and fishermen. In some realms today, that rung would include surfers, often viewed as loafers and deadbeats or pleasure-seeking Bohemians who forsake everything for the perfect wave.

After three hours on the beach, the surfer missionaries regroup, pile into their van and head for the hills above Honolulu. The van chugs up a winding road into the heart of Kalihi Valley, a lush ravine of low-income houses and apartments. An upright surfboard by the side of the road marks the spot where the van turns onto a long dirt driveway. The driveway leads into a three-acre compound of ramshackle buildings with tin roofs. This is home base.

*

It used to be a kimchi factory. Since 1997, longtime missionaries Tom and Cindy Bauer have used the property as headquarters for their ministry called Surfing the Nations. Sabate and Strigl are leaders in the group. The ministry is part relief agency, missionary training camp and surfers’ crash pad. The group surfs in the early mornings, serves for most of the day, then surfs again in the late afternoons.

Service can include outreach, cleaning house for the disabled and holding surf workshops for young teens. In between the surfing and service, surfers study the Bible, attend missionary classes and maintain the compound. They spend two hours a day praying and meditating. About 25 people stay on the property in separate bunkhouses for men and women.

It is a revolving population. They range in age from teenagers to mid-lifers and come from all over the world and all Christian denominations. They stay for a few days or a few years, depending on their financial arrangement. Surfers raise their own support — frequently from home churches — to pay for travel and personal expenses such as cellphones and clothing.

Living is cheap. The property is owned by Grace Bible Church, where the Bauers have attended for years. Room and board are provided, and surfboards supplied. Surfboards lean against and cover entire walls and hang from the rafters. The room where workers once washed cabbage for the kimchi is now a community center with a ceiling made of surfboards. The walk-in freezer is a makeshift sound studio (for aspiring surfer musicians). The garage is an office, and above that is where the Bauers live — a modest, well-tended apartment furnished with donated and salvaged furniture.

Cindy Bauer manages the office and makes sure the place runs on a schedule. She is in her 50s, energetic and cheery. Tom Bauer, 56, is the head surfer dude, the spiritual leader of the community. They have four grown daughters, two still living at the compound. The concept of a surfer’s ministry came from Tom. A native Californian and surfer since childhood, Tom owns 70 surfboards.

“I didn’t choose to be a surfer. I was called to be a surfer,” says Tom, a silver-haired man who feels no compunction saying things like “Stoked!”

Unfortunately for him, he tried to merge his two loves — surfing and Jesus — in the early 1970s when some in the church establishment (he belonged to several churches in California) frowned on beach culture. He was told he’d have to choose one or the other, and for years he kept those two aspects of his life separate.

Some traditionalists viewed the beach — associated with flesh and drugs and beatnik rebellion — as “not a place where good Christian folk assemble,” says David Morgan, a humanities professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana. He says there will always be some traditionalists who disapprove of “any subculture that freely intermingles pleasure with religious practice.”

The irony is that the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus supposedly walked on water, was likely a place with a rich beach culture, Morgan says. “If you’re an itinerant preacher like Jesus of Nazareth, you’re going to go where the people are, and one of those places is the beach.”

The idea that Jesus today would keep company with surfers, Morgan says, “has some sociological support to it.”

The Bauers moved from California to Hawaii in 1979 as missionaries. They started the surfers ministry 18 years later. For them and the other surfers at the compound, surfing is a spiritual experience. Part of it is just being immersed in God’s creation, Sabate says. “And there are times when the waves are really big and you think you could die, and there’s no one to turn to but God.” About six times a year, the Bauers and their sun-tanned corps conduct missionary trips abroad — to places like Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea — to open surf clubs, run surfing contests and share their faith.

Niklas Ericksson, 34, has spent much of his life since 1999 at Surfing the Nations. He is from Sweden, where he works part of the year for a diaper company. The rest of the year he lives here.

Sometimes, he says, he can’t believe how good life can be as a surfer missionary. Yes, you are poor but you experience a deep inner peace. You serve God, and sometimes “you’re out there in the water with friends, you’re in this beautiful place, you’re doing what you love, and you think:

“This is awesome.”

*

Thursday is Feeding the Hungry day at the compound. Just as the sun rises above the hills, the surfers begin setting up tents and tables just off the gravel parking lot. In the community center, others pack boxes of food donated from a food bank. The boxes are passed along a human chain until they reach the tables.

The food line is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., but a few people start arriving about 9 a.m., hobbling up the long gravel driveway. Others come in borrowed cars and trucks. About 12% of Hawaii’s population suffers from food shortages, according to state agencies. Many of the needy live right here in Kalihi Valley, but people come from all over Oahu. They’ve heard about the food program by word of mouth at the beaches. After they line up, sign in and collect their food boxes, the people sit around the compound and visit with the surfers.

“These people are my friends,” says Jane Chu, 58, who has driven 45 minutes from Pearl City. “It’s not just ‘Come and get your box and go.’ They want to get to know you.”

Chu’s husband, disabled from a construction injury — “He fell 25 feet onto concrete and broke his back” — receives $2,400 a month in worker’s comp. Rent is $1,900. The boxes of canned food and fruit collected here will help feed an extended family.

In the parking lot, a young man with a black bandanna around his head and slightly menacing eyes directs the cars coming in and out. His name is Jeddy Basques, 19. He has 15 brothers and three sisters. His parents are in prison for drug-dealing. Basques is one of the many orphaned souls profoundly touched by the surfers. He comes to the compound several times a week for Bible study and prayer.

“Sometimes Tom [Bauer] takes me to the beach with my brothers,” he says.

The flow of cars continues until well past 3 p.m. By the end of the day a few hundred people will have come and gone. Basques helps the surfers put everything away, working side by side with Sabate. With the day’s work done, the surfers go their separate ways. Some take naps, some write letters home, some go to the mall.

Sabate makes a quick round of the premises to see if anyone wants to go to the beach. Strigl does. A few others say they’ll meet them at the regular spot on Waikiki. Sabate and Strigl throw surfboards in a van and hop in. Strigl starts the engine.

“Wait,” says Sabate.

Strigl glances at Sabate quizzically, and then remembers.

They both close their eyes and bow their heads.

“Lord, we thank you for this day,” Sabate says. “We pray that you may protect us out there in the water. We pray that whatever we do, we give you the glory. We pray that you may use our gifts and talents to serve you. Please use us. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”