They call themselves 777 Skateboards. Their goal is unorthodox: to take the gospel to the thousands of teenagers who spend most of their lives on skateboard ramps.
On this sun-drenched Southern California day, thousands of barely clad beachgoers stroll along the boardwalk, taking in the scene at fabled Venice Beach, southwest of Los Angeles. Kids munch snow cones, rollerblading teens glide past endless rows of palm trees, and a 19-year-old girl from Bakersfield, California, shows off her just-pierced eyebrow.
At one end of the promenade college coeds compete in a vigorous game of volleyball. At the other end several dozen tattooed behemoths line up to lift weights at world-famous "Muscle Beach." Disneyland cannot compete with this unrehearsed sideshow.
A tourist from Iowa gawks at a couple of lesbian bikers, a street magician swallows a sword, and a horn-playing Vietnam War veteran impersonates Louis Armstrong. Vendors hawk everything from T-shirts to tarot-card readings. One posts a sign that reads: "Spiritual Rebel Community: Come Out of the Closet--You Are God."
They're all part of a Saturday walk along the beach.
A song from the metal-music group Metallica reverberates along the shoreline, and a crowd lets out a loud cheer. A 14-year-old boy has just careened down a 35-foot-high ramp and masterfully twisted through a set of tricks on his skateboard.
The teen performed three "kickflips" (flipping the board with a sharp downward kick), "achieved large air" (getting as high above the ground as possible) and "ollied" (jumping into the air with the board still on your feet) over a smaller ramp. For anyone not hip to skateboarding lingo--usually those over age 18--these are terms for maneuvers performed atop a short piece of wood outfitted with wheels and commonly called a "skateboard."
The mounds of dirt and daredevil ramps have been set up at Venice Beach today for the inaugural run of Core Tour, an extreme-sports event. Professionals--and any amateur who dares--can sign up to compete.
"Not today," says 18-year-old Eric Gorgoglione. "I am not that crazy."
Gorgoglione, though not a pro, is probably good enough to take on the Core Tour's "Insane" ramp, and he certainly has mastered the kickflip, but he has come to Venice Beach today as part of a Christian outreach called Zoo World Ministries, also known as 777 Skateboards. Zoo Ministries has set up a booth less than 50 yards from the skateboarding spectacle.
"I am here to represent Jesus," Gorgoglione says. "I wear the 777 T-shirt and ride a 777 skateboard. People are used to seeing skulls and demons on skateboards, so they ask what 777 means, and I can tell them it means the opposite of 666."
Members of the Zoo--started three years ago by former amateur BMX ("bike motocross") national champion Steve Shippy--do not stand on the sidelines waving Bibles at skateboarders or try to introduce them to Jesus merely by inviting them to church youth groups. Shippy, Gorgoglione and the rest of the Zoo team have become part of the skateboarding subculture. They not only talk about Jesus with everyone who will listen, but they also manufacture 777 brand skateboards and a Zoo Clothing line as well as sponsor skateboard riders at mainstream events.
Not all of their sponsored skateboarders are believers, but Shippy's ministry team and core group of riders are. Sponsoring non-Christians is part of their ministry strategy, however.
"We show them that they do not have to have skulls and devils on their boards to have fun," Shippy says. "And we are there to support them when a lot of other people would give up on them."
Going to Extremes
Extreme sports--generally outdoor sports that involve a high degree of physical risk and include the more daring forms of in-line skating, skateboarding, snowboarding, sport cycling, motocross, surfing, skiing, street luge and others--have catapulted in popularity in recent years. USA Today reported in August that skateboarding was the second most popular participation sport in the country, behind in-line skating. Zoo Ministries is one of a growing number of Christian efforts to reach youth by using extreme sports.
Internationally, Youth With A Mission has an Australia-based skateboarding outreach and has arranged tours in North and South America. In Londonderry, in the United Kingdom, youth groups have put up ramps or hosted demonstrations.
Across the United States, churches from California--where skateboarding thrives--to Missouri to Virginia have built skate parks and opened them to the public. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes has for two summers now sponsored a sold-out skating camp at California Lutheran University. Assemblies of God pastor Ryan Delemeter of Ventura, California, hosts a biweekly Bible study attended by 200 at a community skate park.
"I want them to be godly people, to live lives of integrity, to know how to be a good friend, to keep their promises and to be honest," Delemeter told the Los Angeles Times. "It's just like normal church, but the kids...carry skateboards."
Last year, as a way to reach kids who were riding their boards around the church's property, First Assembly of God in Fenton, Missouri, built its own skate park with 20 ramps and a half pipe, modeling it after a groundbreaking skating facility, Central Church's Skate Church in Portland, Oregon.
"Everything is relational with these kids," explains senior pastor Jason Barta of First Assembly. "We did a poll asking what the kids wanted most. They wanted a skate park, so we raised $30,000 and built one."
Called Truth Skate Park, it is open to the public, and the church charges a $3 admission fee. While there is no overt preaching, there is ministry.
"It has given our church a very positive relationship with the community," Barta says. "It shows that we have a heart for the youth."
Twice a month, Bethlehem Baptist Church in Fairfax, Virginia, puts ramps up and turns its gymnasium into a skate park. More than 700 kids have used the facility. Youth pastor Josh Hackworth gives the skaters a short, hip sermon and offers Bibles, but most of the night is spent on the ramps.
"A lot of these kids consider this a place where they can go to be fed spiritually," Hackworth told the Washington Post.
Like the sport itself, ministry to skateboarders has mushroomed. Including 777 Skateboards, there are at least three Christian teams that tour the United States regularly. And there are at least two very visible born-again believers among the 300 professional skaters.
One is Jamie Thomas, 28, of Encinitas, California, who is widely recognized as one of the best street skaters in the world and has released three popular skating videos. He is known for his "Jesus on the Cross" maneuver in which he flies through the air with his hands stretched out to symbolize a crucifix--a move sometimes called "Christ Air" that was made famous in the 1980s by skater Christian Hosoi.
He also features crosses on skateboards sold under his name by Zero Skateboards and T-Shirts. Plans are under way for the products to be sold by Innes and distributed by Black Box, a company Thomas recently founded. Thomas attends a Calvary Chapel church in Southern California and has done demonstrations at churches.
What kind of impact does Thomas have for the gospel?
"Jamie Thomas is awesome," says 19-year-old skater Brandy Chappell of Ventura, California. "Yes, I have his shirts, and I wear them. I know he is a Christian and what his message is. There is room for everyone in skating."
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