Surfer Dudes Catch Some Gospel Along With Waves

The Jersey Shore chapter of Christian Surfers gathers for sun, surf and gospel at Ocean Grove, N.J., a Methodist beach enclave.
The Jersey Shore chapter of Christian Surfers gathers for sun, surf and gospel at Ocean Grove, N.J., a Methodist beach enclave. (Photos By Roberto Lovato)
By Michelle Garcia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2005

OCEAN GROVE, N.J. -- It's early morning, and the sun seems to hover atop a gentle roll of waves. A dozen or so long-haired, pierced-navel, broad-shouldered dudes with killer tans prepare to introduce some surfing newbies to a level of higher consciousness.

"Surfing is a spiritual pursuit," Steve Brooks said to the initiates. "Being in the water, you feel something bigger."

He's talking God, not sharks. These are the Christian Surfers, Jersey Shore chapter, as you might guess from the surfboard with the hand-painted words "Saved by Grace Through Faith" and the 10-foot-high wooden cross planted in the sand.

"Not to sound like a tree-hugging hippie, we're just lifting them up," said Keith Gallo, considered the most hard-core surfer of the group. "We want them to see Christians that are gnarly and hard-core."

The Christian Surfers are the major attraction -- after Christian singer Michael W. Smith, anyway -- at the Summer Surf Festival, a Christian-sponsored weekend blowout in Ocean Grove, a one-acre gated beach town founded more than 100 years ago as a summer destination for New York Methodists.

Under a white tent, wives, sisters and mothers dole out sunscreen and Bible scripture. There are pamphlets on the sign-up table with an exuberant surfer suspended over a wave. And there's a lot of talk of hanging ten and the Gospel of John.

In the past decade, religious life on the surf circuit has exploded into a full-blown Christian evangelical movement. The Christian Surfers network originated in Australia and washed ashore in California about 20 years ago. The group has published the Surfer's Bible and codified its beliefs in a credo titled "Surfer's Challenge," using culturally appropriate language.

"Mankind blew it big time a long time ago when we tried to play 'God' and made our own choices of right and wrong. Bad move for us as we weren't designed to play God."

Christian Surfers USA, a Florida-based group, has added 10 chapters in the past year and says it has reached 58,000 people in the past three years. New Jersey has two surfer ministries on a mission to take the Gospel to the dudes and babes on the beach.

Surfer culture, once defined by its counterculture edge and reputation for debauchery, has mellowed somewhat. But surfers young and old attest to the spiritualism inherent in the confrontation with wave and wind.

Chris Mauro, editor of Surfer Magazine, estimates that the number of U.S. surfers has quadrupled in the past decade from the 2 million adherents counted in the last unofficial surfer census.

"There's all kinds of surfers with causes," said Mauro, who voices skepticism about the impact Christian surfers have on the sport's overall culture. "They aren't permeating surf fashion; these kids are sponsored by the same companies that will run women in G-strings in their ads."


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