Saturday, September 9, 2006
Once a week, a skateboarders' oasis appears in rural Southern Maryland. There are grind rails and a quarterpipe ramp, stretches of asphalt and loud music. There is also talk of God and no shortage of crucifixes.
Saving souls sometimes calls for extreme measures, and to reach local teenagers, the congregation at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Lusby turned to extreme sports.
The ministry began last year when the youth pastor, Dave Showalter, heard neighborhood teenagers complaining that they were being chased off properties and hit with trespassing notices and fines. He went to the church board and persuaded the members to buy a few grind rails -- metal rails skateboarders jump onto to perform tricks with precarious balance.
Early Christians had also been persecuted, he said, and Jesus was in His own way, a cultural rebel.
In their attempt, however, to enter a culture long stereotyped as countercultural, anti-establishment and breaking the rules, church members formed the skate ministry the only way they knew how: with a volunteer committee, attendance rolls and permission slips (which ask for everything from insurance numbers to food allergies).
But the teenagers came anyway.
"They're nice people, I mean, it's a chill place to skate and not get in trouble," said Steve Wood, 19, a longtime skateboarder from Lusby. "I don't necessarily agree with the whole religion thing, but my attitude is, you know, whatever gets you through the day."
Showalter is quick to acknowledge that he doesn't know the first thing about skateboarding. He tries to relate to the kids, however, in appearance -- wearing a crucifix stud in his left ear, a gold chain with a cross and a loud T-shirt that says, "Xtreme Faith." He plays "edgy" Christian music while the teenagers take turns speeding up the ramp and into gravity-defying tricks.
Many of the boys said they are not regular churchgoers. The price of admission to this makeshift skate park is a five-minute sermon during a water break.
It is a job Showalter both loves and fears. "It can be intimidating talking to these guys," he said. "You see a couple eyes rolling, and you feel kind of goofy talking about love and salvation, but telling them the truth is so much more important than seeming cool."
Attendance ranges from a dozen to 40 on a good night. On a recent evening, there were about two dozen, jumping, flipping, grinding and sometimes crashing around the parking lot.
After an hour of skateboarding, Showalter turned off the music and gathered the teenagers around two giant water coolers.