In Hawaii, a Ministry for Uncalm Waters

New York Times/June 1, 2005
By Tanya Bricking Leach

Honolulu, USA -- Just after dawn on a recent Saturday at Waikiki Beach, when the crowd for a surfing meet was already growing with early risers, Derrick Ontai walked along the beach and scanned the sparkling blue horizon for a southern swell for the morning's competition.

Surfboards were lined up in advance of the Lokomaika'i Surf Contest at Waikiki Beach.

His own board was not waxed and ready for the next heat. Mr. Ontai, 19, was more concerned with making sure that next to the judges' booth, a prayer tent was set up. There, not only could he pray for waves, but he could also pray for other surfers to find Jesus.

Mr. Ontai, who says he found spirituality in surfing when he was close to suicide a few years ago, is part of a surge of Christian surfers who are going to the world's poorest and "gnarliest" surf spots to spread their missionary message.

"Sometimes we go and feed people under the bridges," Mr. Ontai said. "Sometimes we hang out and have a good time."

Mr. Ontai and about 25 other young surfers, members of a ministry group based in Hawaii known as Surfing the Nations, live in a compound-like setting in a former kimchi factory in Kalihi, one of Honolulu's poorest immigrant neighborhoods. Worn surfboards hang from the rafters in the rec room, where the group's members skateboard, play Ping-Pong and chat about missions to less-developed Asian nations.

"What we're doing is redefining the role of surfers," said Tom Bauer, the 55-year-old director of Surfing the Nations, which takes groups of volunteers around the world, at their own expense, carrying Bibles and surfboards. "We're like a Peace Corps, but it's surfers."

The competition - the Lokomaika'i, or good will, Surf Contest - was co-sponsored by the Hawaiian Islands' Surf Ministries and Christian Surfers Hawaii, and was intended to raise money for a mission to Sri Lanka. At the start of the meet, a native Hawaiian kahu, or preacher, clad in a tropical print sarong and a kukui-nut lei, held a Bible in one hand and a microphone in the other as tanned and toned surfers gathered around him in prayer.

He blessed the ocean and the contest, and told the athletes that while most of them were there to win a prize, the real prize was finding God.

"The world is getting gnarlier and gnarlier," said a spectator, Neil Tsutsui, 38, who is part of a surfers' Bible study group on the North Shore of Oahu. "You get drawn into God with surfing. Surfing is a selfish sport: my wave, my ride. But this teaches selflessness."

Joey Akaka, 50, who founded the sporting group Christian Surfers Hawaii, is also executive director of the Hawaiian Islands' Surf Ministries, which seeks to make religion relevant to those who rarely step foot in church. Mr. Akaka is thrilled to see surfers looking beyond their next wave. Membership in the international Christian Surfers organization numbered about 450 four years ago, he said; today, it is four times that.

Mr. Akaka, who grew up surfing around the island, said he always ran into surfers who called the ocean their "church," saying that is where they found spirituality. But the effort to bring those surfers to organized churches did not start gaining momentum until a few years ago, he said. Now Mr. Akaka is among those leading a national conference of Christian surfers planned for July at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort.

Tammy Moniz, 40, a surf coach in Honolulu whose husband, Tony, a former professional surfer, started a clothing line, the Faith Riding Company, a decade ago, said that Christian marketing in surfing had swelled because young people had responded to it.

There is so much interest that entrepreneurs have created religious surf merchandise, including T-shirts, calendars and bumper stickers. The American Bible Society even offers a "Surfers Bible," which includes testimonies from professional surfers who consider themselves Christians.

Critics accuse the surf ministry movement of weakening Christianity to manipulate young people into joining, said David Morgan, a professor of humanities and art history at Valparaiso University in Indiana who has written about the visual culture of American religions.

"Evangelicals are very good at subcultures," Professor Morgan said. "It's niche marketing."

To Jimmy Yamada, an electrical contractor in Honolulu, the message comes across just fine. He got hooked on surf ministry after his son Daven, now 23, admitted to wrecking the family's car a few years ago because he was under the influence of marijuana. Mr. Yamada saw how getting involved in the surf ministry and going on a mission to Bali turned him around. The elder Mr. Yamada is now on Surfing the Nations' board of directors.

"I met them and I knew them and I knew what they were doing," Mr. Yamada said. "I don't know what would have happened to my son without them."

Daven Yamada is still spreading the word about being changed by his experience.

"I don't think I, like, found God on the water," he said. "It was more like a vehicle for God to use for me to meet a lot of good people."

Surfing the Nations, which grew out of Grace Bible Church in 1997, has grown into a group with hundreds of international volunteers who take part in four outreach missions a year. Its next trip is scheduled for next week, when Mr. Bauer and his team are to return to Arugam Bay, a fishing village that is said to be home to Sri Lanka's best surfing. The village and surrounding area was devastated by last December's tsunami; surf missionaries had visited before the tsunami, then went back in March to reconnect with people whose homes and incomes had been wiped out.

They brought tsunami victims golf carts to start a taxi service, refrigerators for small restaurants and sewing machines.

Surfing the Nations plans to spend $385,000 in Arugam Bay to build a surf center that will provide recreation, jobs and medical care for the village.

Stefan Eriksson, 27, a Honolulu surfer who visited Sri Lanka before and after the tsunami, called the destruction mind-boggling. He saw his friend, a Sri Lankan surfer, Ratnasighem Johnson, 24, become afraid of the ocean after his home was reduced to a pile of bricks.

Recalling how he and other missionaries went swimming or surfing to cool off after working in the village, Mr. Eriksson said of his friend that "the first few days when we'd go swimming, he wouldn't go out. Eventually, Johnson came out with a board. Just him being stoked got the rest of us all stoked."

Mr. Johnson's family still lives in a tent, but he has a job managing cabanas. When the missionaries return, they hope to help the family relocate.

The trips have been more about forming relationships than about surfing or converting people to Christianity, said Kristin Flynn, 23, who has lived at the Surfing the Nations compound for a year. When she first moved there, she said, her parents wondered if she would have the job security they thought her college degree would bring. But she convinced them that living with a bunch of surfers was leading to something bigger.

Back in Hackettstown, N.J., her mother, Judy Flynn, a nurse, is both proud and concerned about a daughter adventurous enough to travel the world to follow a calling.

"Do I worry? Of course I worry, as a mother," Mrs. Flynn said. "But I don't think they're a cult. I think they're a solid group of people trying to minister, and they use surfing as an in. They don't just go in places and say, 'You have to believe in Jesus.' They nurture the whole body."

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