Every March, American students leave their university campuses and head off for spring break - a week-long recess that marks the unofficial end of winter. Some use this time selflessly - to build schools in Mexican slums or dig wells in Africa - and an even smaller number have the college library to themselves. But, for many, spring break is a tradition synonymous with drinking games, booty-shaking contests and reckless driving.
The origins of spring break have been traced back to 1936, when a swimming coach at Colgate University, Madison County, took his team for annual training in Fort Lauderdale. Two years later, the city was hosting a swim forum for more than 300 swimmers from colleges across America. Sensing the bacchanalia on offer, other students soon followed.
After the war, the town aggressively marketed itself as a student destination - soon becoming known as "Fort Liquordale". By 1960, when Where The Boys Are, a coming-of-age comedy about four midwestern college co-eds on spring break, was released, spring break was fast becoming as established a rite of passage as the high-school prom. This semi-official status means many parents, whatever their concerns, feel it would be unthinkable to ban their offspring from their Florida adventure.
Fort Lauderdale, meanwhile, has started actively discouraging spring breakers, and the festival has moved to Panama City Beach in the panhandle of Florida. Some 500,000 students, from mainly southern and midwestern colleges, arrive with heroic tales of 30-hour drives - and head straight to the beach. Here, the skies are azure, the sand is like icing sugar underfoot and the temperature rarely falls below the low 20s°C.
Panama City Beach itself has an air of faded gaudiness - with its tattoo parlours, waffle houses and cheap motels - despite the best efforts of the tourist authorities to rechristen it as the "Emerald Coast". Its beachfront is lined with high-rise concrete condos usually occupied by the retired. At spring break, many have the sense to leave town, as the quiet sands - home to nesting turtles later in the spring - are transformed into a crush of suntan lotion, sweat and stale beer.
Within 30 seconds of setting foot on the beach, I spot a drunken girl in the US army's recruitment tent attempting to stay astride a bucking bronco while drinking beer from a funnel. A chanting crowd takes turns to down "body shots" of tequila. Most of this drinking is illegal, since the federal drinking age is 21, but the police seem to have given up any attempt at enforcement.
If the police have turned a blind eye to this ritualised mild hedonism, America's young evangelicals have not. Since the mid-1990s, amid what they refer to as "Satan's playground", a group of Christians has been coming to Panama Beach to evangelise to their contemporaries. The inter-denominational Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC) - the biggest evangelical movement in America - holds a bible camp in a beach-front hotel complex with a clear view of the debauchery a few metres away. It is joined by an even more devout Christian "mission experience", BeachReach, which offers free minibus rides and pancake breakfasts to the spring breakers. By doing this, its members hope, they will be able to detain the students long enough to talk about sin and salvation.
Although America is religious by European standards - seven out of 10 Americans are absolutely certain of God's existence, according to the US Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum. Evangelicals form almost half of the protestant population in the US - 26.3 per cent of all adults are members of an evangelical church.
The rules observed by the evangelical students in Panama City Beach are an almost perfect inversion of the average undergraduate lifestyle: drinking is prohibited, students are not allowed to visit the opposite sex in their rooms and women (though not men) are asked to "honour their brothers in Christ by dressing modestly".
As they gather around the hotel pool at the start of the week, the Christian students seem palpably excited about the challenges ahead: if they can evangelise here, they can evangelise anywhere. During the opening session of the CCC week, a pastor asks for volunteers to be part of a "commando crew" with "spiritual AK-47s" who will take part in "special ops" - which means approaching strangers in nightclub queues armed with bibles. A thicket of hands goes up.
Dave Michels, an avuncular organiser for CCC in his fifties, has been attending spring break for a decade. He knows that the students can be hard targets: "There are levels of inebriation where you think that this is getting nowhere because they can't carry on a conversation," he says. "But I can count on one hand the number of negative conversations I've had. We tabulated our contacts and saw that one in six who we interacted with said ‘we want to accept Jesus Christ'."
Though it might seem an impossible task to speak to extremely drunk students about the divine, it appears that some combination of free time and throbbing hangovers can make spring breakers receptive to the consolations of religion: "If someone gets here on Saturday and they are drinking constantly, by Wednesday or Thursday there is something inside them that says: ‘There's got to be more to life than getting drunk all week long.'"
At 10am the next day the queue for beachreach's pancakes is snaking round the block. Holly Hatchett, a Christian cheerleading coach from Lynchburg, Tennessee, is pouring coffee for those battered by the night before. This is her first spring break. "It's been a real eye-opener for me because I'm really sheltered. It's made me sad, honestly. If you look into their eyes, they are not happy. I see some of the girls and I just want to grab them and say, ‘listen, don't drink any more. There are so many mistakes that are going to be made.'"
Hatchett is wearing a yellow ribbon for the safe return of the troops - her boyfriend is in Iraq ("I'm not worried about him. He's got so many people praying for him") and round her neck is a cross, a Jesus fish and a heart inscribed with "True love waits" to mark her pledge to protect her virginity. "I live in the Bible belt. Everybody goes to church but a lot of people aren't as devout as me. I got saved when I was five at vacation bible school. I comprehended then that Jesus had died on a cross for me." Hatchett, though sincere in her faith, is far from a pulpit-thumping fundamentalist. She radiates laid-back Southern sunshine and does her most successful evangelising by initiating conversations with men about football, "which I watch like a guy".
But are the spring breakers really as receptive to the evangelicals as Michels suggests? Kristen Gyorgak, from Bowling Green State University, is discussing last night's antics with her friends. I ask whether they have been bothered by the beach-side evangelism: "Some of them are beating you over the head with it. They say: ‘Jesus loves you - he'll forgive you for what you've done this week.' But it's worse on our campus. There's one guy who shouts ‘repent, repent', and I say: ‘I'm just going to class.'" Indeed, American students, acclimatised to the strong religious presence on their campuses, are far less surprised than their European equivalents would be when fellow students approach them bible in hand.
Brittany Alack is a ‘new creation' - a convert to Christianity who previously lived the spring-break experience
Brittany Alack, from Tennessee Tech University, is wiping tables. She is what evangelicals call a "new creation" - a convert to Christianity who in previous years lived the full secular spring break experience. Alack has found a God "that is loving but also wrathful" through the highly organised regime of bible reading and "discipleship" - one-to-one mentoring - on campus. "It's not easy for me to do this because I know what they are thinking because I remember what happened to me last year. I couldn't do it without God," she says. "I was trying to make guys happy or to make friends happy through drinking, partying. But it wasn't fulfilling. I was trying to get away from this little good girl, goody-two-shoes image but it was the least fulfilling thing I had ever done in my life."
In the evening, Panama Beach's streets are jammed with traffic. Finding a taxi is nearly impossible. The Christians' free mini-bus service, which any student can order, proves as popular as the pancakes. It is organised with military precision: BeachReach has even invented an iPhone app to track its minibuses using Google maps. Inside the buses, the atmosphere is calm. The evangelisers, instead of talking to their passengers about God, are more concerned that they can remember which condo they are staying in. "When they're drunk, they really don't really want an in-depth conversation," says the van's security man with a hint of sadness. The passengers we pick up from outside Pineapple Willy's bar are polite - and Jewish - so any attempts at evangelism are drawn to a swift halt.
While the rest of the BeachReach crew are out in their minibuses, a group stays back in the prayer room to keep vigil. Here, as soothing new-age chords are played and candles burn, students stretch out on the floor like starfishes and call out random lines of prayer in sequence. The names of the students who have been picked up in the vans - sent by their cohorts via text message - scroll down a video screen at the front so that they can be prayed for in real time. BeachReach claims that its prayers were once answered in spectacular fashion: a call to close the bars was followed by a power cut in a large area of Panama City - forcing drinkers home early.
At the end of the spring-break season, Michels tells me that CCC attracted a record 3,000 students to proselytise. According to its own statistics, it initiated spiritual conversations with more than 25,000 people: one in five of the people it approached wanted to talk about God. And their spiritual catch was bountiful: 1,673 students agreed to "Trust Jesus" and become evangelical Christians on the beach. "Spring break was wilder than ever because of the number of people that were there," Michels says. "But many of the spring breakers on the beach thanked our students for having initiated a spiritual conversation. Our students had gone there expecting people to be mad at them - and they found just the opposite."
Angel Ellis, the organiser of the pancakes and van rides, is more conservative. The team served breakfast to 13,600, picked up 11,000 in its vans, but Ellis reckons that just 27 made a decision to follow Christ. The Christians also glimpsed the dark side of spring break: this year, two students died falling from their fifth-floor balconies. And Ellis's volunteers ended up ministering to the friends of a student who had been raped: "We are a presence in the city of hope and light - and they do turn to us."
But whatever these performance indicators say, the spiritual stakes are so high for these students that, even if they had converted only one sinner, they would be back next year. As one told me over breakfast: "It doesn't matter how good a life you've lived. I can sit there and donate $1m to Haiti and work for years to rebuild it - and in God's eyes, according to Isaiah 64, that's ‘filthy rags'. It doesn't mean anything if God will say he never knew you."
Rob Blackhurst is a regular contributor to the FT Weekend Magazine. His last piece profiled some of London's smallest embassies. Read it at www.ft.com/embassies
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