THE BIG TONY HAWK IN THE SKY 

Skate Church: Converting the Wicked, One Skateboarder at a Time

Skate church is exactly what its name suggests. It's a Christian church. It's also one of the most popular places to skateboard in town--a two-part, covered facility located off 82nd and Glisan, right in the middle of Portland's church row. It's a warehouse and gymnasium; both are part of the Central Bible Church. In these two buildings, four days a week, literally hundreds of skaters from all over Portland come together and skate for two hours a night. But first, they're required to listen to the half-hour sermon given by the pastor. And it is also required (with the exception of Thursday nights) that they be under the age of 18.

The absolute rule at skate church is the one printed above; it's written in capital letters before any others on the rule sheet. And though most of the time there are hundreds of skaters flying off the walls, over railings and onto ramps, a few moments before the sermon begins, everyone becomes suddenly, and completely quiet.

JESUS WAS SICK, DUDE
"Dude," yells Gerald Griffin, the pastor of skate church, in a recent sermon given a few weeks before Christmas. "Dude, the punishment that Jesus suffered--that punishment was totally gnarly."

Gerald speaks with an easy eloquence, using words like "gnarly," "sick," and "dude," as naturally as "salvation" and "Christianity." The room is respectfully engaged as he pauses before gathering momentum. "The bottom line is this, man"

The skaters, who sit around him casually, balancing on their skateboards, sweat dripping from their foreheads down their sweatshirts, nod at the proper times, and speak up when Gerald asks.

"Like sheep, we all have gone astray. We mess things up, and Jesus--He actually says that if we sin against Him, He will punish us... He will. But the good thing is, dude, is that He's all-ready taken that punishment for us.

"Dude, and you can receive that gift, that gift that He's given us. It's the gift of a clear conscience."

For Gerald and the rest of the participants, it's completely normal for Christianity and skateboarding to go hand in hand, because he's been putting the two together for seven years. Skate church was started in 1986 by two friends, Paul Anderson and Clint Bidleman, when they came up from California to attend Multnomah Bible College (which is right next door to the Central Bible College, where skate church is held). The two were also sponsored skaters, a product of the early '80s skateboarding scene in Santa Cruz.

"These guys were just hanging out with skaters anyway," explains Gerald. "And so they took the opportunity to have bible study in their driveway. Anywhere these guys were, people would come out of the woodwork. Hundreds of people came, one night a week, until '95, when we actually built the warehouse."

By that time, Anderson and Bidleman were finished with Bible college, and skate church became legit.

Today, skate church is an impressive facility, and holds at least 200 skaters at a time. The warehouse is a maze of ladders and walkways, which snake up the wall and across the room to the main attraction--a large bowl occupying half the floor space, and a half-pipe. A couple hundred yards away, in the basement gymnasium, ten lines of skaters standing 10-15 people deep wait for their turn on one of the many jumps, rails, and ramps. As one skater explained it, "When it's rainy out, this is the only place to skate."

THE RAREST SKATER OF ALL
"It's funny," says Griffin, "Christianity really works in a sport like skateboarding."

Part of it, he explains, is due to the fact that skateboarding is so unorthodox--it's so much more about the individual than any team sports. But another primary reason that skate church functions so successfully is that there is literally no place to skate, which means kids will make whatever sacrifices necessary.

The most well known place to skate in Portland (and, arguably, Oregon) is under the Burnside Bridge, but, as one skater explained it, "There are a lot of really good skaters at Burnside who really tear it up. It's like you have to go 20 miles per hour just to start skating there."

For people who are just learning, or are not at the professional level, there's almost no place to go--especially during the rainy season. Religious or not, sitting through a half-hour talk about God is worth two hours of skating indoors.

And for all his dedication to Christ, Gerald doesn't have any illusions about why people go to skate church.

"There are three types of people who come here," he explains. "The first type--and this describes most of them--are the people who are like, 'Dude, hurry up, I want to skate.' The second type will pretend like they're into the talks and the message, but really they just want you to like them. The third type is the kind that genuinely like to skate and also genuinely like to know about God. They're the most rare."

THE GOOD SON
Matt Kendall is one such kid. At 19 years old, Matt is one of the most confident and friendly kids in the place. He also works on a volunteer basis, running the pee-wee skate on Saturday morning, for skaters under the age of 10. Yet he was definitely not always this responsible.

"I heard about skate church when I was a freshman in high school," he explains. "My friends told me about it, but when I first came, I didn't care at all about religion. I was here to skate."

But things changed quickly for Matt. Though he didn't know it, he came to skate church looking for something skating alone could not give him. For one, he didn't have a lot of love at home. This lead to other problems as well.

"Basically, I was a pretty troubled kid. I was a real potty mouth, I smoked cigarettes, I had relationships with girls. And I was really unhappy."

Matt remembers the exact moment it changed for him. "It was a night that Gerald gave a talk," he says. "It was about heaven and hell, what they would both be like, and all of a sudden, the whole message made sense to me."

Though Matt's success is particularly unique at skate church, his profile isn't. "I'd say that most kids who come through here are from single-parent families," says Gerald. "The first time they come here, it's with their buddies, and they drink, they smoke, they curse."

The reason troubled kids like Matt come to skate church, according to Gerald, is not so much because they want to find God, but because they want to skate.

"Skateboarding, traditionally, is for the kid who doesn't quite fit in. It's for the kid that doesn't want to do organized sports in high school," he explains. (Gerald, like Matt, was a smoker and partier in high school.) "Kids are attracted to it because it gives them something to feel good about, and because it's not in the mainstream." For Gerald, these young, lost souls--willing to do anything to skate--create perfect candidates for conversion.

Today, Matt works in an auto-body shop, and hopes to own a place of his own someday. In fact, he has plans to combine a church with an auto-body shop, and to give free repair service to the members.

"Everything I did before was out of immediate self-fulfillment," Matt explains. "Now, I live for something else."

AND NOW, A WORD FROM THE JEW
Gerald admits that a lot of kids drift in and out. They're committed but leave, or stay truly committed for awhile before dropping out. But for Austin Lawrence, his hesitance to commit is not about his inability to embrace something. He's also not interested in pretending, or in trying to find a place to be accepted. Austin is 16, a student at Cleveland High school.

"I'm Jewish, so it's not really a question about me being a Christian," he explains. He speaks with confidence, without an ounce of defensiveness or sign of inner turmoil about the issue.

"I mean, they have their message, and that's absolutely fine," he explains. "I'm certainly not going to tell them what to believe." He pauses for a moment, and then adds quickly, "I mean, I think what they're doing is really good. It's good to reach out to people, and my parents are certainly glad that I'm here and not anywhere else. I just don't need to be reached out to."

When pushed, Austin will admit to what he disagrees with about skate church.

"I disagree with the part about people being judged on what they believe," he says. "That if you believe in God, you'll go to heaven, and if not, you'll go to hell. I believe that people are judged on whether or not they're good people, rather than whether or not they're Christian. I mean, Hitler was one of the most devout Christians of his time. Where's he?"

Indeed, in a recent sermon given on high school night, Gerald told the story of his friend, Mike. Mike said he was a Christian, Gerald explained. Mike even married a Christian woman. But was Mike really a Christian? No. And that's because Mike did not turn away from the Wickedness--Mike drank. He cheated on his wife. Because of that, because God asked him not to do those things and he did them anyway, Mike is not a Christian. And Mike--unless he changes and because he was unable to turn away from the Wickedness--is going to hell.

According to Gerald, though skate church is about teaching people about heaven and hell, as well as sin and Jesus Christ, it's not about preaching any particular values. Anyone is welcome, as long as they follow the rules. Even--especially--if they're sinners.

"There are certain things which get in the way of our relationship with God," he explains. "And we don't usually talk to kids directly about those things. We say, 'You're living your life one way. Here's another way to consider.' Our primary concern at skate church is to talk to people about Jesus Christ. We're not about trying to trick people or force them to do anything."

WHAT OLD PEOPLE THINK
"There are a lot of senior citizens who come to this church," Gerald explains. While skate church is its own entity, it's still economically a part of the Central Bible Church (Central Bible doesn't have a particular denomination, but if it did, says Gerald, it might be Baptist).

"At first, we had some conflicts with the older people." He laughs. "I mean, there were people peeing outside, desecrating church property, smoking pot."

But after a few initial run-ins between senior citizens and skaters, Gerald says there have been no more problems.

"I was like, 'Look, you can either tell them to get lost, or you can try to help them,'" he explains. "It's good for Christians to actually try to help those in need. I mean, we're the people who say we do that." Likewise, once the rules were established for the skaters, they've rarely been broken.

While Gerald and skate church practice a somewhat conventional form of Christianity, their application is certainly different.

"It was hard for people to understand at first what we were doing, what to make of this crowd," he explains. "Human nature is to stay with people who are like you. It's selfish, but it's hard to look outside yourself."

And while Gerald does try to help as many kids as possible, he has no illusions that he can help them all--nor, for that matter, does he have any desire to.

"This road is a hard road," he says. "I think of it, and life, as a 10/90 percent. Ten percent will go down this road, the other 90 will stay. It's not pessimistic. It's realistic. But last night, for example, we had six kids stand up and say they wanted to be saved. That right there makes it worth it."

Plus, even if a kid isn't ever going to be a Christian, Gerald explains, he's at least being forced to think about something that really matters. And, as Gerald figures it, for every hour a skater is at skate church, that's another hour he's not getting in trouble.

If you meet him, you realize that Gerald is a person who truly loves his job. Moreover, he sees his occupation as the kind of work that needs to be done in order to help the progress of Christianity.

"Skateboarding is more like art than sport," he says. "It's so individual. And religion and art are both so individual. It used to be that art was religion--think back to the reformation, of the Sistine Chapel or David. I'm trying to turn the church back towards the creative side, which we've gotten away from. I see skate church, and things like skate church, as part of the effort to make religion more creative."

Skate church is located at 8815 NE Glisan. For more information about skate church, see

http://www.skatechurch.net or call 503-252-1424.

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