Surfers are catching a new wave--of the spirit. More than ever before, the fields--or in this case, the foam--is white for harvest, as professional and amateur boarders across the United States and overseas find God.
"There are a lot more Christian surfers now," said Chandler Brownlee, 29, national director of Christian Surfers United States. Twenty local chapters with a total membership of 1,500 span both coasts of the United States. Members offer fellowship, host Bible studies, sponsor surfing contests, show Christian surf videos and reach out to the surf culture.
The presence of Christians in the culture reaches beyond the amateur ranks as well. Professionals such as 22-year-old C.J. Hobgood, the reigning men's world champion, have given unabashed testimony to their faith. "I love Jesus and I love surfing," Hobgood declared in an endorsement of fellow surfer Bryan Jennings' Walking on Water Christian surf camp.
Hobgood and his twin brother, Damien -- ranked 16th in the world -- often talk about praying for good waves and give God credit for their victories. When not on soome far-flung beach, the Hobgoods attend a Calvary Chapel church and host a Bible-study group in their hometown of Satellite Beach, Fla.
But it isn't just Christians who see the spiritual swell rising. Three years ago the secular online magazine "Salon" observed how "many [surfers] are big Jesus freaks, in a real Old Testament, Book of Jeremiah, the Apocalypse-cometh kind of way."
Most surfers pray before they go out, even if they do not know Jesus, said Rochelle Ballard, 31, ranked fourth in the world among women's professional surfers. "Think about it," she said. "You walk into the ocean and sink yourself into this liquid. You are surrounded by this creation that God made, and it washes all of the other stuff away. It brings you to a place before God and makes you analyze your life."
For 30 years, Al Merrick, one of the premier board makers in the country whose clients have included world champions and surfing legends Tom Curren and Kelly Slater, has been sharing God's love with countless everyday surfers.
In 1972, Merrick and his wife, Terry, started a small surfboard-manufacturing company in Southern California, which has since thrived. "The guy who supplies our blanks [the unshaped surfboard core] accused us of hoarding," Merrick said. "He said he knew how slow things were. But we really were using that many blanks. We have never been so busy, and I can only attribute it to God's anointing."
Slater still shapes five boards a day, and often prays over his products, on which he includes a Christian fish symbol. "I pray for [the surfers]," he said. "I ask God to bless them and to protect them and, if they are not Christians, that they will see Him. I had thought about going into ministry. But God has given me a gift to make surfboards."