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Surfing’s joy swells religious feelings in growing U.S. cadre

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HONOLULU -- As the white-tipped wave melts into the ocean, the surfer's rush of adrenaline gives way other feelings. Some who ride the walls of water are making an unexpected discovery at that moment. They are finding God.

Around the world, a subculture perhaps better known for sculpted bodies and slacker mind-sets is finding spirituality. Some surfers say a flawless ride puts them in touch with a higher power. Some are taking those feelings and using the ocean as a pulpit from which to preach their faith.

And dude, they think it's awesome.

"Surfing is the most spiritual thing that you can do," said Rabbi Nachum Shifren, who lectures on the surf-soul connection. "You're out in the water; you're by yourself; you're out there in God's creation. It's like being in the womb."

Such messages of spirituality in the surf have given the search for the perfect wave new meaning.

Each week, dozens of Bible study groups made up entirely of surfers assemble throughout the country. They are organizing mission trips in the Caribbean and kosher surf camps in Costa Rica. They've even seen the introduction of their own Bible including a full-color cover with shots of big waves and profiles of surfers inside, a surf-gear line called Faith Riding Co., and the Surfer's Chapel in Huntington Beach, Calif.

"Surfing has always been kind of a more-spiritual" activity, said Army Chief Warrant Officer Glen Spence, a surfer in Hawaii. "It's only natural for the two to meet up."

Christian Surfers, an international organization that started in Australia more than 20 years ago, has flourished recently in the United States. Two years ago, nine chapters served about 450 members. Today 28 groups from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, to Pensacola, Fla., to Hawaii count about 1,400 members.

The organization tallies thousands of surfers elsewhere too, in Japan, South Africa, Venezuela and a host of other surfing hot spots.

In all of these groups, the mission is to minister to other surfers, gently preach the message, and get them to join a local church.

"For a lot of surfers, the whole concept of church is off-putting," said the Rev. Bill White of the Surfer's Chapel, where services are held on Saturday nights to avoid interference with morning waves.

Surfers are sometimes skeptical of organized religion, he said, but can be swayed by a community of faith comprising solely fellow wave-riders. "Nobody thinks anything of an Armenian church or a Hispanic church or a Samoan church," Mr. White said. "I feel that surfers identify with surfing as much as any ethnic group identifies with their ethnicity."

In 2002, Christian Surfers chapters in the United States recorded 1,071 conversions -- surfers who accepted Christ for the first time as a result of their efforts. Nearly 400 fallen-away Christians across the country returned to their faith last year as a result of the organization's efforts, Christian Surfers said.

Among them is Jake Gomez. A year ago, he used drugs and considered himself an atheist, a surfing bad boy. He got involved in a surf club, and when he was invited by other members to join their Bible study, he decided to try it.

"I wouldn't have met the people who helped me change my life without this," the 18-year-old said before competing in a Christian Surfers amateur surf contest. "We're out here to bring the word of God to the people without preaching."

"Surfing has grown up a lot over the years," said Wayne Ryan, who runs a Christian surfing group in Sydney, Australia. "The beautiful thing is that over the years we've seen thousands of kids' lives change."

Formal ministries to surfers began in the '70s in Australia, where such efforts are still strongest. By 1987, Christian Surfers had arrived stateside, slowly generating a following in beachfront communities.

The idea is for a surfer to hear about faith from someone they can believe -- another surfer.

"We see surfing as a subculture," said Chandler Brownlee, a Baptist minister who heads Christian Surfers from his St. Augustine Beach, Fla., home. "We want to be a bridge from the beach to the church."

Others are less emphatic about using surfing as a means for evangelization, instead emphasizing the sport's natural spirituality.

"It's kind of a yin-yang kind of thing," said Rabbi Shifren, who has authored "Surfing Rabbi" and is hosting what's billed as the world's only kosher surf camp in Costa Rica this month .

"In order to find true happiness and true contentment, you have to work," he said referring to the exhausting paddling that surfing requires, and one's spiritual journey.

"You connect to purity when you surf," added Alon Maor, a Jewish surfer who prays before surfing each morning in Hawaii. "You feel God's energy."

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