November 21, 2013
By Trevor Freeze
There were skateboards scattered on the ground.
Helmets lying here. Soda cans there.
What had been a day of seeing who could lay down the best trick at Soul Ride Skatepark in Concord, N.C., was now a holy ground.
Brian Sumner, a former Tony Hawk pro skateboarder, was onstage, microphone in his hand, calling out other skateboarders in a way only another skateboarder could get away with.
“I saw your hands go up,” said Sumner, wearing an untucked button-down shirt with skinny jeans.
And one by one, they came forward, responding to an invitation to give their lives to Christ on this Saturday afternoon (Nov. 9) during My Hope America week.
But just how did they get to this place? Kids mired in the skateboarding subculture making a public profession of faith?
In front of their friends?
“Skateboarders listen to skateboarders,” said the event’s host Joe Gruber, a former pro skateboarder himself, who now heads up the Ransom ministry at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. “They can totally, completely relate.”
Sumer understands the subculture almost better than anyone, watching his marriage disintegrate into thin air, chasing all the fame and fortune that he thought would make his life complete.
Each of the 100-plus skateboarders on hand witnessed Sumer’s testimony through the My Hope short film, “Lose to Gain,” a program Gruber introduced to as one that was “made specifically with you in mind.” The film features a Gospel message from Billy Graham, woven into three real-life stories of people unable to find true peace and happiness in life without God.
It set the perfect stage for Sumner to give his brief testimony, including how God helped salvage the relationship with his wife — the couple got remarried — and the father of three has been sustained, even through his wife’s recent miscarriage.
Sumner then asked everyone to bow their heads and search their hearts.
“To share the Gospel and see kids respond…” Sumner paused, “It’s exciting.”
But as to how he connects so organically with young skaters, he’s quick to shift the conversation.
“All I know is it’s the power of God unto salvation,” Sumner said, quoting Romans 1:16.
But having Sumner fly in from California, just for this event, to hang with kids for a couple hours, skating, laughing, talking , listening…
“He gets to hang with them, ride with them, clap when they land the cool trick,” Gruber said. “There’s no doubt in my mind, having him come in and be that “Matthew” (host) makes all the difference in the world.”
Although deep down, Gruber knows even the best-laid plans are nothing compared to how the Holy Spirit works.
“At the end of the day, the difference is Jesus,” he said.
“I think God showed up and did some amazing things today.”
Listening to two of the 20-plus teens who responded to Sumner’s Gospel invitation, you would certainly agree.
“I decided to go forward today,” said Seth, one of four who made first-time decisions for Christ, “because I wanted to give my life to Jesus.”
“I felt I was losing my grip on my relationship with God,” said Jacob, 15, who wanted to rededicate his life to the Lord. “I feel like Billy Graham really got through to me.
“Today’s been a great day,” said Jacob, who added that Sumner was “a really chill guy.”
Sumner would certainly take that as a compliment, but for him, it’s more than just being cool, it’s about reaching out into this skateboarding subculture of America that many people — and churches — have left behind.
After all, he grew up in it.
“Skating’s the new baseball,” Sumner said. “Every kid has a skateboard in their garage now, pretty much. Dads are trying to figure out how to connect with their kids.
“Skateboarding is a subculture that for the most part churches aren’t reaching .”
Which is why Soul Ride Skatepark owner Brandon Nash continues to be committed to this ministry—he’s held a Bible study every Monday night at Soul Ride since 2009 that now draws 40-to-60 kids— and why churches like First Assembly Concord partner with him to reach these kids.
“I would do this every weekend if I could. This is what we’re in it for,” Nash said. “I think it’s awesome the Billy Graham Association did something to target the skateboarding crowd. That’s usually the forgotten sport.”
But on this day, at this skatepark, it was clear God hadn’t forgotten the youth who called on His name.
“When you do see a response,” Sumner said, “in your heart, it’s just ‘Lord, let it be genuine, let it be sincere, let it be a move of the Spirit.’ And the rest is between them and the Lord.”