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Jesus on the Half-Pipe

Elijah stood atop the quarter-pipe on his skateboard, a lithe prophet in an electric-pink T-shirt. Below the curved ramp, a group of fresh-faced skate kids, their own boards under their arms, stared up at him in awe.

"Dude, you can do it!" cried the kids, aged 12 to 15.

"I know I can," called down Elijah, a 25-year-old professional skateboarder with major sideburns. "And I say that out of confidence, not cockiness." With that, he shot down the quarter-pipe, hurtled across the church courtyard and up a wedge ramp into the open air, his board flipping 360 degrees beneath him before his feet found its top again and he landed smoothly on a receiving ramp.

"Awesome!" the chorus of kids called out. "That was rad!"

Another skater might have basked in the praise. But Elijah - Elijah Moore, that is, a skate evangelist from Garland, Tex. - and the 14 other members of the King of Kings Skateboard Ministries team are quick to say that they do not skate for adulation or even for the thrill of catching big air. They skate for Jesus.

That is why five skaters from King of Kings, a scruffy evangelical troupe formed in 2002 by Darren Wells in Nampa, Idaho, had brought their hard-core tattoos and radical skate stunts to the courtyard in front of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Chandler, Ariz., on a recent Saturday evening. A former cookie salesman and a former alcohol abuser, Mr. Wells is a low-key 40-year-old skateboarder and father of four with flame tattoos on his wrists and a soul patch on his chin.

The team members, Mr. Wells said, "are not pastors that are out of pastor college wearing a suit and tie; they're skaters." He explained their approach: "They say, 'You can be a hard-core skater and look like I do and still have a heart for the Lord. You can skate and not be a punk. You can be about respect for parents, and abstinence, and no drugs.' "

Skateboarding, largely a go-it-alone street sport, has been associated with devil-may-care lawlessness at least since the mid-1960's, when a movie called "The Devil's Toy" depicted children skateboarding through the streets, drinking milk and tossing rocks at police officers.

But King of Kings is one of a growing number of Christian evangelical groups successfully using the skateboard not as Satan's plaything but as an instrument of the Lord. In their hands - and under their feet - it is a powerful tool for reaching out to a gritty subculture that is overlooked by many mainstream churches, even feared by some.

Luis Palau, a mainstream evangelist, said of skateboard outreach: "It just speaks the language, goes to the right areas of town, where ordinary church people just don't think of going." He added, "It's drawn the attention of kids who thought church rejected them, looked down on them, even feared them, practically, because of their looks."

Rick Weigele, an elder with the Christian Cornerstone Fellowship and the skateboarding father of two King of Kings team riders, said that skate missionaries have a street credibility that can resonate with other skaters. "If you put a Bible in your hand and go to a skateboard park, they're going to throw a beer can at you, they're going to stick knives in your tires," he said. "But these guys aren't talking about religion; they're talking about a relationship with Jesus, and their medium is the skateboard."

Or, as Mr. Moore put it: "I knew God had given me this gift, and I knew I wanted to glorify him with my skateboard. I wanted to stoke God out."

King of Kings' edgy, modern version of the old-fashioned revival meeting is only one example of a growing movement of ministries around the country based on extreme sports like snowboarding, surfing and BMX bicycle riding.

These ministries' effectiveness at reaching young people, several skate pastors said, stems from their grass-roots origins. Like other extreme athletes, skateboarders are sophisticated, skeptical consumers who can smell establishment phoniness a mile away. If they sense that they are being preached to by some mainstream evangelical who doesn't understand them and their lifestyle, skaters will be off like a shot, grinding the paint off a handrail somewhere with their boards. If approached by a fellow skater, on the other hand, they are more apt to give him a hearing.

"We're true to who we are," said Mr. Wells, who owns Reliance Skateboards, a small company that sells boards decorated with tattoo-like Christian-themed graphics. "We're not trying to be soft and bunchy, with flowers; we're hard-core skaters."

The nation's first skate church was founded in 1987 in Portland, Ore., by two top-flight 23-year-old freestyle skateboarding competitors, Paul Anderson and Clint Bidleman, once freewheeling teenagers who had smoked marijuana and stolen wood to build skateboard ramps. But after experiencing what they described as a religious transformation, the two skaters were attending a Bible college in Portland when they found themselves relentlessly pursued by their future flock.

"We were like pied pipers," Mr. Anderson said. "We didn't want to be; we would literally try to ditch the kids because we'd want to take a nap, and they'd find us and say, 'C'mon, dude, let's go skate!' "

When a youth pastor at the nearby Central Bible Church saw the instant bond that skateboarding forged between the two men and the kids, he prevailed upon the pair to form a new kind of youth ministry. Today, Skatechurch, the resulting organization, has a 40-member staff and two indoor facilities with 11,000 square feet of skating area, where an average of 210 kids skate and hear the Gospel each week.

Mr. Anderson estimates that there are now at least 300 skateboard outreach ministries affiliated with churches nationwide, as well as 30 to 50 skateboard teams that travel locally to skate and preach.

A handful, including King of Kings and the Washington-state-based Boarders for Christ, travel nationwide. Next weekend, King of Kings will begin a six-and-a-half-month, 70-stop tour, during which they will appear at churches around the country doing tail slides, 360-degree flips and a trick called a kid ollie in which they jump over volunteers from the audience.

But even as this new generation of holy rollers seeks to spread its message of faith, traveling skateboard ministries often find the church door closed to them. Indeed, some skate evangelists say that they occupy an outlaw place in Christendom that mirrors the position of skateboarders in secular society. "It's almost like we're outcasts, doing what we do," said Mr. Wells, the King of Kings founder. "Even in the church, we're not accepted."

"The thing about skateboard culture is that people are just so scared," he continued. "The higher-ups in churches don't understand. They say we won't reach anyone or there's no money for it, and meanwhile they've got kids skateboarding in their own parking lots that they're kicking out."

But that's starting to change. Among the mainstream evangelists who have embraced the skate missionaries is Mr. Palau, who was recently rated the eighth-most-influential Christian in America by The Church Report, a business news magazine for Christian leaders. Mr. Palau, whose Luis Palau Evangelistic Association is based in Oregon, has written nearly 50 books and in 2003 drew 300,000 people to a two-day faith-based festival in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He says that the messages he delivers on daily radio broadcasts are heard on more than 2,100 radio stations in 48 countries.

But he also calls himself a "square" and a "grandpa."

"When the younger guys in the organization came up with the idea in 1999," Mr. Palau recalled, "and they said we're going to do skateboarding at our festivals, I'll tell you the absolute truth: I said, 'What is that?' But I soon found out."

At each of its Christian festivals in the United States since 2000, the association has built a 9,000-square-foot skate park and incorporated demonstrations by top skaters. Christian BMX riders have also performed.

Mr. Palau is so convinced of skateboarding's effectiveness in youth ministry that he said he suspected that Jesus himself would be a skater if he walked the earth today. "Yeah, I mean, he was young; I think he'd get on a skateboard and go for it," Mr. Palau said. "I know St. Paul would."

Last year, Mr. Palau's organization released "Livin It," an evangelistic DVD directed by the born-again Baldwin brother, Stephen, that featured skateboarders and BMX riders doing tricks and talking about their faith. Luke Braddock of King of Kings, a high-flying skater sponsored by Sessions, a popular brand of action-sports clothing, played a starring role. Intended as a small, one-time outreach tool, the DVD sold 80,000 copies in 11 months entirely through grass-roots distribution. It also prompted a flood of calls from churches around the country requesting appearances by Mr. Baldwin and the extreme-sport athletes.

"We've started a whole new division," said Kevin Palau, the evangelist's son and the executive director of the Palau ministry. "We've invested millions of dollars in 'Livin It.' because the response has been so overwhelming." A sequel has been shot and will be distributed beginning next month, in concert with a 30-city tour featuring BMX riders and skateboarders.

At Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, while team riders with skulls on their T-shirts and tattoos of Old Testament quotations on their calves whizzed up ramps and practiced kick flips, a crowd of skate kids - grommets, in skateboarding parlance - worked themselves into a frenzy of adoration. Every time a skater stopped to catch his breath, the grommets swarmed around him, until the skate evangelists began autographing everything in sight: team photos, cellphones, even the T-shirts and skate shoes the kids were wearing.

Most of the grommets said they had come not for the religion but for the skateboarding. "Regular church people are all right, but it's kind of boring," said Jordan Knobloch, 13. "But if my church had skate demos every day, I'd go."

Over by the team's van, which was decorated with gothic team logos and skull stickers bearing the words "Sin" and "Death," the King of Kings riders gathered for a private moment. Earlier in the day, they had relaxed by playing a violent video game called "Halo 2" and had compared iPod playlists ("I've got the Bible read by Charlton Heston," one skater declared. "Super good, dude!"). But now a solemnity settled over the young men as they held hands in a circle and prayed.

"Let God be glorified today with the way we skate and the way we communicate with people," intoned Mr. Braddock, a gentle 23-year-old surfing teacher from Prunedale, Calif., who believes that God improves his skateboarding by freeing him of guilt. "Let us skate to our full potential and first and foremost let your word be spread throughout this place, whether it be by communication or the way we treat people. I pray that we can share your awesomeness."

When the prayers were done, the team members let out raucous hoots and hollers, and a couple of skaters chugged cans of Red Bull, the nonalcoholic energy drink. As most of the skate ministers headed back to do tricks on the street course, which the team carries with it in a battered trailer, a crowd of wide-eyed grommets descended on Mr. Moore, who told them how he had come to spurn sponsorship from a well-known secular skateboard company in favor of King of Kings, back when the ministry was virtually unknown.

"I made the best decision in skateboarding," said Mr. Moore, who works in a skate shop in Texas. "Now I'm touring, I get to kick it with you all, and not only do I get to ride with rad guys, but I get to ride with guys who are stoked on Jesus."

Over the next two hours, 160 college students and a handful of skate kids gathered inside the church to listen to a Christian band and to Mr. Baldwin, who told the crowd how he had been called to promote extreme sports as a ministry after telling God, "I'll do whatever you want me to do, but it better be cool, it better be gnarly."

Then the crowd filed outside to watch the skaters perform crooked grinds and kick flips and even a Miller flip to fakie, a trick in which Mr. Braddock sails up a quarter-pipe and does a back flip at the top, supporting himself upside down with one hand.

Finally, Shawn Plimmer, the team's heavily tattooed manager, said that God had taught the King of Kings skaters that "we can do the sickest tricks and try to go out with girls," but that only a relationship with the Lord could bring true peace.

Mr. Moore testified about the time he found Jesus while lost in a hallucinogenic stupor, and then Mr. Braddock stepped forward, tears in his eyes, and challenged the crowd "to come forward if you're bold enough and say 'I want Jesus Christ to be Lord of my life.' " Seated on benches nearby, team members put their hands together in prayer and rocked on their skateboards.

For a long time there was silence, and then a tearful young woman emerged from the audience and walked to the middle of the skate course, followed by another, a close friend of a King of Kings rider.

"Awesome! Praise God!" Mr. Braddock said. The skate evangelists wrapped the women in their arms, and Mr. Baldwin joined in, the mass of bodies forming a big group hug.

Mr. Plimmer added, "God really has an awesome plan for all of us."

After watching the skate ministers in action, Antonio Dellacioppa, a 15-year-old skateboarder with braces and sandy brown hair, reflected on the King of Kings athletes' raw expression of their faith. "I think they're a lot easier to listen to than the guys who come to the front door," he said. "I respect their religion."

Sure, but what about their skateboarding? Do they catch more air because they've got Jesus?

"Probably," Mr. Dellacioppa said with a grin. "It was the wings that lifted them up."

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