They Are the Voice
In Brazil, this skateboard is famous. Here, it's locked up in a Denver Police Department evidence room.
The board is chipped and dented and scuffed. On its underside is a hand-painted fire ant struggling beneath the weight of a pink rose petal twenty times its size, plus Bible verse Matthew 17:20 written in Portuguese.
In English, it reads: If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.
But no amount of faith was moving a Denver police officer last month. On July 5, the board's owner, 23-year-old Mark Spencer, got busted for skating in Cheesman Park, where it's illegal to ride a board. The cop wrote Spencer a ticket for destruction of public property and -- even worse -- confiscated his board.
"I tried to tell him the importance of this board to all these people in Brazil. I don't know if he believed me or not, but he just didn't seem that impressed," says Spencer. "He told me it was evidence and he was seizing it."
Spencer had been inspired to customize the board in June when he was on a missionary trip to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, with Denver-based Advocate Skateboards, a fellowship of Christian skateboarders. "I was checking out the ground one day, and I saw this crazy Brazilian ant carrying this flower petal, and I was just like, 'Man, that's awesome. I gotta put that on my board,'" he says.
While Spencer and his team were in Belo Horizonte proselytizing, performing skateboarding demonstrations and building a skatepark for the city's poor children, they were invited to appear on an evangelical television show on a cable channel owned by Lagoinha Baptist Church. The massive stadium-style church has 30,000 worshipers in a city of 2.5 million residents, and more than six million viewers across South America. So when the TV evangelist who hosted the show held Spencer's board aloft and showed the Bible verse the American skateboarding missionary had scripted in Brazil's native tongue, the board became an icon.
Now it's Exhibit A.
Spencer plans to fight the ticket at his court date next month since, he says, "I didn't destroy anything. I was just skating." Until then, he will be landing flip kicks on a less revered board while spreading the gospel to any young person who cares to listen. "Basically, we believe that everyone should have the chance to make an informed choice whether to believe in Christ or not," Spencer says. "We just try to make sure every kid has that chance."
The seed for Advocate was sown in 2000, when Longmont skateboarder Eddie Gann founded a skating team and Bible study group he called Caleb Skateboards. It was for clean-living Christian skateboarders in their late teens and early twenties. "The idea was to organize as positive Christian role models for younger skaters and to reach out to them with the good news," says Uriel Luebcke, 26, who skated for Caleb and is now the senior member of the nine-person Advocate team.
In the summer of 2002, Gann grew tired of running Caleb, and Mark Spencer took over leadership of the team. At the time, Gann and Luebcke were counseling Spencer, a troubled, semi-homeless young skater, and helping him to serve the Lord through missionary skateboarding. Spencer quickly changed the group's name to Advocate Skateboarding and introduced a business element by launching a line of skateboards and clothing. He also began recruiting skilled Christian skateboarders from out of state, most notably Josh Crigger from Las Vegas and Monico Candelaria from New Mexico, who, at seventeen, is the youngest team member.
Today, Advocate skateboards, hats, T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts are a common sight in Denver skate parks.
"They're a good team with a good product," says Sam Schuman, owner of 303 Boards, one of seven local skate shops that carries Advocate boards and clothing. "Most local start-ups fold in six months or a year because they don't get it when it comes to marketing. To be successful you need a solid team of skaters out their representing your product, and you need to do good demos. Advocate's the real deal on all fronts."
But many of the skaters who buy Advocate products have no idea the company is Christian- based. "We don't market ourselves as a Christian product for the same reason we don't try to push our beliefs on people," says Advocate rider Shad Spencer, who is no relation to Mark. "We prefer a more subtle approach. There are a lot of young minds out there that can be molded in a positive way, but we don't force them into conversations they don't want to have. This is going to sound really hippie-ish, but we're just out there trying to love people."
The Advocate team is finishing up filming the raw footage for its first full-length skateboarding video, which it hopes to have out in time for Christmas. Unlike a lot of skateboarding videos, the Advocate reel will not show any drinking, drug use, profanity or nudity. "We decided to make a video that skaters could watch with their parents," says Kathi Pell, Shad's wife. "It's not that the skating is any less awesome without that other stuff."
The video will show the Advocate skaters in action in Brazil and Barcelona, where there are no laws against skateboarding in the Spanish city's elaborate public plazas -- "It's like you're in heaven," Shad says. "People there just have better things to do than hassle you for skating" -- as well as skating in Denver's unsanctioned public spaces. This despite Romans 13:1-7, which makes it clear that Christians should obey the laws of man as long as such decrees are not in conflict with the laws of God. "No Skateboarding" signs would seem to apply.
"We all have our weaknesses," says Shad.
All profits from the sale of the video, like current sales of all Advocate skateboards and accessories, will be funneled into funding future missionary trips abroad.
Thus far, the Advocate team riders have made three mission trips to Brazil, all of which have been co-sponsored by Planet Youth, the youth-missionary division of Longmont-based New Creation World Outreach Church. The first trip was in March 2003 to Juiz de Fora, an old city with lush rainforest parks and cobblestone sidewalks. About 450,000 people live in Juiz de Fora, most of them crammed into apartment buildings that line the hilly streets, or on open, elevated platforms without walls. It is not uncommon to see a mansion looming over a cluster of tin shacks.
The Advocate team members arrived there with a Christian cover band and skated at a festival attended by 3,000 local children. They also performed demos at several local schools using portable ramps. "Basically, we'd skate for ten or fifteen minutes, and then one of us would give a testimony about why we became Christian," Mark Spencer says.
Whenever he tells his own story, Spencer tells how one side of his family was devout Mormon and the other was "kind of having a hard time with life, struggling with alcoholism and trying to figure out what their role is in life." Neither side seemed right to him when he hit his teens, and he ran away from both houses. He lived on the streets, lost. His only solace was skateboarding. Then he met a group of skaters who talked to him about Christianity.
"Through them, I just realized that's where my life needed to go," Spencer says. "I just felt it one day. It's not something you can be convinced into doing if you're going to do it right. You have to arrive there on your own. That's why we don't go around blatantly telling people how it is."
Three years after he found the light, Mark found himself in Brazil, talking about skateboarding and Christ with kids who held their shoes together with tape and blew him away with their fearless moves.
"Skateboarding is the second-fastest-growing sport in Brazil, after soccer," he says. "Even these kids who are poor, they skate. But their boards are just shredded. The wood is of lower quality than we use here in the U.S., and they skate them until the boards are absolutely trashed to the extreme, and then they skate them a little more. We were down there that first year giving away boards we thought were too old for us to skate on, and when we went back the next year, I'd see some kids were still skating on them. It made me feel really spoiled."
When the Advocate team members returned to Juiz de Fora this March, they built the city a new community center and skate park using materials purchased by Planet Youth and several Brazilian church groups. The riders designed the skate park themselves; it features a mini-ramp that extends into a quarter-pipe, a pyramid with a ledge and a street course complete with a four-stair and handrail.
Most of the Advocate team went back to Brazil a second time this year, in June and July, to build a similar park in Belo Horizonte. The team was amazed by the agility of the street performers who poured into busy intersections when the lights turned red. "This one dude was juggling fire while standing on this other dude's head," Spencer says.
In Brazil, the Advocate riders act as missionaries for their sport as well as their faith. "There's a lot of prejudice against skateboarders in Brazil, even more so than here," Luebcke says. "A lot of conservative religious parents there are really down on skating, so we're trying to change their attitudes by showing them that living a Christian life and skating can go hand in hand. At the same time, we're trying to encourage the kids there, like we do kids in America, to not see their relationship with Christ as just following rules that are designed to make life boring.
"Basically, it's hard to convince a lot of conservative Christians that skateboarders can lead a positive Christian lifestyle in the same way that it's hard to convince a lot of skateboarders that Christians can lead a true skateboarder's lifestyle. But when we show up for a demo, a bunch of skater guys with tattoos who listen to rock music, and we do the demo, they see we're serious skaters, and then we start giving testimony, and they see we're serious Christians. It kind of makes both sides go, 'What's up with that?'"
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