At West Seattle's Skate Church, ex-rebels take up the cause of saving kids

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JESUS WAS born in Bellingham.

If you hang around long enough with the kids of West Seattle’s Skate Church, eavesdropping on this loosely formed group of pre-teens, teens and 20-somethings, you might hear a biblical slip or two. That one came from a 14-year-old boy who mixed up his three-syllable cities starting with “B,” and though he couldn’t come up with “Bethlehem,” he demonstrated a better grasp of the more meaningful points he’s been learning about Jesus:

“He died for our sins, so we can live in heaven. If you accept God, it really affects your life.”

That’s just what the founders of this unorthodox, youth-led church had in mind when they started Skate Church three years ago. They hoped to improve the lives of kids who might be struggling: drinking, doing drugs, committing punk crimes, missing something in their home life — or missing a home life entirely.

The youth pastors, some of whom had gotten into their own share of trouble as high schoolers, wanted to relate to kids on the kids’ terms. So they opened a storefront in The Junction, West Seattle’s business district, where they sold skateboarding gear and energy drinks, and gave away religion.

They now draw dozens of people at a time to worship services and youth-group meetings. Senior pastor Serena Wastman, a West Seattleite who started Skate Church with her husband, Rob, estimates that hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people are involved, if you count kids’ families and neighborhood supporters.

“You’re looking at this incredible, growing radius,” says Wastman, a hip-dressing, high-energy former Microsoft business manager. At 50 she seems more den mother than reverend. “We’re really taking hold. I think people understand compassion. Across faiths . . . people get that. It’s about caring, and making a difference.”

THE SKATE-CHURCH approach to getting — and giving — religion has actually been around for a long time, almost as long as a similar movement that started among Australian surfers in the 1970s.

The more contemporary, skate version began with a single group in Portland, in 1987, and organizers say it’s caught on big — not only throughout the United States with an estimated 1,000 churches but in some 90 countries, including New Zealand, Switzerland, Scotland and Sweden.

In some cities, skate churches are all about building ramps and full-on skate parks and competing in the sport, with some preaching tossed in between kick flips. In others, groups use borrowed church space for meetings but run highly popular skating groups that gather wherever they can.

In West Seattle, many of the original young leaders working with the Wastmans were heavily into skating. Not so much any more. Except for the shop, and the occasional stray skater on the sidewalk outside, there aren’t too many signs of skating.

The shop, called TORN, is tucked between Sweetie, a ladies boutique, and the West Seattle Senior Center on California Avenue Southwest, The Junction’s main drag. A sliver of a store, it serves as the hub of the Skate Church youth ministry, but on any given day the group can be found elsewhere around West Seattle: playing games in the basement of West Seattle Baptist Church, running a food bank at the senior center, washing cars at Alki Beach to raise money for a mission to Nicaragua.

While they spend a lot of time playing, these young people are serious about their religion. They devote hours every week to Bible study. They set aside every Sunday evening for worship. And even while playing Ping-Pong or grilling burgers, they frequently quote scripture or slip in references to Jesus.

Youth groups meet Wednesday evenings at the Baptist church, and every week about 10 elders from the nearby Hope Lutheran Church take over the Baptists’ kitchen to cook dinner for the kids. Their motivation: “Youth groups are languishing everywhere,” says Gwen Fraser, who came one night straight from her job as a staffer for U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert.

The Wastmans and their troop of young pastors also lead a regular worship service called Journey of Faith, a branch of the evangelical Foursquare Church. “Regular” is relative, though; in this case, though Sunday-evening worship includes some preaching and praying, it mostly involves dancing to loud, live Christian rock music — two guitars, an electric bass and drums — in an empty room above the senior citizens’ thrift shop. Instead of Sunday best, these followers wear shorts, jeans, tank tops, whatever. Some are barefoot.

“We’re not about sitting your butt in a pew on Sunday morning,” says Rob Wastman, a broad-shouldered, buzz-cut 57-year-old who could pass for a Marine. “We’re just trying to help these kids. We meet so many kids who are just on the wrong path.”

BRENNAN MCDANIEL says he was 11 years old when his stepfather first offered him some pot. By age 12, he was smoking it regularly. He lived in Bend, Ore., and spent years hanging out with guys like himself, creating mischief, getting tickets for drinking in public.

“Everyone around me was getting into trouble,” the 19-year-old says now, recalling the moment not long ago when he realized, “I don’t want to be around this anymore. I’m better than this.”

So in January he moved to West Seattle to live with his aunt. During his second week, while walking The Junction applying for jobs, he discovered TORN and the Skate Church crowd. He started attending gatherings and was offered an internship to learn to be a youth pastor. He’s been sober since February, volunteers 16 hours a week at TORN and works the graveyard shift at Home Depot.

Recently, he and one of Skate Church’s youth pastors, 21-year-old Colin Frazer, moved into a newly rented “discipleship house” opened by the Skate Church with money from an anonymous contributor. The “Christian frat house,” as McDaniel calls it, can house four or five guys ages 18 and older who are learning to live independently and responsibly. A similar house for young women is opening this fall.

McDaniel, who credits his aunt and the church for helping him, feels inspired to help others. “I want to reach out to these kids. I want to be the one they can talk to,” he says. “I’m perfect because I’m just as rowdy.” But different, too: “Satan no longer has a stronghold on me.”

The 14-year-old who confused Bellingham with Bethlehem doesn’t talk of being saved, but of being accepted:

“It kind of helps me because I don’t really have that many friends,” he says. “I immediately thought this felt like my home. It kind of fits for me. It’s pretty cool because it’s, like, all about coming into God’s life.”

It can be a little jarring to hear teens and 20-somethings so heavily into Jesus that they seem to talk about nothing else.

Frazer, the young pastor, has an easy smile and a smooth charm that oozes follow-me confidence. When he talks of walking with Jesus and wearing God’s armor, the younger kids stop and listen. Frazer says he lived for Jesus until eighth grade, then “fell away,” partying and carrying on until his parents sent him to boarding school. A Mercer Island boy — “I was privileged” — he met Natalie Wastman, Rob and Serena’s daughter, a year and a half ago and became involved with Skate Church.

“Look at what God has provided me,” he said during a housewarming at the discipleship house, where he grilled gourmet burgers for dozens of people. “This family. This house. These kids! I now have responsibility for them. We’re not about converting people. We’re about loving people.”

Asked what he and his friends talk about besides God, his eyes wander up to the ceiling and he gets a puzzled look.

What about girls? Is it difficult for these young adults to live up to Christian ideals — including no sex outside of marriage?

He explains that he’s been dating Natalie for a year and a half. “We don’t even kiss,” he says. “No! It just leads to temptation.”

PORTLAND’S PAUL Anderson, a onetime sponsored-amateur skater who started what is believed to be the first-ever skate church in 1987, has a theory about the seemingly obsessive manner of some of these young people. It has to do with the makeup of skaters, of people into extreme sports, and often of people who become troublemakers, he says.

“They have personality characteristics,” Anderson says. “They’re individualistic, they express themselves in art. A lot them are really bold, and they believe in what they do. They’re proud of what they do. So they become Christians, and they’re like that as Christians.”

That also helps explain how the “skate church ministry,” as leaders describe it, has taken hold around the world and, like any bonafide movement, now comes with websites, DVDs, T-shirts and annual conferences. Anderson will be among the speakers at a four-day international conference scheduled for October in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Yet, despite that commercialization, Anderson chafes when skeptics say he and others are cynically using skateboarding to “trick” kids into becoming Christians.

He says that as a skater in San Luis Obispo, Calif., in the late 1970s and early ’80s, he was “a punk rebel kid with a smart mouth” — drinking, taking drugs and stealing wood to build ramps. Then, over many months, he and a friend were won over by some preachers at the beach. Eventually, he and the friend moved to Portland to attend Bible college, and Anderson started preaching to kids who gathered around him whenever he skated. Within two months, he had 250 kids in his circle.

“I wasn’t sitting around wondering how to get kids to be able to become Christians,” says Anderson, now 46. “I already had the big mouth, the following, the lifestyle. These are kids who are on drugs, sleeping around, their parents are getting divorced, they question authority, they feel like they don’t belong. It’s like (God) saved me on purpose. He picked me and he told me, ‘Go get those kids.’ “

SERENA WASTMAN wasn’t a skater, but she and Rob were into the partying life. She landed in jail at age 21. She won’t say why, “but I will say Rob bailed me out with drug money. We know what kids get into because we used to do it.”

She later “found Jesus” through some other people and called Rob, who went to rescue her from what he expected to be a cult. Instead, he became a convert, too, at age 30.

Now the couple pour their energy into the Skate Church, which often means smoothing rough spots with people in the community. Some have complained that the kids are too rowdy — climbing young trees outside the Baptist church, skateboarding down crowded walkways, screaming and carrying on.

One long thread of gripes on the West Seattle Blog earlier this year prompted the Wastmans to weigh in, apologizing, inviting further criticism and offering to address any problems. That approach has gained them credibility, and in follow-up comments on the blog, some people have said they were impressed how quickly problems had been addressed.

But on a more fundamental level, some question the church’s message.

“I know that it has traditional beliefs about marriage and families,” says Matt Munson, who until June was a youth-development specialist with Planned Parenthood of the Greater Northwest. “So, of course, my concern is if a student doesn’t come from one of those families, or if they’re struggling with their own sexuality or sexual identity, what is Skate Church saying?”

Serena Wastman says sexual identity is a “hot topic right now,” but Skate Church does not take a stand. “What we say is, ‘We’re going to love your kids.’ We try to keep it simple.”

They’re dealing with teenagers, she emphasizes. “We encourage them not to be involved sexually. They need to develop themselves as a person. . . . When you’re a kid, be a kid. There’s time enough later for that stuff.”

Munson says Serena Wastman has offered to talk with him: “I do appreciate that Skate Church has opened the door for those questions to be asked.”

Right next door to TORN, the folks at the senior center say they aren’t shy about speaking up when little problems arise — maybe a skateboarder startles an elderly woman with a walker — and church leaders respond quickly.

“It’s not without its little problems at times,” says Carol Johnston, the center’s activities coordinator. “But . . . you bring it up and work it out.”

As she spoke, she looked over at a middle-schooler hugging a grandma type as they cleaned up after a food bank. That scene, she says, speaks volumes.

“The old folks can tell their same old stories to someone new. It’s like, all of us — we need someone to talk to.”

Michele Matassa Flores is a former Seattle Times reporter and editor. Harley Soltes is a former Times photographer.