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O.C. RELIGION

Hockey Stick Is the Hook at Church

Huntington Beach Pastor, Also a Coach, Finds Congregants Readily at Rink Side

July 17, 1999|ELAINE GALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many fledgling congregations have been forced to get creative in finding places to meet. Churches these days are popping up in storefronts or have struck interfaith arrangements to share space with other congregations.

So why not a roller-hockey rink?

For more than two years, the Stone Bridge Christian Church in Huntington Beach has held services in a multipurpose room adjacent to a roller-hockey rink. Every Sunday, the faithful gather on plastic lawn chairs, sing contemporary songs, then cluster outside the rink to eat snacks and mingle.

But the link between the church and the game goes much deeper: Pastor Ken Gibo, a former roller-hockey pro, says the congregation was formed by families whose children played hockey together and who were also seeking a familiar and comfortable faith community.

"I wanted to use my platform as a professional athlete to talk about Jesus," said Gibo, whose congregation now hovers around 200 people each week inside the Coast 2 Coast Inline Hockey Center.

The congregants are enthusiastic about Gibo's casual style and the symbiosis of their congregation's common interests: hockey and Christianity.

Sitting in the back row this past Sunday, Jorgina Urbano of Huntington Beach sang a song about Jesus and rocked her sleepy nephew Stuart.

"When I first started coming, I didn't even know how to read the Bible," said Urbano, who joined Stone Bridge after she'd spent quite a few evenings at the rink watching her nephew whack the puck around the rink.

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A lapsed Catholic, Urbano said she'd spent years searching for a spiritual community that suited her needs: one that was casual, welcomed singles and families alike and where she actually recognized her fellow churchgoers.

"This is the only church I've ever been comfortable with," she said, fiddling with the big, silver cross around her neck. "I can actually see God working in my life now."

Recently laid off from work, Urbano said that the whole congregation has prayed for her and that she has a newfound sense of peace in her life after coming to church each week for a few years.

Others in the church came only for the worship and ended up getting involved in the hockey leagues. Mothers, fathers, little kids and teenagers all have leagues and tournaments at the center.

For John and Julie Monges of San Dimas, the appeal of Stone Bridge was the contemporary music, the sense of community among the congregants and the casual atmosphere.

"It's nice to be able to wear shorts," said John Monges. "It's not your appearance that makes you a religious person, it's what's in your heart."

Monges has a 9-year-old son named Nick who ended up playing hockey after making friends in the church. His father is grateful that his son is fraternizing with nice, churchgoing friends in his spare time.

"As a parent nowadays, you're concerned about who your kids' friends are,' he said.

Gibo, wearing khakis and a flowered shirt, stepped up to a raised platform to preach about the value of community and the lessons that hockey has to teach in life outside the rink: exercising self-discipline and delayed gratification.

"We want to connect the Gospel to people who don't normally go to church," said Gibo. "As a result of knowing some of us in the rink, they don't think we're too weird. So then they feel comfortable checking out the church."

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Church members are careful not to proselytize outside their meeting room, said Chad Seibel, hockey director of the Coast 2 Coast Inline Hockey Center and a member of the church.

Still, he said, lots of nonmembers at the rink take notice when church is in session and some pick up a flier or sign up for a pancake breakfast.

"A lot of times, walking in a church door is very intimidating," he said. "Here, you already know a lot of other people because you play in leagues."

He said the concept has drawn attention even from other pastors, including one who traveled from Seattle to see how Gibo's concept of a rink and a church under one roof is working.

After Sunday's service, Gibo strapped on his kneepads and grabbed a hockey stick to lead a practice for a group of teen roller-hockey players.

He understands that some people may think a church in a rink is incongruous, but he said the parallels between roller-hockey and living a Christian life are significant.

"You really have to focus on the goal," he said. "It takes discipline. You don't want to get sidetracked. It's the same way in our walk with Christ."

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