HONOLULU — If Jesus were alive today, he would be a surfer. He would mingle with fishermen and beach bums and lay his mat on the sand among the scantily clad. Instead of walking on water, he would ride waves on a carved piece of fiberglass, keeping an eye out for anyone who needed saving.
This is what Dean Sabate and his friends believe.
They are surfers for Jesus. Today they are on Waikiki Beach doing what they believe Jesus would be doing. While others might see a frolicking crowd, Sabate and his group see sprinkled among the masses a few lost souls who need tending.
"This is our ministry, being out here, being in the ocean, making friends," says Sabate, 42. He is a former pro surfer, muscular and bronzed.
"We don't go thumping people on the head with a Bible. We come out here, enjoy the water and talk to people," he says. "We just allow God to work."
Lost souls include the lonely, the poor, the hopeless and the worn out. These are plentiful in paradise, though they're not always easy to spot. In Sabate's experience, those who seem together may be the least together people on the beach. You can hide sadness behind a pair of shades.
He knows. Just seven months ago, Sabate, once considered a surfer prodigy, was aimless and living in a park on the other side of Oahu. A pastor found him, befriended him and introduced him to a group of Christian surfers. Now Sabate leads a group of "surfer missionaries" doing their thing. There are about a dozen of them here on this postcard-perfect afternoon. The sun blazes down through blue skies. The surfers spread out like a platoon on patrol.
Waikiki is a haven for tourists but also draws its share of the homeless and wayward. Everyone is a potential convert.
One of the surfers, Dave Strigl, 38, takes me out on the water. We paddle on boards around Mamala Bay. His ultimate goal, as with most missionaries, is to bring people into a relationship with Jesus.
But the surfers don't rush it. They're willing to wait months, even years, for a conversion, a sort of incremental nudging into faith. On these outreach trips, they're mostly interested in developing friendships. The surfers' approach in one line: "Make friends first, God will do the rest."
On the water, there's no talk of Jesus, but death comes up.
"See that sea turtle?" Strigl says, gesturing toward an approaching shell.
"I didn't know sea turtles came this close to shore," I say.
"It could mean sharks," Strigl says, smiling. It is a nudge. Sharks could cause death and death leads to the afterlife. The afterlife is a natural segue into God. That talk would come later.
The surfer missionaries do beach things: sunbathe, stroll, swim, surf, staying alert to any likely encounter with a stranger. Inside the surfers' van, in case anyone shows interest, is a box of Christian tracts. On some occasions, the surfers gather at the beach and pray, then hand out the tracts to people who approach.
On a grassy spot above the beach, Sabate chats with a surfer named Scott, who has stopped by. He is a friend from Sabate's days on the pro circuit. Sabate was born and raised in Hawaii and seems to bump into friends at every beach. Scott is separated from his wife and doesn't know what to do.
"Only God can heal a broken relationship," Sabate tells him.
On-the-spot conversions generally don't happen. A good day is when a single conversation leads to a single invitation to a Bible study. The main thing, according to the group's philosophy, is to hang out with the needy like Jesus did. Jesus preferred the company of those on society's lowest rung: prostitutes, tax collectors and fishermen. In some realms today, that rung would include surfers, often viewed as loafers and deadbeats or pleasure-seeking Bohemians who forsake everything for the perfect wave.
After three hours on the beach, the surfer missionaries regroup, pile into their van and head for the hills above Honolulu. The van chugs up a winding road into the heart of Kalihi Valley, a lush ravine of low-income houses and apartments.
An upright surfboard by the side of the road marks the spot where the van turns onto a long dirt driveway. The driveway leads into a three-acre compound of ramshackle buildings with tin roofs. This is home base.
It used to be a kimchi factory. Since 1997, longtime missionaries Tom and Cindy Bauer have used the property as headquarters for their ministry called Surfing the Nations. Sabate and Strigl are leaders in the group.
The ministry is part relief agency, missionary training camp and surfers' crash pad. The group surfs in the early mornings, serves for most of the day, then surfs again in the late afternoons.
Service can include outreach, cleaning house for the disabled and holding surf workshops for young teens. In between the surfing and service, surfers study the Bible, attend missionary classes and maintain the compound. They spend two hours a day praying and meditating.
About 25 people stay on the property in separate bunkhouses for men and women.