Surfing is a higher calling for divinity school student

There’s a blue-and-white sticker on the door of Room 513 in the dormitory at Union Theological Seminary, an imposing institution of Gothic design.

“Life Is Better When You Surf,” it says.

Mary Setterholm moved from Hermosa Beach to New York six weeks ago to begin a new life in her mid 50s, but there are things about herself she can’t change. That’s why, at 5:30 a.m. last Wednesday, Mary Setterholm stepped out of that room, wrestled her surfboard down the quiet hall of the prestigious divinity school and wedged it into the elevator.

“You see? It fits perfectly,” she says of the board, suggesting the gods have intervened.


The streets around Seminary Row in Uptown Manhattan are dark when Setterholm gets outside, and heads turn as she begins marching toward the A Train station at 125th Street with her board.

Surfing is not big in Harlem.

Yes, there are a few surfers in New York. There’s even a website Setterholm checks for the latest conditions. But the sport hasn’t enticed many locals, in part because of the lousy waves and occasionally frigid waters. Neither of which will deter Setterholm, who was born amphibious.

Rockaway Beach in Queens is a schlep, but commuters on the packed trains seem willing to make room for Setterholm’s 7-foot board. Professors are accommodating as well. On Wednesday, she had told the teacher of her two-hour class on the Old Testament a good swell was expected. If all went well, Setterholm planned to ride one wave for each of the 12 tribes of Israel and be back for the second half of class.

“You’re going surfing?” a traveler asks her at the 125th Street station.

“Yes,” she says.

“Where?” he asks.

“Rockaway,” she says, and he nods but doesn’t appear to believe it. He’s lucky he didn’t ask to hear Setterholm’s life story.


As I wrote in July, she’s a former clergy molestation victim who was turned sideways by the ordeal and skidded into a life of self-loathing and prostitution. The only relief she found was in the waves, and at 17, she won the 1972 U.S. Women’s Championship.

Years later, she met with Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony to share the story of her abuse and her fight to survive it, and she advised the cardinal to do less moralizing and more listening to victims. As a gesture of reconciliation, she gave him her surfing trophy.

I was sorry to see Setterholm move to New York. She had been my surfing instructor in Santa Monica, where she runs the Surf Academy. But the Loyola grad wants to one day run a Los Angeles ministry for lost and abused women, and she hopes a master’s of divinity degree will help her achieve that goal.

We’ve stayed in touch since her departure, with Setterholm e-mailing me surfing tips. Then one day she told me she had gone surfing at Rockaway.


“It’s different,” she said of the beach. “No palm trees.”

When Hurricane Dan rolled through, Seminary Row was introduced to the word “stoked.” As she headed to Rockaway to catch the action, a guy on the subway asked if Setterholm knew there was a small craft advisory. Yes, she told him, and the waves would be terrific.

I knew I had to check this out, so when I was in New York last week I tagged along on Setterholm’s surf outing.

As we wait for the train at 125th Street, a rat the size of an armadillo makes a dash across the platform. A female commuter yells, “Ben, get down!”


Is she recalling the 1970s movie about a boy with a pet rodent, or does she know the subway rats by name?

The A Train arrives with plenty of room for Setterholm and her board, which she stands up in one of the cars, wondering aloud when the MTA is going to get surfboard racks. Passengers take in the sight, Setterholm in a blue “surf instructor” sweat shirt, and seem to be wondering if this is some kind of a gag.

As the train rattles along, Setterholm does her homework, reading an article titled “Religious Diversity and the Paradox of Liberal Imperialism.” So they don’t get the wrong idea, Setterholm has told professors she means no disrespect when she misses class. It’s just that going surfing is not a choice, but a calling.

“It’s a seminary,” she tells me. “If they can’t be more flexible about how they contextualize spirituality, we’re not making any progress.”


When we transfer to another train, Setterholm shares a platform with students on their way to high school. The adult is the only one playing hooky.

It’s raining, windy and chilly when we land in Rockaway and walk toward the beach. From the boardwalk, it’s clear that the surf is a mess. Setterholm calls it a Maytag Day, the gray-brown water churning with no neat lines of waves in sight.

“You going out?” another surfer asks, as if looking for a little moral support.

Of course she is. She’s in the water now, getting hammered as she tries to paddle out. She makes a little progress, then gets pummeled and tossed back almost all the way to the beach, where she starts the fight again. The story of her life.


Forty minutes of pounding later, she’s out there with two other surfers as the conditions get worse, and no one can find anything to ride in all that chop. Setterholm is dodging disaster as she reads the ocean, trying to find her moment.

And boom, there it is. She’s up on the board, riding a current just as it hiccups into a sharp-angled wall. A few minutes later, she’s got an even better one, a wave with some shape and a fleeting bit of curl. Setterholm is walking on water.

Heading back to school, Setterholm has to switch trains at Columbus Circle and makes a mad dash as the doors are closing on a train packed tighter than a can of tuna.

She uses the surfboard almost as a battering ram, parting the sea of people.


The back of the board catches in the door, which reopens long enough for her to pull it safely onto the train.

It’s a very L.A. way of becoming a New Yorker.

Back at Union, the school president tells me Setterholm is amazingly advanced for a first-year seminary student. Setterholm’s classmates describe her as a compassionate friend, a probing mind and a role model.

The Old Testament professor says the passion for surfing is not inconsistent with the Bible’s many exclamations about the wonder of nature.


As for Setterholm, who sits at her desk taking notes, she’s stoked that she found those two waves and still made it back to class before the break.


Get used to the word, New York.



I haven’t forgotten about readers’ Manny Ramirez put-downs, but it’s going to take me a while to get through nearly 900 of them. Check my Wednesday column to find out whom I’ll give my World Series tickets to.