'Lord, keep our bones safe as we skate'

It was sundown in a mostly deserted parking lot tucked off Westminster Boulevard. The skateboarders had stopped, as they do every Thursday, to listen to the man with the Bible.

A single lamppost shone over the makeshift skate park, where ramps and wooden ledges sporting the words Gravity Youth covered the parking spaces. Two dozen or so skateboards littered the ground as their riders sat on the curb. Above them, Aaron Morgan held the book open on his left hand and asked how many people had come for the first time.

One hand shot up.

"All right, guys," Morgan said. "This is skate church, so whether you like it or not, I'm going to preach the word of God to you."

A stack of pizza boxes sat at the end of the curb, but Morgan made it clear they wouldn't be opened until he finished speaking. As the sky went from hazy to dark, Morgan, the youth leader at the Sanctuary in Westminster, held forth about hypocrisy, free will, Jesus' sacrifice and the perils of apathy.

Morgan guessed that most of the teenagers were congregation members of the Sanctuary, a church with heavy ties to the skateboarding world. Some, he admitted before the speech, may have just come for the skate park — and he would welcome more. At one point, he told each of the boys to bring a friend the next time he attended.

The sermon ended after a few minutes, and Morgan blessed the food. In the middle of his prayer, he gave God a specific request: "Lord, keep our bones safe as we skate."


Christ over cocaine

As the pizza disappeared and a few riders returned to their boards, Senior Pastor Jay Haizlip stood on the curb and watched his endeavor expand — another Thursday evening, another convert.

Haizlip, a Huntington Beach resident and former professional skateboarder, founded the Sanctuary in Huntington in 2002. He is quick to note that his project is not a "skateboarding church." The staff boasts three current or former professional skateboarders among its pastors, and it uses events like the Thursday skate park to attract youth.

But Haizlip is mostly intent on spreading the Gospel, and if it takes a few ramps and boards to entice people inside the church, he'll do it.

"Wherever I go, I don't hang up my Christianity in the closet and go skateboard and when I'm done skateboarding, put my Christianity back on," he said. "I'm just who I am."

It was an identity that came hard.

Haizlip, who was born to a single teenage mother in Alabama, lived a secular life growing up. In the late 1970s, he moved to Southern California and made his name as a skateboarder, winning contests and corporate sponsors.

He also developed a cocaine habit. When his grandfather developed cancer in Arkansas, Haizlip returned to his home state and resolved to turn his life around.

The turning point came in 1990, when Haizlip had what he calls "a radical encounter with Jesus." Feeling that God wanted him to start a church, he became an evangelist and preached in the United States and abroad, then moved back to Southern California in 2002.

The Sanctuary started small and, in its early years, bounced from one location to another — first the Edison Community Center, then Golden West College, then Grace Lutheran Church and even an industrial tract near Bolsa Chica. The church moved to its current home in Westminster three years ago, although many people, Haizlip said, still refer to it as the Sanctuary Huntington Beach.

Haizlip had solid community support by the time his church opened in November 2002; a volunteer team of 150 children, teenagers and adults had spent the last few months planning. The Wednesday after the church's first service, it hosted a youth event at the Huntington Beach Central Library with a coffee shop and a multimedia production.

Soon, Haizlip's skateboarding fame began to draw a wider crowd to the church.

Shawn Mandoli, who had walked away from his own professional career and joined the leadership of a church in Oceanside, began attending the Sanctuary and became a pastor. British skateboarder Brian Sumner joined the staff as a deacon and often speaks on Sunday nights.

Another skateboarding pastor came on board as well, but Haizlip had to pay a special visit — to a sobering location — to convince him.


'This is where I'm at'

Christian Hosoi found God and found trouble almost at the same time.

The Hollywood native dominated professional skateboarding as a teenager and young adult, taking first in National Skateboard Assn. contests, the Titus World Cup, the Japan Slam Jam and others. By his mid-20s, his career had faltered and he fell into heavy drug use, even staying away from competitions for fear of being arrested.

In 2000, police finally caught Hosoi at the Honolulu airport and charged him with possession of crystal methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. Shortly before the arrest, his new girlfriend, Jennifer Lee, had talked him into attending church with her.

Lee, who is now Hosoi's wife, continued to support him behind bars.

"The first day I was in prison, she told me to go get a Bible," said Hosoi, a Huntington Beach resident.

Although Hosoi's nickname growing up was Christ, and he even invented a skateboarding move called the Christ Air, he had never attended church or read the Bible. In prison, though, he converted to Christianity.

And it was at the San Bernardino County jail that Haizlip, who had recently founded the Sanctuary and knew Hosoi through the skateboarding world, came to visit him one day.

Haizlip told Hosoi about his church, about his own battles with addiction and how faith had altered his focus. Upon his release in 2004, Hosoi began attending the Sanctuary. Now, he serves as both a pastor and an ambassador for the church, preaching in cities across the country in between skateboarding competitions.

As often as he can, Hosoi leads the Sanctuary's Sunday and Thursday services.

"When I'm in town, this is where I'm at," he said.


From skaters to bangers

The congregation Hosoi helps preside over features an eclectic mix. Some, according to Haizlip, are people with life stories similar to his and Hosoi's — former drug addicts or gang members who hope to turn their lives around. There are also suburban families, blue-collar workers and, of course, plenty of skaters.

Nhat Vo, 15, who began attending Gravity Youth this summer, said he came on a friend's recommendation. The Garden Grove resident said many of his peers gravitated to the skate park because it offered a place to perform tricks without fear of being shooed away. Still, he found the experience a revelation.

"It changed me," he said. "It changed my perspective on things."

The Sanctuary is nondenominational, and Haizlip and his staff make a point of uniting disparate parts of the community. But they're willing to get tough with their message, and even — literally — incendiary.

The day before Halloween, the church hosted a "Tour of Hell," which featured onstage pyrotechnics and a soundtrack of wailing and gnashing teeth. Haizlip played the role of tour guide, while actors in costume portrayed Biblical characters, including Pontius Pilate and Jezebel, who missed getting into heaven.

At times, the church reaches out to an audience even more hard-boiled than the repentant gang members in the pews: A team of pastors and volunteers visits prisons around California, from San Quentin to San Diego, and gives sermons and skateboarding demonstrations to the inmates.

The message Haizlip seeks to impart is simple — that religion can save them from self-annihilation the way it did him.

"We just go in there and really give them hope," he said.


'God's gonna do something'

On Oct. 27, after Morgan had finished his speech outside, Haizlip began the evening's adult service inside the church. More than 100 people, from teenagers to seniors, filled the pews. Wearing a long-sleeved white shirt and black slacks, his hair up in a near-pompadour, the pastor shouted hoarsely into a hand-held microphone.

"I just sensed God's gonna do something," he thundered, inviting a roar from the crowd. "God's gonna touch somebody."

Another roar.

Hosoi was scheduled as the main speaker that night, and Haizlip told the audience the story of his skateboarding career before offering the night's prize: a single Hammerhead skateboard, a brand Hosoi modeled in the 1980s. The church had advertised the skateboard giveaway on Facebook, and Hosoi chose a young adult who recently joined the congregation as the recipient.

Shortly before 8 p.m., Hosoi took the stage alone. He called for "hallelujahs," then launched into an impassioned account of his checkered life: the early fame, the time in prison and the lessons he learned. At one point, he told the audience that January would mark his 12th anniversary of being saved.

"My nickname was Christ," he said. "My name is Christian. I invented the Christ Air. But this is not about me."


Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

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