Joe Surf: Faith finds a place in surfing

Show me a beach with a wave, and I'll show you a surf school. But not all surf schools are alike.

Most of them will teach you about paddling out, getting into a lineup, wave judgment, surf etiquette, etc., but Laguna Beach has a surf school that's different than most.

Soul Surfing School will teach you how to ride a wave while learning about Jesus Christ. Well, not at exactly the same time, but you get the point.

On its website (, Soul Surfing School describes its mission and purpose as thus:

"Kids who attend the camps will experience the thrill of surfing in a beautiful location with a focus on their relationship with Jesus. Our goal includes strengthening the walk of Christian kids who attend the camp in addition to sharing the gospel message of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with non-Christians and providing an outreach ministry to surfers in and out of the water. We are committed to providing professional instruction, ensure students' safety and encourage an appreciation of the ocean. We desire to be a positive witness of our Christian faith both in the surfing industry and in the community."

Chris and Karen Williams opened their doors to Soul Surfing School in 2004 because it made sense to them. It combines their passion for Christianity, surfing and business.

That's right, I said it. Christianity, surfing and business.

Chris Williams, who has contributed a surfing column to a sister paper, the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot, started out as a valet at Las Brisas in Laguna Beach and worked his way up in the hospitality world, becoming general manager for El Torito Grill at Fashion Island and the Beach House in Laguna.

"When Karen and I felt God's calling, the movie 'Blue Crush' had come out and there was a boon in surfing, especially with girls," Chris Williams said. "I said, 'Hey, I have a lot of background in special events and catering; let's make an impact in the surfing world. Let's combine our passion for surfing with my skills of running events.'"

Using the relationships he developed with many of the hotels' concierges, Chris Williams turned it into a successful business, partnering up with luxury hotels "from Huntington to La Jolla," including Montage and the Ritz-Carlton, providing surfing lessons to the resorts' clients.

That success has allowed Soul Surfing School to thrive in its other endeavor, spreading the word of Christ through surfing. One of Soul Surfing School's programs is the surf camp it provides — free of charge — to all children of Camp Pendleton Marines who are deployed.

"The Pendleton kids club is blowing up," Chris Williams said. "It's amazing. We've got 60 kids a week. We're getting more and more opportunities to do more ministries. We want to do more with inner-city kids who need to be taken care of and taught about the Gospel."

Soul Surfing School provides lessons, clubs and camps for the groms on up to the high-schoolers, but their big events each year are the trips to Costa Rica and Hawaii.

"We get off the plane and get together with the Costa Rican chapter of Christian Surfers, mingle, give 'em some T-shirts and stickers, and then we go to their local break and surf with them," said Chris Williams, who also speaks at schools and other venues for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. "We point them toward the values of Jesus Christ and talk about loving one another, the Golden Rule, patience and peace, all that good stuff, and it's all cloaked in surfing."

And it so happens that there's a movie out now called "Soul Surfer," the story of Bethany Hamilton, whose left arm was bitten off at the shoulder by a 14-foot tiger shark when she was 13 in 2003, only to return to the water a month after the attack. Through determination and faith, she turned pro in 2007 and has competed in Assn. of Surfing Professionals and World Tour events.

"We loved it," Chris Williams said of his reaction to hearing the name of the movie. "I got to surf with Bethany and she's spoken at some of our camps. Bethany is open about her faith. It was great for Soul Surfing School … it moved us up on Google search."

He said the movie's title and message fit perfectly with the message he and Karen are trying to convey. And Bethany is living proof it works.

"When I first got to surf with her, years ago, it was really inspiring," Williams said. "She'd stand up in front of the kids at camp and tell them, 'Life throws you curveballs, but if you have faith in Jesus Christ and don't give up, you can achieve anything.' Someone asked her if she would change anything, even getting attacked by a shark, and she said no, she wouldn't. It was a neat opportunity to shed light on what we do."

Don't be mistaken, Soul Surfing School is also serious about surfing. The school offers high-level instruction and, this Saturday, will take a team to the Christian Surfing Federation's Freedom Surf Series championships at T-Street in San Clemente.

"The beautiful thing about this event is we have a family-type atmosphere where kids who've never been on a board before can get out there with their dads, who can push them into a wave, all the way up to high-level competition," said Chris Williams, a father of four boys himself, Zach, 16, George, 8, Burke, 7, and Parker, 4. "It's very professionally run, and also inviting for kids who've never done a competition."

Is it summer yet?

JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at

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