There is a metropolitan city belonging to the state of Tamil Nadu on the southeast edge of India called Chennai. A melting pot of almost six and half million people made up of over thirty different communities and over ten languages. India’s diversity is multifaceted and embedded deep within its culture. Separated by thirty-six different territories made up of over sixteen-hundred languages (not including dialects), what unifies this country is its belief. Hinduism is by far the leading religion making up about 85%-90% of the overall population. It is a religion that is hard to define due to its own inner diversity. It is estimated to include over thirty-million deities, but no one actually knows due to the creation of new ones every day. Hands down, India is the most diverse place I have ever visited.
We stepped off the plane and encountered statue after statue with flowers and candles embroidering each of them. Giant carved hands were protruding from the wall in the airport lobby of the nine mudras (hand gestures), with the distinct smell of incense permeating through an array of a hundred other smells. We were face to face with men, women, and children who looked different than us (or us to them) and yet so alike given our singular source. The country of India is deeply spiritual. To say it is religious would be misleading; while many are practicing their religion, many still are not. Regardless of their devotion, what ties them together is their spirituality. It is a way of life that is revered and ruthlessly protected.
To the group of people we were traveling to visit, belongs a pastor and his wife (for the sake of their ministry and safety, we have chosen to refer to them by the names, “Ben” and “Alisha”). Ben, raised in Chennai, met Alisha when she visited the city to study the Bible. They both attended a small Bible school that met in an orphanage, and after being trained and equipped, they were sent back out, returning to the people from whom they came. They began their ministry by declaring the Gospel in the slums and helping meet the physical needs of those living there. A massive percentage of the population in India lives in these so-called “slums.” In Chennai alone, about one-third of the total inhabitants live in a sanctioned area of town with little to no access to basic necessities. Looking in, these shanty houses appear as if they are only being held up by one another. Ben and Alisha spent five years serving these communities until God gave them the vision to multiply their efforts. Honoring the school that trained them for this work they were leading, their heart burned to also teach and train others in the Gospel and send them to the furthest parts of India!
The school that had trained Ben and Alisha had closed, and they were praying about ways in which they could equip the next generation. A Ride Nature trip to India a few years prior had forged a relationship and united our hearts with Ben and Alisha as they witnessed the youth flock around our crew as we skateboarded in the streets of their hometown. India is not exactly known for action sports. While skateboarding is on the rise globally, there is still a small percentage of people in India that have even seen a board in person, much less participated in the sport. Ben had never stepped foot on a skateboard, and yet, this was right up his alley. As God would have it, we were using a toy to tell others about His Good News for the world. He and Alisha seemed to have a keen insight to view the things that to most seem ordinary, but to God are spiritual bridges for the Gospel advancing.
Due to the political tension that exists in India and the increasing need for the Church to go “underground” with its tactics, many have started for-profit entities that can provide sustainability while also providing a platform for ministry. Ben and Alisha have successfully started several of these “business as mission” models. One of these entities, led by Alisha, is a sewing factory. Having no prior experience and without owning any equipment came a determination to carry out the vision that God had placed upon her heart. They raised what they needed to purchase their first sewing machine, and with that, she set her aim on learning the trade, some days staying up all night to do so. Today, the business has dozens of machines and provides a safe space for hundreds of women to learn the trade and earn an income! More importantly, it has provided an opportunity for the life-giving waters of the Gospel to seep into the broader community.
“Can you teach our students how to skateboard?” asked Ben. This was the Gospel bridge that began our conversations about skateboarding in Chennai. The vision was to build a skatepark on the campus where the students would have access to skateboarding and the opportunity to learn to skate while in the seminary program. Over the last five years, their Bible school has trained and released over five-hundred pastors and planted just as many churches all across India! Each of these men are faced with similar struggles and persecution from the government and so it is key for them to be not only equipped with biblical knowledge but also Gospel bridge-building strategies.
Of course, we were excited about the idea of a group of seminary students and future pastors becoming skateboarders, yet, admittedly, we were unsure of how successful a vision like this would be. Raising the money to build a skatepark on the campus was one thing, but how were we going to teach a group of people on the other side of the world how to skate, many of whom were from undeveloped areas and may have never even seen a skateboard, and most still, spoke a different language? And then, to top it off, we were going to train them how to use skateboarding as a tool for the Gospel in a country with very little action sports presence and only a handful of skateparks? Well, we packed up these questions along with ten skateboards and some money we had raised and set our course for India.
Even though we had raised the money we thought it would take to build a small skate park, I really can’t explain how things came together once we landed, except that
God knew exactly what we needed and was already putting the pieces together before we ever arrived.
We spent the first two days in Country with the students, casting vision and offering whatever training we could on what it would look like to use this foreign, oblong object with four wheels as a means for evangelism. I’ll admit, it was a bit frustrating and even after the excitement of watching them learn how to put the boards together and taking their first push, we were still left wondering how in the world God was going to use this! The room that we were using to teach them how to ride, or even just stand on the boards for that matter, was covered in at least a half an inch of dust from all the construction happening close by. Even after it was swept, we wondered how this was going to work. The freshly gripped brand new skate decks that we had brought with us turned instantly entirely white as the students took turns standing on the boards. For those that skate, you know how dust and dirt can make a board “unfit” for skateboarding, yet for these students, this was the most fun they had experienced in a long time. It was at that moment I remembered the simple gift of skating and recognized that God was teaching us a little bit about what He sees as “fitting”. Our time in Chennai began to all come together in an instant.
After seeing the stoke from the young men we were excited to see how they would respond when we told them we had more to give. We had raised $10,000 and brought that money with us with the hope of developing a plan for a small skatepark there on the property. But where to put it, who would build it, how would they know where to even begin, were all additional questions we had pondered before leaving Florida. While we were walking with Ben on the property, we passed by a shed with some men welding. Josh was the first one to enter and after quickly looking around at the materials they had available, it seemed like there was an opportunity there that we had to seize. With the help of an interpreter and some crude dimensions, in about fifteen minutes we had put together a small flat bar. I’ll never forget the smile of that flip-flop-footed, work-til-my-back-breaks, no-days-off, grease-covered man as he held up that six-foot steel pipe he just welded with pride. He had no clue what he was holding but he was happy to be good at his job. The fulfillment of this request was quickly met with another idea and then another until all the welders, a group of students, and a couple of other people that heard about the project jumped in excitedly to help build whatever we could. After two full days with lots of creative ingenuity along with some prayers, we built enough features to put together a full mini skate park. We left the remaining funds that we brought, which have since been used to pour a new concrete pad, and this little Bible school outside of Chennai is now raising up pastors that we pray will be pushing their congregation to get on board, pun intended!
This story really has very little to do with how we built those features and everything to do with the readiness of a pastor and his wife to reach as many people as possible through as many means as possible. It’s about a group of students willing to learn something new so that they can have the ability to speak to others that they may not otherwise have been able to. It’s about the Gospel; the greatest news throughout history past, present, and future being prioritized above all else! This Gospel is a message to be delivered. How it is delivered is only a matter of context.
“…though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” - 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Someone may not see skateboarding as a legitimate way to share the Gospel in India. At one time we also had our own doubts. But perhaps God sees it differently. Perhaps God likes to use unlikely means so that we can’t take credit for it. The Apostle Paul is not just being creative with his life, he is exemplifying the Savior. Using new forms of reaching people is nothing short of the same thing that Christ did for us when He became a servant to those furthest from Him so that He might win them to Himself. It’s what drove Paul to become all things to all men. It’s what drives Ben and Alisha to mobilize themselves, their church, and their students. May we follow in their footsteps alongside Paul and countless others, that in Christ we may say
“that by all means, I might save some.”