SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Reverend Steve Bligh was once a competitive surfer but these days he combines riding the waves with competing for souls at the Surfers Church in Sydney.
At the end of 2007, the former Anglican minister resigned from his position in a leafy Sydney suburb to return to the ocean and minister to his flock on the waves of Maroubra Beach.
“It’s really unstructured, we don’t have a physical building. We meet on Sunday mornings and teach the men, women and children of our congregation how to surf, then afterwards we have brunch,” Bligh told Reuters in an interview.
“But I want us to talk God talk as part of our conversations when we are out there on the waves,” said Bligh.
There are four Christian surfing churches in Australia and about 12 worldwide, including professional Christian surfers around the world, such as American C.J. Hobgood who is ranked 5th in the world and his brother Damian ranked 24th. There is also a Surfer’s Bible, which comes with a waterproof zip-pocket.
Maroubra beach gained international fame in 2007 with the release of a documentary on its tough surf gang, called the “Bra Boys,” which was narrated by Hollywood star Russell Crowe and told a tale of murder, police confrontations and gang solidarity.
The prime motivation for Bligh to start his Surfers’ Church was witnessing deaths, dysfunctional families and one or two wrecked lives. Believing the established church way was not working at Maroubra, he set his own up on the waves.
Bligh also adopted the “My Brother’s Keeper” motto of the “Bra Boys,” which is tattooed on gang members.
“Some people think ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ comes from the ‘Pulp Fiction’ movie, it actually comes from Genesis IV,” he said.
“Most of us who are more the public people of Surfers’ Church, we’ve been through enough in life with members of the Maroubra surfing community to have some form of integrity.”
Australians flock to the beach each summer.
Sun-lovers, swimmers and surfers jockey for a patch of sand and crowded waves and Bligh admits it can be tough maintaining order and respect in the surf.
“There’s some elite surfers amongst us Christian surfers worldwide and there’s a way to get waves and enjoy them,” he said. “We are always thought to be the good guys and girls on the surf -- but not doormats.”
An explosion in the popularity in surfing in the past decade in Australia, and around the world, is reflected in the growth of backyard surf companies into multi-million publicly-listed firms, like Quiksilver and Billabong.
But with the popularity as come the crowds and “surf rage” where surfers fight over waves and gang fights over beaches.
In 2005, an attack on a pair of lifeguards at Cronulla sparked riots between white Australian youths and ethnic-Lebanese Australians. In Maroubra, the “Bra Boys” clash with other gangs and the police.
Former Australian world surfing champion Nat Young was a victim of ‘surf rage’ when he was severely bashed on his home break after a long running feud and heated altercation with another local surfer.
Young’s bashing prompted Australia’s surfing community to erect signs at beaches explaining surfing etiquette in an attempt to reduce “surf rage” in crowded waves.
“There’s aggression and selfishness in every area of life and it just manifests itself in in surfing,” said Bligh.
”At a crowded city beach, yes, it is very intense and there are a lot of problems but I know around the world there are similar problems, he said.
Most of Bligh’s Christian surfers pray before they go for a surf or while they sit on their surfboards waiting for a wave, believing it makes a difference to their attitude and behavior.
“As others get fired up sometimes, we can be peacemakers dealing with crowded inner city beaches,” Bligh said.
Editing by Miral Fahmy