Rolling, sun-kissed waves on the Pacific Ocean provide Jerry Phillips, a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of California–Santa Barbara (UCSB) more than a stage on which to improve his surfing technique. Dropping into those waves offers him an opportunity to connect with the earth and spend time in a growth-minded, purposeful community, he said.

Phillips belongs to an intimate group called “Surfing and Spirituality” that started in fall 2016. The group meets every Wednesday morning and is led by Scott Claassen, vicar and chaplain of St. Michael’s University Church, an ecumenical campus ministry at UCSB.

“Surfing is, for me, a spiritual practice,” Phillips said. “As a young man in a fragmented world, I find that my faith is scattered and often confusing. Surfing and Spirituality grounds me and is definitely part of my weekly search for divinity, deeper faith and purpose.”

The group convenes at a eucalyptus grove that marks the beginning of the pathway to a local surf spot.

“I cannot overemphasize the importance of this walking time. This is the most important part of the group,” Claassen said. “As we walk, students share what is going on in their lives. They talk about the stresses of classes. They describe the struggles in their romances or in their faith. They ask theological questions. But most importantly, we talk in ways that students cannot in other spaces.”

“Surfing is, for me, a spiritual practice. As a young man in a fragmented world, I find that my faith is scattered and often confusing. Surfing and Spirituality grounds me and is definitely part of my weekly search for divinity, deeper faith and purpose.”

So much of what makes the ministry a success is the way in which the group connects spirituality with nature, Claassen said.

“While we are walking, we look out over a field toward the mountains in one direction,” he said. “In the other, we look down a bluff at the ocean and the islands in the distance. There are pelicans, dolphins, snowy plovers, pipers, sea lions, seals and so much more that we encounter every session. That simple act of being in nature helps students realize they are part of something much greater than themselves.”

When the group reaches the beach, they begin the more formal spiritual component. Every week, they engage in a spiritual practice. It’s usually something simple like paying attention to their breath, noticing the wildlife around them or practicing gratitude for each moment. After Claassen gives instructions about that day’s practice, they have a prayer or a moment of silence. Then it’s time to surf.

People who already know how to surf go out on their own while Claassen stays on the beach to instruct any newcomers. The goal for their first  day is to ride a wave on their belly, which happens every time.

“Even if people don’t take up surfing as a regular practice, they go home thinking of the world differently,” Claassen said. “It’s a spiritual transformation with few parallels.”

Daniel Coman, a second-year graduate student, said he enjoys several aspects of the group, including the sense of community it provides and the spiritual practice of surfing.

“Surfing is like a monastic discipline in that it requires the virtues of patience to learn it,” he said. “It is difficult, and you have to persevere. … I leave Surfing and Spirituality with a positive attitude, as if renewed in strength and soaring on wings like eagles. While I am unsure whether I experience God, I experience God through nature, as if it were God. And maybe it is.”

UCSB is typically listed in the top five party schools in the nation, said Don Romsa, ELCA program director for campus ministry. It’s one of those places where doing the kind of work that would typically be done in a campus ministry is really tough to pull off.

Claassen has found unique ways to connect with people that you wouldn’t typically expect in a campus ministry, Romsa said. Surfing and Spirituality is one example.

“Scott provides an opportunity for students to encounter people of faith on their own turf,” he said. “A lot of folks who go to UC–Santa Barbara go there because they can surf a lot. He’s a surfer. He decided this will be a way to connect with people who will probably never come through our doors.”

The campus ministry is ecumenical in a way that is not overt but obvious. In all that it does, it pursues the life and teachings of Jesus, Claassen said. Some of the activities are more traditional, such as a weekly Sunday morning eucharist. Other programs, like Surfing and Spirituality or Café Picasso—a weekly brunch and pantry for students facing food insecurity—show the love of Christ without requiring dogmatic uniformity.

“Historically we were and are an Episcopal mission and campus ministry,” Claassen said. “Recently the Lutheran campus ministry at UCSB was phased out. We were very close to the Lutheran pastors and community, so we agreed that the torch for Lutheran ministry at UCSB could be passed to us. … I look forward to working to make every Lutheran student live into their Lutheran identity in this ecumenical setting and all of the creative ways in which God will work in our community in the years ahead.”

Cindy Uken
Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning reporter based in Palm Springs, Calif. She has worked at USA Today, as well as newspapers in South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and California.

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