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.