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The group also lost Cottrell, who left the country in 1997 and resettled in South Africa, where he continued to surf and spread the Word, founding a Calvary Chapel in Cape Town. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, he died in a surfing accident off the African coast this past July. Memorial services and mass paddle-outs by fellow surfers here and in South Africa commemorated his death.
In Cottrell's absence Pechonis tried to refocus the ministry by starting a new Bible-study group. It met at a friend's home on a cul-de-sac, a perfect place for skateboarding. "It was strictly a word-of-mouth thing," Pechonis says. "When a surfer can't surf, he skates. Then God started sending us these middle-school and high-school kids."
The group outgrew that location and moved to Pechonis's house, where the mix of Bible study and skating grew until it was "almost like a block party," Pechonis says, "with the neighbors on the verge of torches and pitchforks."
Pechonis had no choice but to find a bigger location. In July 1999 the first RAMP 48 opened in a Pompano Beach shopping center in the Little Brazil area of Sample Road. Like its West Palm offspring, it takes comprises more than 20,000 square feet of abandoned commercial space.
As a business RAMP 48 was an immediate success. Crowds of young skaters packed the place on evenings and weekends, paying three to five dollars an hour to sharpen their skills. Being indoors and air-conditioned gave both locations a big advantage over the competition, mostly outdoor parks subject to the vagaries of South Florida weather.
"We do pretty well" is all Pechonis will say in that regard, though he readily agrees the parks, of which he is sole proprietor, are solid commercial ventures. But, he insists, both RAMP 48s exist as vehicles for the Bible-study groups. If not for the religious dimension, he says, "I'm convinced [the parks] would go the way of the buffalo."
Some might say the kids at RAMP 48 are being brainwashed. Pechonis likes to say they're "more receptive to ideas." Skate ministers preach to the kids in the language they know. To explain that Jesus was eternal, for example, Grosz says he "hung out with God even in the Old Testament." That's followed by a scenario in which John the Baptist, "a freaky radical guy 'cause he was crazy for Jesus" is compared with the professional skater and culture hero Tony Hawk. For those kids who come from Christian households, the teaching is nothing new. The others listen respectfully. Question any of them about skateboarding, Jesus, and the connection between the two, and their replies are surprisingly thoughtful.
Ryan, a 14-year-old from Palm Beach Gardens, is a believer. He says the Jesus-and-skating mix works: "Skating lifts my spirits. And when I do a trick move, Jesus helps me have faith I can do it again."
Thirteen-year-old Mitchell, a Broward County skater, says, "You can keep yourself from sinning by skating." His buddy, Nick, also age 13, adds that he intends to do all the skating he can on Earth, because "God doesn't let you skateboard in Heaven." Asked how he knows that, he cites chapter and verse on exactly what accessories the righteous can get past the Pearly Gates.
Pechonis says that some mainstream Christians look down on the skate ministry. But he says he's spreading the Word the same way Jesus did: "You go down and meet the people where they're at," he explains. "Tradition is killing the mainstream churches in America.
"God's the coolest. I mean, who created the potential for skating? God's about life."