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Skateboard Heaven

RAMP 48 is a low-budget affair, 25,000 square feet of raw commercial space that used to be a West Palm Beach indoor flea market. Now, with the aid of many unpainted two-by-fours, plywood, and industrial-grade, mesh-metal fence, it's separated into several distinct zones of skateboard topography including ramps, platforms, and pipes of varying degrees of difficulty. It's the largest indoor skate park in South Florida.

The action on a recent Monday night is in the two main arenas, where skaters launch themselves down long walls of curved wooden embankments, across a landscape of graded risers and platforms, and up the opposing wall's pipes to a ledge, where they turn around and start the potentially bone-breaking process over again. The best skaters manage to angle themselves and their boards into the air along the way, with flips, fakies, slides, grinds, and other maneuvers that have names too jargonistic to remember. Watch closely; there's a lot of How'd he do that? to admire.

The crowd is typical of the skate scene; it includes a few girls, but adolescent boys, ages 10 to 14, dominate. Most are in full skate-punk gear: logo-bearing sweatshirts, baggy pants, charge card-busting designer sneaks, back-flipped baseball caps. They delicately balance upon slender strips of wood on wheels and determinedly throw life and limb into the air over hard-edged surfaces and around metal stanchions like there's no tomorrow.

Enter two older guys: Kent Green, age 43, and Jimmy Grosz, age 38. The whirs, clatters, and clumps of the 100 or so young skaters gradually wind down as word gets around that it's Bible-study time. That's the Monday-night deal at RAMP 48: One hour of Bible study gets you two free hours of skating.

Green, who works here part-time, is tall and solid, with close-cropped graying hair. He's wearing blue jeans, a blue polo shirt, and sneakers. His full-time job is as a lay minister with Palm Beach County Youth for Christ, part of a national, nondenominational ministry formerly headed by Billy Graham.

He calls the kids to order, but they aren't particularly orderly. They're sprawled all along a 40-foot-long quarter pipe, some with knees tucked up under their chins, a Bible in one hand and a crash helmet in the other. No one talks or fools around. The study session begins with a game of "find the verse." Green calls out chapter and verse numbers of a Bible passage, and the first skater to find it gets to stand and read it aloud. Prizes of soda, candy, and skateboarding posters sweeten the pot.

Green seems comfortable with the kids but a little stiff of manner for a skate park. After 15 minutes or so, he hands the floor to Grosz, whose baggy black Nike shorts, black slip-on sneakers, and long blond ponytail are much more down with the scene. Grosz's rap concerns: What else? Salvation. "Sin travels through our bloodline," he tells the kids. And, he says, "Our acts have consequences." There's no fire and brimstone, however. While the Ten Commandments are meant "to keep us on track," Grosz says, "they're not there so that we don't have any fun."

The kids listen attentively for half an hour longer, then it's back to skateboarding; another former citadel of adolescent rebellion has fallen to the faithful. Similar skate-and-prayer groups have sprung up in Southern California and along the New Jersey shore, where, as in South Florida, surfboard culture breeds skateboard culture. But Broward and Palm Beach counties are in the movement's vanguard.

Reaching an unconventional flock requires unconventional means, according to Mike Pechonis, the central figure in the scene and owner of this RAMP 48 and its sister park, the original location in Pompano Beach. Pechonis is a wiry guy of average height, slender but muscular, brown as a nut, and without an ounce of body fat, with a pleasantly poodle-y, goateed face. Even at his most fervent, he exhibits not a trace of self-importance and addresses everyone as "bro."

A self-described walking Christian (as in "walk it like you talk it," he explains), Pechonis, who's been skating and surfing for more than 20 years, admits his own spiritual growth was "a progressive thing.... I think everyone has this God-shaped void inside," he says. "I was trying to plug a surfboard into that void."

RAMP 48 grew out of another offbeat, Christian ministry called S.U.R.F. (Surfers United for Righteous Fellowship), a Broward County group that took shape around the late Kirk Cottrell, the founding owner of Island Water Sports. A charismatic figure, Cottrell was a dedicated surfer and partier who turned to Jesus in the late 1980s.

As Pechonis recites it, S.U.R.F. held its meetings in the Cottrell home. Sometimes members rented a municipal hall to screen surfing films before the sermon. In 1989 they linked up with Fort Lauderdale's Calvary Chapel, then a storefront operation with roots in Southern California's beach culture. "The surfer is kind of a loner," Pechonis says, explaining why Cottrell's approach struck a chord. "He's intrinsically cool. The mainstream church turns him off."

S.U.R.F. lasted into the mid-'90s, but its character changed, Pechonis says; it was flooded by wannabes drawn to the surfer mystique. "We started getting these college-age, career, single types," he says. "The surf core dropped out."

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."

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Steve Ellman

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