It all started with a revelation, a vision that exceeded the previous capacity of my heart. I sat on my board, waist high in water, facing the horizon as the sun descended into its perfect setting, as if to acknowledge my thoughts. I was seeking, perhaps convicted of my past habit of seeking inwardly instead of outwardly.
I was growing tired of using surfing as a comfortable tool to only further my own relationship with our loving Creator. I wanted something more. I wanted the global opportunity to combine the passions of my heart that could possibly be the gateway to leading others to Christ through the means of surfing. The ocean covers almost 80% of this earth, and I began to again look out into the vastness of its entirety. There was such a presence in the water that evening. I began to notice the auspicious advantages that surfing possessed and the way in which it could be utilized as a mechanism for ministering to others.
Such thoughts gave birth to Da G Surf Ministry, a specialized team of surfers willing to bring together their desires for both God and surfing to extend the kingdom of heaven into a worldwide serving ministry. Unlike on our previous surf trips, where we only soaked in the good surf and amazing sunsets the exotic destinations offered us, we now had a passion to serve the communities whose waves we were only borrowing. We wanted to lend a hand to show how grateful we were for the creation God so diligently made for us.
Our first team consisted of four wild personalities: myself, Mark Chu, Steve Ettlin, and Michelle Gleason. Having assembled a team, we now needed a destination. Through prayer, God connected us with the Sonrise Surf Lodge, a ministry already established in Panama by Huntington Beach surfer Aaron Wilkins.
Bags packed and tropical wax in hand, we boarded a plane to Panama City, where we were greeted with everything we had hoped for: warm weather, beautiful scenery, and friendly Panamanian faces that we felt we had already known for years. We wasted little time getting acquainted with the country as we quickly loaded our car for the first surf excursion of the trip. On the six-hour drive to Cambutal, we quickly found that the chemistry of our ministry team was going to be extremely dynamic, an essential quality to any type of serving. Everyone got along well, and we all recognized that we shared a common goal—loving and living for a God that gave to us first.
By the end of our weekend trip, my skin was a good indicator of how much we had surfed. Thanks to the combination of good surf, warm water, and blistering sun, I developed an irritating sunburn. Though it angered me at times, the sunburn was a small price to pay for experiences I would have on the trip.
Monday arrived, and we were anxious to see what God had prepared for us. I don’t think any of us were quite ready for what would lie ahead of us. Early that morning, I was introduced to what would become one of my best friends of the trip—a shovel.
We labored in the hot sun for hours every day of the week on a project that Aaron had put so much of his faith into. In the beautiful community of Paraíso, Aaron and his collaborator George, one of Panama’s most well-known architects and who happened to be a believer, shared their vision of saving an old house from demolition. With the help of the accompanying work of short-term missionaries like ourselves, and full-time missionaries like Jordan and Lindsay, a couple who moved to Panama from North Carolina earlier in the year, Aaron and George hoped to transform it into a home base for Christian surfers and ministries coming through Panama.
It was a big dream with big tasks that would require an incredible amount of work. However, we could not have guessed that this project would soon provide the foundation for our humility to be challenged. I can’t say that I’ve met too many people who enjoy toiling in the scorching sun. Furthermore, I know with 100% certainty that I have never met a surfer who enjoys it, especially when perfect offshore waves are constantly whispering your name from a distance. None of us had ever experienced such laborious tasks as installing plumbing, mudding, cementing and shoveling, all in the unbearable heat.
The labor turned out to be a blessing. As a group, we immersed ourselves in prayer, daily devotionals and encouraging each other, through scripture, to get through the hard work. In our journey, we had somehow forgotten that we were servants before surfers, and we constantly pleaded with Jesus to remind us of this daily.
Near the end of our trip, we got the relief of getting off work early to attend one of the first meetings of Christian Surfers Panama. We contributed our advice on building its chapter and even had the privilege of playing worship for them. At this meeting, I was blown away by God’s divine appointments. He spoke to us through the broken, heavily-accented English of an El Salvadorian professional surfer named Christian. Christian read from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminding them that we run this race in anticipation of our prize, an eternal prize. Although we were seeking that prize in the form of waves in a more demanding contemporary mindset, God showed us that even though the race might be long and hard, we have eternity to look forward to. We all felt God’s presence that night. It was touching to hear His praises being sung and spoken in so many different languages, revealing how precious His diversity truly is. God is truly not confined to the bubble we regretfully and subconsciously place Him in. His work manifests itself everywhere, in every language, every country, every city and every small town. It was quite emotional to be conscious of that.
The next day was our last day of work, and it no longer felt like merely labor, but a rewarding project. At the end of the day, we were able to take a step back, peek in at the house we helped build and thank God for using us as a missionary tool to help further build His kingdom here on earth.
It was touching to hear His praises being sung and spoken in so many different languages, revealing how precious His diversity truly is. God is truly not confined to the bubble we regretfully and subconsciously place Him in. His work manifests itself everywhere, in every language, every country, every city and every small town.
Our hard work complete, we closed out our trip at one of the best surf spots in all of Panama, a place called Santa Catalina. It was here that we realized that our trip was complete. It merited every sense of the word “creation.” The people, places, and sights we had seen came together as a masterpiece God so magically put together. As if to graciously thank us for our diligence in Him, He again blessed us with near perfect ten-foot offshore waves that would make any surfer glow.
We boarded the plane the next day with a whole new perspective on missionary work. We were grateful once again that, although sometimes life plans may not go the way we had envisioned them, we don’t dictate our own agendas. Thankfully, we have a loving God who so divinely takes care of us and the plans He has for us.
Looking back on our ten days in Panama, we saw the kingdom of God advance in great numbers, and also saw the growing maturity of our relationship with Christ. We will continue to pray for such a great nation that played host to what was, for some of us, the first surf missionary trip of our lives. We are pleased to say gracias por todo, Panama.