Surfing the World and Spreading the Word
Challenge: Do an outreach event and see lives impacted because of what God can do through you, but then never do it again. That’s pretty much impossible according to Bryan Jennings, especially when the results are so addicting and so real. As a pro surfer, Jennings has lived the party life and had what the world can offer, but he says none of it compares to investing in the lives of kids and sharing his relationship with God through his Walking on Water ministry. Risen talked with Jennings about surf camps, his documentaries, riding the ocean and the foundation for what became the feature film, Soul Surfer.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in Carlsbad, California
Risen Magazine: You founded Walking on Water in 1995 with just a handful of students and in 15 years it’s grown into a worldwide ministry. Why did you start surf camps and how has the organization grown?
Bryan Jennings: I was 20 years old, had become a pro sufer and was really excited about the Lord in my life at that time. I had some kids looking up to me so I thought, how do I tell these kids about surfing that I love, and Jesus that I love…and it went to the idea of a surf camp. We did our first surf camp with only ten kids. I thought we were going to do a one time surf camp. I wasn’t thinking I would start an organization or a company. It wasn’t like that. But I thought, “Hey I need to make a living because pro surfing doesn’t pay a lot unless you’re Kelly Slater.” So I did the first surf camp, and then another one the next year, and the next, and it just kept growing and growing.
I was tired of seeing surf films out there that only promoted the whole party lifestyle, like that’s what life is all about – I already tried that out and guess what? That’s not what life is about. I thought, let’s make a movie about surfers who are believers. I had no idea how to do that, didn’t know what the heck I was doing and one guy stepped up to the plate and said, “I’ll pay for that. Go make the movie.” It was amazing, we went and made it and Tom Curren came with us to the Canary Islands and God did more than we could have ever imagined.
We showed the movie and had around 500 people at the first event and we said, “Wow people actually showed up to see this. This is cool. Why don’t we do more events?” Then it went to [making] more movies, events and tours – anything we came up with, thought of, and prayed about, – we just went towards it and did it and God blessed it. It was amazing. I think we had the right hearts… it had nothing to do with money; it had everything to do with blessing kids through the sport of surfing.
RM: How did your love for surfing begin and at what point did you recognize it could, and would, be your career?
BJ: I’ve been kind of thinking about my story a lot lately and in some ways I was kind of like The Karate Kid. I grew up away from the beach a little bit and my parents went through a divorce. My mom took my older brother and younger sister and me and moved to the beach. I had already loved boogie-boarding, then I started standing up on my body board…and then I finally grabbed a surfboard and I’ll never forget that first wave. I don’t know; something just happened on that first little wave. I got up and rode this little one-foot wave. There is something special about surfing. It’s not just because I’m a surfer – there is something special about riding the ocean. We are riding God’s creation. I then quit Little League, quit everything, [said] I’m done, forget sports, I’m all about surfing.
My first surf contest I lost horribly and then a few surf contests later I started actually doing pretty well in the local competitions. I started winning a lot of YMCA local surf contests and I thought I was kind of a hot shot. I got sponsored by Rusty and I thought, “Whoa! This is cool, I’m pretty good at this.” But I went to a regional California contest and just got completely killed by the competition and then I thought, “Okay, maybe I’m not as good as I think I am.” There’s always somebody better than you in whatever you do, and it humbles you.
I went from that [experience] at 14 years old and by the age of 17, I was just a little party kid at La Jolla High School. I was going to Peter King’s surfer fellowship because there was free pizza and cute girls…but I finally became a believer after having enough of that lifestyle and realized there has got to be more to life. I gave my heart to the Lord one night in my bedroom. I didn’t even really know how to do it, I just said, “God I want you in my life, I want to live my life for you not myself.”
What was amazing was that the next Saturday I was in a local pro-am and all my local heroes, the pro surfers I had looked up to, were in the competition. I ended up beating all of them. The waves came to me, not to them, because God made the ocean and it was like cheating. [Laughter]. They had no chance. I was going to win this contest even if Kelly Slater was in it. So I win on Saturday, go up to Huntington Beach on Sunday, win another competition… two in one weekend, total miracle. Driving home from that I remember thinking, “Wow, I just became a pro surfer.” That’s how my pro surf career started. It’s kind of like my relationship with Jesus, and my pro surfing career started at the same moment.
RM: The camps and films all center around surfing, but also about developing a relationship with God, what do you hope to communicate to others?
BJ: If I would have gone to a Christian surf camp when I was a 14 year old kid, it would’ve totally impacted my life. I would’ve gone for the surfing, but I would’ve ended up hearing the Bible studies at night and in the morning, and it would have really impacted me. These cool pro surfers or ex pro surfers talking to me about God, and waves — that would have really impacted my life. I think the surf camps are probably the most powerful ministry we do, even more than showing our movies to millions of people. There is nothing more powerful than spending a week with a kid. I didn’t grow up in a Christian home going to church every Sunday, so when I became a Christian it was very real to me, and I think kids see through anything that is fake. They know that the other counselors and I are doing this because we love them and we genuinely have a relationship with God, and it’s not some weird religious thing. They know we’re there for them, so it’s cool.
RM: Walking on Water teams up with several famous and influential pro surfers…why do you think these athletes are so quick to share their story?
BJ: I won’t name names, but for some of the pro surfers in our movies, some of the biggest pro surfers – it was a big decision for them [to share] because they were worried if they were in our movies they might lose their sponsorship. There is a pressure [and mentality] in the surf industry sometimes like, You better be willing to head to the bars and party with us or what is your problem? That’s the image of our company so let’s get out there and do it. It was a pretty big decision for some of them, but there are definitely a handful of really good Christian surfers.
RM: You did a documentary called Walking on Water where you took two kids on the most amazing adventure of surfing the world. Several pro surfers met you in different countries…which country had the most impact on you?
BJ: I would say South Africa and Indonesia; because those are two places every surfer wants to go to. And just being in Africa, there’s something incredible about it. The people have been through so much and the waves are so good. Africa is like Hawaii in that it just humbles you. You go there and you can get humbled by the wildlife, by the surf, and by the people. These 13 year old kids that we’re interviewing for our movie are speaking wisdom that can only come from a 90 year old Godly man that’s been through life. These little kids, the things they would share from their heart, it was like, Oh my gosh, they’ve been through so much already.
It’s kind of like my relationship with Jesus, and my pro surfing career started at the same moment.
RM: Indonesia is the country you went to with Bethany Hamilton and you’ve been very involved with the feature film based on her life, called Soul Surfer. From the shark attack to her strength, and continued belief in God…her story is truly inspirational. What part of her story resonates most with you, and what do you hope resonates with others about her life?
BJ: Actually, when the attack happened to Bethany and in the following years, was also some of the same years I was going through one of the hardest times of my life. Sometimes when you go through a tragic situation, whether it’s a shark attack, or a divorce, or whatever it is, you can feel like your arm is ripped off. You can feel like you’re cut in half – emotionally, physically spiritually, whatever – you can feel that way. I love being around people that have been through something really devastating, as sick as that sounds, because they have character. There is something deep to that person. I guess with Bethany I feel like she went through a battle and devastation at the same time I went through battle and devastation, and we came out the other side as better people and closer to God.
RM: When people are pursuing their passion and living out their calling, I feel like there are always people that want to tear them down, they’re competitive and just try to hinder success. Is there a person, a piece of scripture, or what is it that encourages you to keep going forward?
BJ: I think any guy, especially guys, think that we just want to conquer the world. We want to make a lot of money, we want to be the provider, or if family members are in some business, we feel like we should be in the business. For me it was tough because it was like [people questioned], Are you a surf bum? You’re going to go make a movie? Are you just trying to surf as long as you can? What are you doing? And sometimes I’d even ask myself those questions. But then something amazing would happen that would confirm I need to do this. Whenever I look at kids, I see myself and remember I was a kid, totally lost and trying to figure out what is life about and is God real and will this make me happy. So I look at these kids and I have the answer [for them]. As weird as that might sound to somebody, I know I have the answer. And it’s so fun giving the answer. I get to give out the best gift that’s ever been given to mankind – the gift of Jesus Christ dying on the cross and being raised from the dead, dying for our sins so that we get to go to Heaven – I get to give that gift to everybody I meet. It’s actually an addiction. I’m addicted to telling people about Jesus because there is nothing more rewarding.
Nothing is ever going to compare with the feeling that God just used you to bring His message to somebody and now they understand who Jesus Christ is…and they are going to Heaven, not Hell for eternity. What’s more exciting than that?
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