Pro Skateboarder to Pastor Jay “Albamy” Haizlip
Sinner’s Church: Jay “Albamy” Haizlip
Written by Chris Ahrens
The smell of marijuana was as common to Jay Haizlip in his childhood as car exhaust to a kid living in the inner city. His first experience of getting stoned was at five years old. By the age of eight, he was getting high regularly. At twelve he was selling weed and it only took a few more years to graduate to cocaine. Even his first love, skateboarding, couldn’t save him from the death spiral he was in.
In spite of his generally inebriated state, young Haizlip was a remarkable pro skateboarder, helping pioneer ramp and pool skating while hanging out with some of the top skaters in the world. During his mid-teens, he hitchhiked from his home state of Alabama to Southern California. There he found shelter beneath the roof of legendary Dogtown skateboarder, Tony Alva. Drifting south to Newport Beach, Haizlip soon traded his daily weed habit for cocaine. For a time he continued to skate while high, but like most addicts, his priorities shifted until drugs were his main source of entertainment, obliterating all other ambitions.
Nobody remembered his covers on Thrasher Magazine, or the famed centerspread of him flying out of an empty pool, upside down, chugging a beer. Life had been a fast, fun ride until he went too high, fell too far and crashed so hard the wheels came off. Anyone who knew him would not have been surprised to hear he had died of a drug overdose. What is surprising is how things actually turned out. And nobody was more surprised than Haizlip himself. Now a pastor, he founded The Sanctuary Church in Orange County, California about ten years ago where his talents have shifted from skating to spreading the hope of Jesus Christ.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in Southern California
Risen Magazine: How did you get involved in skateboarding?
Jay Haizlip: I got a skateboard when I was 10 years old and that little plastic skateboard with ball bearings changed my life. Everything that’s ever come out of my life was a result of that Christmas present.
Risen Magazine: How do you remain fearless in an extreme sport?
Jay Haizlip: I grew up skating pools, grinding coping, going over the “death box.” The adrenaline you get from that helps overcome the fear.
Risen Magazine: Stacy Peralta [Director and former pro-skateboarder] recently told me: “Skateboarding gets you high; why would you get high while skateboarding?” Why did you get high and skate?
Jay Haizlip: I agree with that, but I grew up in an environment of dope smoking hippies where drugs were a part of my lifestyle. I started out smoking weed and went on to harder things.
Risen Magazine: Most skaters who emulated the Dogtown guys don’t realize most of the surviving members of that crew are clean and sober.
Jay Haizlip: I was never part of the Dogtown group, even though those guys are my friends, especially Tony [Alva] and Jay [Adams.] They try to get the message out. I try to use any influence I have to warn people not to go where I went. Most people who go there do not make it back. You couldn’t get any closer to death and still be alive than I was.
The only way I’m here today is by the grace of God.
Risen Magazine: How close did you get to death?
Jay Haizlip: Once after three days doing meth, I fell on the floor and overdosed. Everybody thought I was dead, and they left me lying there, unconscious. I don’t know how long I laid there, but when I saw everyone again they said, “Dude, we can’t believe you’re alive!” Another time, I was about ten feet from a guy who pulled out two pistols and started shooting at me. I dove through the screen door while he kept shooting at me. Later, when I got sentenced to two years in prison, I was so empty, dying seemed like a relief. I thought of ending my life many times.
Risen Magazine: Do you think there’s a spiritual component to drug use and addiction?
Jay Haizlip: Drugs are a counterfeit for God’s presence. When you get into the presence of God, it literally brings you into a state of ecstasy that’s not chemically induced. In Acts, chapter 2, everybody in the city thought the apostles were drunk that day. Peter stood up and said, “These men are not drunk like you think they are.” He didn’t say they weren’t drunk, just not in the way they thought.
Everything, from smoking weed, getting drunk, doing heroin, or smoking crack or crystal meth opens you up to the spiritual realm.
Risen Magazine: Do you think marijuana is very harmful?
Jay Haizlip: There are so many chemicals in marijuana people haven’t even identified them all. I hear people say that God created marijuana. Well, God created poison ivy, but you don’t smoke it. I’ll tell you from personal experience, marijuana took me to the verge of being a burnout. You could ask me a question and it would take lots of time to respond, because my processing was so slow because of getting high. I asked a guy recently that said he didn’t think marijuana was harmful, if he’d ever hidden his dope and forgotten where he hid it? He said, “Yeah, I never thought about that.”
Some people look at me and think, “You made it back, so can I.” The only way I’m here today is by the grace of God. If Jesus Christ had not delivered me and put me back in my right mind, I would not be here today. I know that.
I tried as hard as I could for two years to change my life. I worked the program and put myself in treatment centers. My lifestyle was hurting me so much, and I wanted to get free. I once came right out of a drug treatment center and went out partying on cocaine that same weekend. I came home Sunday morning at nine o’clock and sat on the edge of my bed. Then, for the fist time, I saw what my drug use was doing to me, my wife, my son, and everyone who loved me. I had destroyed everything.
I wasn’t a God hater, or anti-God. I just didn’t think about God. Sitting there that morning I started crying and said, “God, if you’re real, please help me?” That prayer began a process that led me to the point where Jesus came into my life. Not long after that I was on my way to do a drug deal, and God put this guy in my path that talked to me about Jesus in a way I had never heard before. I asked him, “How do I get saved?” I had no idea what the word saved meant in Christian terms. I remember thinking, “I’ll get saved and then go out and then go do my drug deal.”
He opened up his Bible to Romans 10:9-10, which says, “If you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, you will be saved.” In praying that prayer something in the deepest part of my being, everything I’d ever done, all the hurt I’d ever experienced lifted off of me and I was changed. I have never done drugs since. That was on a Friday night in September of 1990 or ’91.
Risen Magazine: Some people would say it’s understandable that a drug addict would turn to God. But what keeps you there?
Jay Haizlip: When I gave my life to Jesus Christ, I literally connected to the living God. As a result of meeting God personally; the Bible says we love God because He first loved us. When Jesus came into my heart that night, and the shackles of my addictions fell off, that was an encounter with God’s love. There was a genuine manifestation of God’s presence in my life. When I experienced it, I couldn’t help but respond to it. It so changed my life; I didn’t want to lose it. From that moment forward, I just had a hunger to go after him. Nobody has done for me and nobody is capable of doing for me, what God has done for me. I so appreciate God and so love him. It’s not some dreadful duty that I live out. It’s with delight that I’ve given him my life. The more I go after him, the more I get of him and the more I get of him, the more I want to go after him. It’s like this incredible love relationship. When God got ahold of me it felt so good, I thought, “This is why I was created; this is what life’s all about!” It was through him and I really began to live for a purpose other than myself. I could go on and on telling you why I’m serving God all these years later.
Risen Magazine: As an extreme skateboarder and drug addict you were used to high doses of adrenaline all the time. Were you able to get that adrenaline going again?
Jay Haizlip: I think that drive toward adrenaline was God-given, but was misdirected, and Satan took advantage of it. Now that my life’s in God’s hands, God hasn’t taken that drive away; I just use it for the right thing. Cocaine, ecstasy, sex with every girl you can find… nothing compares to the thrill of helping people encounter Jesus, overcome their issues, their addictions, their hurts and watching God touch them. It never gets old. Last night when I finished preaching and I gave the invitation for those to come forward that wanted to accept Jesus, the whole altar filled up with people saying yes to Jesus. I felt so satisfied, but at the same time I thought, “I wanna do that again.”
Risen Magazine: How did your transition into ministry begin?
Jay Haizlip: The last few years before I was a Christian, I was going into hardcore neighborhoods, smoking crack and meth. When I gave my life to Jesus, I wanted to go back into that environment and tell those people what Jesus had done in my life. I got a Realistic amp from Radio Shack and adapted it to work off the car lighter. I went down there one Friday night at about 11 o’clock, put those wooden speakers on the sidewalk, stood on the sidewalk and my first message was, “Hey, you know me. I was down here getting’ high, scoring dope. Jesus came into my life and changed me, and he can change you too.” That’s all I knew to say; that’s where it started.
Risen Magazine: Was there a response?
Jay Haizlip: At first people thought, “This guy is crazy.” But over a short period of time they realized I had really changed. I was consistent and kept reaching out and loving on them. They started to respond and within a short period of time, I had probably over a hundred people going to church with me. Soon people said, “You’re called into the ministry.” A short time later I was in a service, standing there with my eyes closed and I felt like God said, “I have called you into the ministry.” My response was, “Yes God, whatever you want me to do; I want to serve you with my whole life.”
Risen Magazine: As a pastor, how do you balance ministry, family and fun?
Jay Haizlip: As a minister, it’s like I’m aiming at a target that keeps moving. It would be nice if I could set everything in its place and have it stay there, but every day I wake up and somebody’s rearranged it. When it comes to my family, I date my own wife every Monday. Every so often I have to give that day up for something, but I never do that without first discussing it with her.
Risen Magazine: It seems your staff consists mainly of pro skateboarders.
Jay Haizlip: When you look at our church, you would almost think the prerequisite would have been to be a skater and to go to prison. That didn’t happen intentionally, it just happened.
She came to our church, gave her life to Jesus and it’s beautiful to see how God is changing their lives.
Risen Magazine: How would you describe your church, The Sanctuary?
Jay Haizlip: We have a unique niche and I’m cool with who we are and I don’t try to be something different. I love who we are actually. We reach a lot of people who, if you want to get really honest, some churches wouldn’t want to reach. Our church is very diverse [in regards to] where people come from economically and socially. The common thread in our church though is that we are very youthful. We have pro skaters and other athletes, former gang members, former strippers, and professional people here. Once we had a Bentley in our church parking lot next to three shopping carts containing homeless people’s belongings in them. I remember thinking how beautiful that was.
One of the great stories at The Sanctuary concerns Aaron Murray. He was a top pro who became a hardcore drug addict. Last night he and his wife were standing on a platform greeting our visitors and guests. God has used them. I remember the day he was standing in front of our church and he had been up doing drugs. You could see the rage in his face. He looked like if you got next to him, he would have cut your head off. He had been arrested for attempted murder and had a major drug and alcohol problem.
Christian [Hosoi, Sanctuary Outreach Pastor & pro skater] grew up with Aaron. We walked up to him and hugged him and said he loved him. We invited him inside. Once he began hanging around with Christians again, he began to have longer periods of sobriety. He went with Christian to a baptism. Before we had our own church building we had an eight-foot stainless steel horse trough. We were baptizing people in it, and there was Murray, about eighteen feet away, crouched down in a sort of vato stance. The last guy had just been baptized and was out of the water. Christian and I weren’t looking and we turned to hear someone jumping into the water. We looked and it’s Murray standing there with all of his clothes on. He said, “I want to get baptized.” Christian said, “Don’t you want to take your shoes off?” He said, “No, I want everything baptized!” It was beautiful to see the transformation, the way he and his wife Melissa live now. Their kids will never know the pain Aaron and Melissa experienced; they broke the curse.
Risen Magazine: Do you think anyone is beyond help?
Jay Haizlip: Because of what God delivered me from, I know God can deliver anyone from anything. We started a campus in downtown L.A. where there are a lot of homeless people. Some of them are so far out of their minds; you can’t even engage them in conversation. In a sense, I feel helpless in my ability to do something for them that could change them. I could give them a coat or a meal, but to change their lives or their future I feel helpless. Still, I know that with God all things are possible.
It reminds me of the story in the Bible about the demonic of Gadara. When you look at that story, everyone had tried to change this person’s life. They even chained him up, but he was so demonically crazy, he would always break out of the chains. He ran around tormented and afflicting terror on everybody. When Jesus came to town, the man came running to him, fell at his feet, and Jesus set him free. When they saw the man sitting at the feet of Jesus clothed and in his right mind, they couldn’t believe it. This guy had a legion of demons and nobody could help him. When he came in contact with Jesus, he changed everything about him.
Risen Magazine: You’ve had lots of celebrity visits at your church. Anyone you can talk about?
Jay Haizlip: I don’t usually like to use people’s names, but I can tell you about some of them who wouldn’t mind me telling you. Brian “Head” Welch from Korn comes to our church periodically. Actor Steven Baldwin comes from time to time. There’s a real well known English actress named Danniella Westbrook. She and her husband are great friends with my wife Christy and I. They got saved here in our church. She had a really well-known cocaine problem. She came to our church, gave her life to Jesus and it’s beautiful to see how God is changing their lives. She has brought all kinds of English celebrities here. Along with celebrities, we’ve had the mayor of our city and various council members visit. I love that I have an opportunity to influence them and that they have a major platform of influence.
Risen Magazine: How did you start The Sanctuary?
Jay Haizlip: When I left California and cocaine took over my life, I went back to Alabama, and that’s where I became a Christian. God began to deal with me about coming back to California and starting a church. When we first came to Huntington Beach to plant a church, nobody wanted to come here to plant a church. It was almost considered like the graveyard for church planters. I didn’t read a lot of “how to” books on church planting. The way I started our church, it wasn’t even the way I wanted to start it. I started with a handful of broken, struggling people, the last people you’d normally want to start a church with.
We started the church in November of 2002. The first five years we were in six different locations. Setting up, tearing down, setting up, and tearing down. I got tired and it got old. We grew little by little, but when we bought our building four-and-a-half years ago, it was like the lid blew off in terms of growth. The church grew about 500 percent in three years. We’re now in the 2,000ish range, and have eight services a week. We’re in the process of working with an architect to develop our current church to double the seating capacity. We’ve also started a second facility in downtown L.A.
Risen Magazine: I hear you’re involved in a new TV show?
Jay Haizlip: It’s called Preacher’s of L.A. It will air in the fall on the Oxygen Network. It stars Bishop Noel Jones, Grace Jones’ brother, Gospel singer Deitrick Haddon, Bishop Clarence McClendon, Pastor Wayne Chaney, Bishop Ron Gibson, Christy and me.
Risen Magazine: What’s next for you?
Jay Haizlip: Our goal is to plant churches in major cities. We want to plant a church in Long Beach and we hope to plant a church in London, England. I want some on-fire people that want to serve Jesus the way I do. Look at what Jesus did with 12 people, and 120 in Acts chapter 2. The book of Acts is the blueprint of how church should be done. When you look at Acts, you can see we’ve deviated from the blueprint. There may be elements of it there, but the details may not always be there. It says in Acts, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.” I think we can do that again. Wouldn’t you want someone to say that about you and your friends?
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Fall 2013