It was an unusual series of events that led Paul Anderson to God: a woman in a prank phone call, a man with a mega-phone at a beach party, and a tract on the ground that read, “Jesus Loves You.” Each strange message struck Paul with the claim of an unchangeable love. Growing up with an alcoholic mother and divorced parents, his home life was unstable and the kind of love he saw in Jesus was unfamiliar to him. For years he relied on alcohol, drugs, vandalism, and skating for refuge. After the miscellaneous strange introductions to Jesus, Paul was compelled to follow this man he knew little about.
Paul’s desire to share God’s power to change lives led him to mentor inner city youth in his hometown of San Luis Obispo, California. Many came from unstable homes like his own, and he understood their impulse to escape in destructive ways. Not only that, as a skater himself he was already well-versed in their jargon and culture. In order to further equip himself with skills to mentor at-risk youth, he decided to attend Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon. He never returned to San Luis Obispo. Instead he stayed in Portland where he married his wife, Heather, and built the ministry known as Skatechurch.
Today Skatechurch runs and maintains an indoor skate park and Bible studies. The nonprofit provides a comfortable space for youth to skate freely and positively impacts the entire Portland skate community. Because of its success, Skatechurch helps develop similar ministries around the world to reach a unique and often overlooked demographic.
Despite Portland’s reputation as one of the least churched cities in the United States, for thirty years Paul Anderson has quietly prevailed as the steady and influential pastor of Skatechurch. Upon meeting him, I noticed immediately his reserved and approachable nature. He is shy in front of the camera and reluctant to be in the spotlight, yet smiles with warmth. He prefers to stand in the background and provide a space so that others can be showcased, both on and off the ramps.
Paul fell into this ministry during his studies at Multnomah while working as a youth leader at Central Bible Church. Along with his childhood best friend, Clint, he began joining kids who skipped youth group to skate in the parking lot. “[Skating] gave me like-minded friends. I was on a mission to skate and hang with skaters and have fun,” Paul says. This unusual form of outreach—skating in parking lots—led Clint and Paul to develop the idea for Skatechurch.
An idea is one thing, but starting an organization is another. The costs of constructing and maintaining a skate park, not to mention the insurance risks, were high. Fundraising alone can deter even the brave from building a ministry from the ground up—which is exactly what Paul did. Thanks to the trust and support of the church’s pastor, Calvin Blom, Paul was freed to use his carpentry experience to build his own skate ramps, eliminating most of the building and maintenance costs. Over years of manual labor Paul and Clint constructed both a skate park and an organization. Informal gatherings in the church parking lot became basement meetings and eventually grew into Skatechurch, now with its own facility.
Paul didn’t set out to found Skatechurch and yet he can’t imagine himself doing anything else. “I just get to build ramps and do ministry!” he says. His joy for the work is hard-won, surpassing years of labor and even loss—including the death of his best friend Clint. This joy equips him to build not only ramp frames but the steady foundation of a long-term, powerful ministry.
Skatechurch provides the context for him to build relationships with people like Jason, who recently began attending the unusual church. For Jason, skating provides a means of exploration and productive refocusing. He uses his skateboard to explore Portland the way hikers explore ridge-lines. Skating freed Jason from addictions and gave him a new direction. “Two things you know for certain: you were born and you are going to die, and no one can tell you any different,” Jason says. Anything in-between now and then is living life. The best I can do is try to be the best person I can be and content with myself.”
Despite his attempts to remain under the radar, as I talked with Paul and sat in on his teaching during a skate session I witnessed his desire to welcome teens like Jason unconditionally. He doesn’t punish or reject those with present and past mistakes. It doesn’t matter whether skaters have a DUI or a drug addiction or swear constantly; he’s their friend. He sees their spirit and curiosity, their desire to find a sanctuary and place to practice joy. He risks the stigma of going against the traditional youth group and Bible study, as well as the bruises and scrapes of riding his board, to create a decades-long ministry. By skating alongside teens, Paul is forming disciples within one of Portland’s most unusual churches.
Photography by Chimera Singer
By Chimera Singer
To learn more, visit skatechurch.net