Surfing the Lord
Ask most any surfer what they did on any given Sunday morning and most will sarcastically say they were at church. Indeed, many surfers view their sport more as a religion than anything else. Yet for a group of Seal Beach locals, they actually do mean they were at church, on Sunday, at the beach. Since the Easter Sunday on April 12, 2009, the ministry of Hope at the Beach, was established and continues to meet regularly for worship at the north side of the pier at Seal Beach led by a Southern California local and ordained Lutheran pastor, Charles (Chuck) Brand Carlson. Without fail, whether rain or shine, Pastor Chuck will be there with his devoted wife, Lin Carlson, to spread the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And without fail, he always ends his service in proclamation, “Go in peace and surf the Lord!”
Hangin’ With Dewey
Pastor Chuck started off like any other surfer and lived a life like most any other person – fraught with challenges and deviations. Born in Lennox, California, his biological father had left when he was only two years old. Then a single parent that had to work three jobs to support her child, his biological mother could no longer take care of him and sent him to an orphanage. After a short time, his mother met and married George Carlson who would later adopt Chuck.
At the age of twelve and now living in Inglewood, Chuck’s parents took him down to Del Mar in San Diego and rented a surfboard for him. He surfed all day and instantly fell in love. Although his dad was hoping to groom him to become a golf caddy, the young Chuck was hooked and could think only about surfing. The following year, they visited the Jacobs shop on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach and picked up his very first, brand new surfboard – a 9’3 Jacobs for $85.
Although his parents appreciated surfing, his mom also insisted that he attend church. So he and his friends would surf in the morning with the likes of Dewey Weber who lived down the street and throw their Sunday best on over their boardshorts barely making it in time for the morning service. Never mind the trail of sand they would leave leading to the church, they were there every Sunday morning.
The group also managed to surf exotic locales. Every Christmas day, he and his buddies had made it a ritual to head down to Baja California once the morning service and family events were over. They would camp out at San Miguel and hit spots along the road to Ensenada including K38 and K39. At one point, Chuck decided to go on an impromptu trip to Australia – without letting his parents know which did not go over very well.
Despite his religious upbringing, Chuck, like any youngster, was distracted by the world’s temptations. By the age of 19, he had moved out of his parents’ house and lived in Hermosa Beach where he surfed, partied, and enjoyed the “wild life.” With an affinity for and an educational background in music, he later found himself travelling around the country with a folk group. Although they were quite successful, Chuck’s hedonistic behavior proved too distracting, and he parted ways with the group eventually selling his share of ownership to the remaining members. This left a misguided, young, and anxious Chuck with more cash than he knew what to do with.
He figured out what to do with some of the cash in the form of a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle … retrofitted with a Porsche engine. This, of course, in addition to buying copious amounts of drugs. Chuck also bought a house in Lawndale for his parents. Shortly after, he proceeded to buy a boat. He ended up crashing both the VW and the boat and ultimately realized how empty he felt despite owning these luxuries.
However, such losses would be nothing compared to the loss of his mother. Chuck’s parents were involved in a terrible accident on the freeway. His mother was caught between two cars. Sitting helpless by her hospital bedside, Chuck did something he had not done in a long time ¬– he prayed. In typical fashion, he proceeded to command God to keep his mother alive. He said, “God, if you’re real, you’ll let me know she’s in heaven with you or you’ll let her live.” Slowly his mother began to recover. Chuck continued on with his party lifestyle quickly forgetting his fleeting moment with God. Three months later, his mother’s condition worsened and she was barely hanging on to life. Her family was by her side except for Chuck who could not be reached. She awoke from what is known as a “death coma” and began to speak. As she began praying the old bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep …” she stopped and corrected herself. “No, I want to pray this … please forgive me of my sins, take care of my husband, and save my son’s soul.” She then sighed her last breath.
Something Happenin’ Here
The following morning upon hearing the news of his mother’s passing, Chuck was so incensed that they had to sedate him. Pastor Don Ausland, the family’s pastor, had overseen his mother’s burial and tried to console him during many counseling sessions. He went so far as to give Chuck a key to the church (then the Loving Shepherd Lutheran Church, now St. Johns in Gardena). At odd hours of the night, Chuck would find himself sitting in the church looking at the cross, struggling with God, and trying to make sense of the world.
Chuck soon found himself among the pacifist movement prevalent during the late 1960’s and joined the masses then searching for meaning … along with better weed. At one point, he found himself marching in the group with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., himself. In fact, it was the assassination of Martin Luther King that drove Chuck to further despair. He needed to escape. And so he packed his bags and headed for the islands of Hawai’i.
At the age of 21, Chuck left all the chaos of the mainland behind to live with his good friend, Duff King, in Hawaii. They lived with another friend whose grandparents owned a mansion on the island of Oahu. For the better part of the day, the haole duo would surf Yokohama Bay north of Makaha and other spots. When they weren’t surfing they were indulging in the local dope.
Looking to explore the neighboring islands, the two found themselves on Maui staying at the Lahaina Luna hotel. By chance, Duff had made the acquaintance of a local girl. Not wanting to disturb Duff and his new friend back at the hotel, Chuck found himself walking out onto the Lahaina pier. Sitting there, he sees a sailboat cross his view and somehow senses a spiritual “presence.” As if by cue, he came to a sudden realization that God is near – and that scared him to no end. But he remained determined to keep him out.
After a year of living in Hawai’i, Chuck and Duff decide to head back to the mainland. During their last night back on Oahu, they took their host family out for dinner and thanked them for their hospitality. It was during that dinner when the mother, a Roman Catholic with strong Christian foundations herself, tells Chuck, “God has something for you. You need to go home and get married.” This idea freaked him out.
Back at home and still failing to find any answers to the “lostness” he felt, Chuck receded back to his belligerent ways of partying, drinking, and dope. One night, he found himself on the beach, drunk and barely able to walk. Stumbling, he fell to the ground where he remembers having a vision of Jesus. Still on the ground, this vision says to him, “Come to me, Chuck.” Diminished, he responded, “I’m not good enough.” To which, the response was, “You will never be. Just come to me the way you are.”
It was this calling that resonated with Chuck. It was at this time when he finally stopped running and finally and truly accepted God. And as his friend’s mother in Hawai’i had suggested, he not only found God, he would soon find Lin.
It seemed like just any other Thursday night when Chuck would come home after choir practice and join his roommates as they held their weekly “Campus Crusade for Christ” meeting at his house in Lawndale. This time however, there was one particular woman he frankly found to be a bit self involved saying that she wished she could find “a real, on-fire (spirit led) Lutheran church.” Despite what he saw as arrogance, Chuck invited her to dinner anyway. What would become their first date at the Charthouse by the Redondo breakwater blossomed into love. They were wed less than six months later on April 15, 1972.
A few years later during the summer of 1974, Chuck took a call to be the Director of the Waikiki Beach Chaplaincy back in Hawai’i. Founded by Bob Turnbull, the ministry was geared to tourists and escapists. Those who were on similar journeys like Chuck’s that were feeling lost and empty, hoping for “paradise” to fill the void. It was in this special position that he was licensed as a minister and earned the title of Pastor Chuck. There he played his guitar, sang, and led worship on the beach and in the hotels of the famous Waikiki strip. That would be Pastor Chuck’s first experience preaching to the public. Despite having been scared out of his wits, the ministry took roots and ultimately grew into a strong fellowship in Waikiki.
Motion of the Ocean
Analogies are often drawn between life and surfing, namely the ebbs and flows of the ocean likened to the ups and downs of life. In surfing parlance, the next few decades would see Pastor Chuck riding his best waves while also experiencing some of his worst wipeouts.
Upon returning to the mainland, Pastor Chuck experienced one of the happiest moments in his life, the birth of his first son Caleb in 1975. After giving birth to Caleb, Pastor Chuck and Lin settled in Cathedral City between Palm Springs and Palm Desert further inland in California. After three years ministering to high school and college youths, Pastor Chuck decided to go back to college himself and get a degree.
The two churches that had hired him had given him and his family a send off celebration. At the end of the evening while a group of youngsters were leaving the parking lot, they were broadsided by two drunk drivers. Pastor Chuck immediately ran out to the scene of the accident. Four of the five youngsters died, three in his own arms. Pastor Chuck credits their faith in Christ for helping both of them get through this terrible time.
After moving back to the South Bay area of Los Angeles County, Pastor Chuck completed college and continued as a youth and choir director. He also led beach camps in the summer and taught at the Lutheran Bible Institute in Buena Park. A few years later, he was encouraged to go to seminary at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley. Four years after that, he was ordained. His first call was to the Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Longview, Washington.
In 1992, as he led the church’s junior high school group to a waterslide park in San Jose, Pastor Chuck was seriously injured, breaking his back, separating his pelvis causing multiple interior injuries. The extensive injuries left Pastor Chuck for 28 days in intensive care, three more months in a hospital, and an additional year in a hospital bed recovering at home.
After recovering from his injuries, Pastor Chuck and his family now consisting of his wife Lin, oldest son Caleb, daughter Casey, and youngest son P.J., moved to Sacramento. There he became the Senior Pastor serving the local church for fourteen years. Because of health and family issues he would leave Sacramento without a calling effectively taking an early retirement. Pastor Chuck was left seeking God’s guidance for what was next.
Hope at the Beach
Through a series of seemingly random events which Pastor Chuck himself can’t completely recount, he found himself one day at the north side parking lot of Seal Beach in Orange County. Reading his scripture that morning in the handicapped parking space near the iconic M&M Surf School van, he continued to pray asking God what it is he wanted of him.
As with anyone that spends enough time at Seal Beach, he got to know the ever charismatic Michael Pless and his equally charismatic son, Michael Pless, Jr. It happened that they both had been hoping to find someone to conduct a ministry at Seal Beach for years – someone who would stay and really make this their own ministry. From then on, Hope at the Beach has congregated on the north side of Seal Beach every Sunday morning all year round.
Pastor Chuck’s ministry is an accessible congregation. In addition to the 7:15 a.m. “Surfer’s Special” that gets out by 7:45 a.m. still in time for the early morning glass, Hope at the Beach is a non-denominational congregation (although Pastor Chuck is a Lutheran pastor ordained through the Lutheran Church). The typical congregation (during the standard 8:00 am ministry) numbers in the dozens. Like any church, we participate in reading scripture, taking sacrament, singing, and discussing the day’s sermon. Unlike any church, we do so while sitting on the sand or in beach chairs donning flip flops with Pastor Chuck at the head of the circle. Everyone knows each other and most everyone enjoys a surf together after the ministry. Indeed, some of us get in trouble for watching the surf and not the Pastor. How he can tell we are looking past him and not at him is a mystery for which perhaps only God knows the answer.
Pastor Chuck always has a way of making sermons immediately relevant to our everyday lives. And since everyone knows each other, he often uses specific examples in our lives to contextualize the day’s sermon. Pastor Chuck makes clear that what we do is between us and God. He clarifies that he is in no position to judge us. He goes on to say that his job is simply to spread the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ – and that good news is that, “We are to live life and live it abundantly by loving our neighbors as God loves us.” It doesn’t get more accessible than that.
Of course, Pastor Chuck often relates his sermons to surfing which has and continues to be a significant influence in his life. He believes that surfing is one of the most pure places to meet God – out there in the water. Rightly so that surfers view their sport more as a religion in some ways. He goes on to explain that when you are out there, when you are riding a wave, when you are engulfed in that wave, you are engulfed in what God has created for you.
In the end, he closes every sermon with a proclamation that any Seal Beach local will recognize, “Go in peace, surf the Lord!”
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