Each morning, as the sun rises over the ocean and the who’s who of the surfing world scan the wave conditions at Jeffreys Bay, Africa’s top surfing event, gets underway with a prayer — the chaplain’s blessing.
It was not always that way, says Andy Pitt, leader of an official chaplain team that has become an integral part of the Billabong Pro. “When we started the programme as a pilot test in 2008 it was a new concept and Billabong was suspicious of us and what we were about. And so we were left to fumble around on the periphery of the event,” said Pitt.
Pitt then decided that the best way to engage with the event was through service. He and his team worked hard serving meals and drinks to surfers, officials and media personnel. Their hard work has been appreciated and today the chaplain team are responsible for all service in the three-tier control tower, which is the epicentre of the competition as the hospitality hub for the competing professional surfers, the film and broadcast centre for television coverage, and the headquarters of the competition judges.
“It is a privilege and a sacred trust,” said Pitt, whose team of four arrived at Jeffreys Bay days before the current event to help set up the competition infrastructure . “We’ve seen Billabong respond well to the value we add by serving them. We need to be seen as objective and not demanding. I think many people serve because they want to get something. But we have been able to serve a different way because our master does. To Jesus serving is not a path to greatness; it is greatness.”
The chaplain’s team is part of a worldwide initiative of Christian Surfers’ International (CSI), whose vision is to spread the Gospel among the world’s surfing communities. As Africa Chaplain, Pitt is one of a group of regional chaplains on each continent. There are also tour chaplains, who respectively accompany the men and women surfers on the premier ASP international tour, of which the Billabong Pro is the 4th of 11 events. “Abe Andrews from Palm Beach, on the Gold Coast, Australia is here living with the pros and we partner closely with him,” said Pitt.
Pitt, who is also a Baptist pastor, urban missionary and surfing coach, said his Africa team provided free service at the major international surfing competitions in South Africa and aimed to extend the ministry to reach national and local events as well.
He said that through relationships built over the past four years God had opened opportunities for them to be His witnesses to the Billabong Pro community — especially to the officials who came to the event year after year.
“Last year a girl from Australia (a media representative) asked us who we were. She said she went to all of the top surfing events around the world but she had never experienced service like she did at the Billabong Pro in Jeffreys Bay.
“I was able to tell her we are Christian Surfers Africa and we are here to serve you because we love Jesus and we want to tell you that Jesus loves you.”
He said there were also opportunities to pray with and encourage a few Christian people on tour. To his surprise they had also been officially invited to open the event at sunrise each day with a prayer from the top of the control tower.
” We were amazed at being given the opportunity to pray over the competition each day. We have to be sensitive with our prayer. We can’t go bashing the Gospel, so we tend to keep it a bit neutral but we end in Jesus’ name.”
He said a few people had expressed appreciation for the sunrise prayer which had become a meaningful time for them before all of the frenetic action involved in each day of running the competition.
Pitt and fellow chaplain Theo van Wyk were also both encouraged by momentous developments in the life of a British competition official they had been relating to for the past few years. The official, who had been cynical when they first met, had given his life to Jesus a few days before and had invited them to his wedding to a local Christian woman the day before this interview.
“It (attending the wedding) was like receiving an invitation from God to come and see what He has done and to give him all the glory for that,” said Van Wyk, who is also assistant manager of the SA junior surfing team that recently came second in a world surfing contest in South America.
“That for me was a massive, massive victory and a breakthrough in terms of what we are about and why this work is important. We have seen this guy shift and now he is in the Kingdom and we see the joy and what God is doing in his life,” said Pitt.
He said: “I think the wrong approach here is to walk in and bible bash and hand out tracts. You have to earn trust. Our work is just to shine the light and, as the opportunity arises to say something and throw something into the mix that points to who we are and what we are about.
“It takes time and yet we see a payoff (in the life of the British official) and this tells me that others are in the process. Even in the Billabong team we serve: we’ve seen openness and have been able to offer advice into their lives because relationships are in place.
“It’s been a joy even though it’s been hard work from a service perspective. But it does not matter how hard the work: when you are in the right place in God it is such a fulfilling thing.”
Pitt has been invited to establish an urban mission project in Australia later this year and has also been asked to assist with surfing chaplaincy there. And so he has been grooming more chaplains to build on the ministry started at the Billabong in 2008. Jeffreys Bay pastor Murray Hurd joined the team this year and Tristan Johnstone, from Torquay, Australia joined last year.
The four control tower chaplains and the tour chaplain are not the only Christian volunteers serving at the Billabong Pro. The main catering tent and kitchen adjacent to the grandstand is ably run by a group of young people from South Africa and other nations, who are participating in the Surfmasters Gap Year programme of Victory Church at Jeffreys Bay. And the other major facility at the event, the media house, is also being run by a Christian, Jess Klette of East London. In 2009, as an intern with Christian Surfers Africa, she assisted the head of the media house as a “runner”. She got more deeply involved last year and this year she is in charge.
“It is a real joy for us seeing Christians being worked into the tapestry of this whole event,” said Pitt.