By Jennifer Johnson
Three years ago, Grant Waggoner, an alumnus and employee of Pepperdine University (Malibu, CA), began mentoring a few students at the school. This “small group” shared a love of surfing, and one of the guys eventually invited his professor, Dr. Robert Shearer.
“Grant and I began sharing leadership of the group,” Shearer, assistant professor of decision science, says. “Last year he got married and moved, but I’m at Zuma Beach, about 15 minutes north of the Pepperdine campus, every Wednesday morning at 7:30. This year we’ve been averaging 100 students each week.”
There are no classes on Wednesday mornings at Pepperdine so students can participate in a worship experience that also meets the school’s convocation requirement. “Surf Chapel” has become one of several options for fulfilling the requirement, and so students do more than hit the waves.
“We begin with 10 or 15 minutes of worship, after which we make some announcements and let people share what’s happening with their ministries on campus,” Shearer says. “We give out a surfer of the week award; recently we had a new surfer who snapped her board so she got the award this week. Then I do a five or ten-minute talk and we break into small groups.”
Shearer says this final part of the “service” is the best part, because students participate in the same groups each week and get to know each other well.
“The kids share the highs and lows of their week, and then they’ll either discuss a few prepared questions based on the devotional or they might discuss another topic,” he says. “Sometimes these groups gather for 15 minutes; sometimes they’ll talk for an hour or more and not even get in the water.”
Those who do choose to surf—about 80 percent of the group—are usually headed into the ocean around 8 a.m.; the rest of the students talk, do homework, or play guitars and sing on the beach.
“When our group really started to grow, the campus rec office met with us to offer stand-up paddleboards and wet suits so students who don’t have their own equipment can still participate,” Shearer says. “We also hired one of Los Angeles County’s lifeguards to watch us; he’s a Christian, too, so he often joins our group.”
In addition to the friendships and fun the students experience at Surf Chapel, Shearer says it’s also a spiritual boost to the ones who aren’t as strong in their faith.
“We get a number of kids who are here because their parents want them to be at a Christian school, but they haven’t really developed their own faith,” he says. “I love the opportunity to talk to them. One of the great things about surfing is that there’s a fair amount of time between waves so you can have real conversations. It’s amazing how open these kids are out on the water. It’s the thing I do at Pepperdine that I enjoy the most.”