It's been only about a year since Rick Wilson moved from Alaska to the Illinois side of the St. Louis metro area, but he's already become somewhat of a hero to more than 100 youth.
Wilson was the main person responsible for getting Towerview Baptist Church, Belleville, Ill., to start a "skateboard ministry" in May 1997. One person has already made a profession of faith as a direct result of the church's ministry.
It works like this: Towerview allows area youth to skate on the church parking lot every afternoon after school. Anywhere from twenty to forty kids show up, pull out the skateboard ramps and hang out on church property for several hours. The rules are simple: no smoking, no cussing, 9 p.m. curfew, and the skaters must clean up after themselves.
The response "has been fantastic," Wilson said, of kids showing up to skate from all over the east metro area.
Adam Focht, 15, is a high school freshman who's a regular at "The Place," the new nickname given to the church lot by the skaters. He's thrilled about the church's decision to open church property to him and his friends.
"We don't have any other place around here," Focht said. "We get kicked out of a lot of malls and stuff."
Wilson came up with the idea for a skateboard ministry while he was stationed in Alaska and decided to try something similar in Belleville when he noticed how kids weren't allowed to skate around town.
"They really don't care for the kids to skate downtown," Wilson said. "There's no place available for them to skate."
Wilson approached Towerview pastor Tom Eggley about the idea, and the church approved the ministry at a business meeting. Wilson doesn't get any funds from the church, but he does collect money from the skaters to defray the cost of repairing the skating ramps.
Many people are unfairly critical of skateboarders, Wilson said, primarily because of their non-traditional appearance (loose, baggy clothes are often characteristic of skaters). "Even within the church they were a little bit unsure of this (ministry)," Wilson said.
But, regardless of the way they're perceived, these skaters are good kids and aren't looking to cause trouble, Wilson said. One time last year when an eight-year-old boy was skating with old, metal street skates and damaging the ramps, a number of the older youth pitched in and bought the boy a used skateboard.
Wilson said the potential for ministry is enormous. He's got a list of 110 youth who skate at the church on a regular basis. "None of these kids are Christians," he said. "Most of them don't attend church. It's a long haul to try and reach these kids."
Church members come out to the parking lot every once in a while to witness to the kids, and to invite them in for supper on Wednesday nights and to various church services. When skaters do come in, they stack their skateboards on a table and pick them up on their way out.
Last summer, a skater who was heavily involved with drugs and alcohol made a profession of faith because of the church's ministry. Other youth have started to participate in Towerview's Brotherhood programs and one seventh-grader has gotten involved with the church's drama team. One whole family even joined the church because Towerview let a woman's son skate there.
Tim Ellsworth is associate editor of the Illinois Baptist.