Pews in the Park (part 1)

February 21, 2014
Ryan Gilles
Ryan Gilles

Skate parks and churches typically share little in common. But in Quito Ecuador, they are one and the same.

On summer afternoons like this, the sounds of skateboarding have become a given in the Calderon neighborhood of Quito, Ecuador. The clap of wooden decks hitting concrete, the ping of metal trucks striking a grind rail, the occasional outburst of congratulatory shouts as a hard-earned trick is successfully landed; these are the familiar notes that drift down Paredes street like a soundtrack.

Today they are composed by more than 30 skaters of all ages and skill levels, whizzing back and forth across the large concrete court, searching for the next rail to grind or ramp to hit. Toward the middle of the park a few experienced skaters set their sights on a picnic table, taking turns launching off a two foot ramp and over the table while rotating their boards 360 degrees. With each attempt, success or failure, fist bumps are exchanged back at the wall as the next skater takes a turn. “Next time, bro. You’ll get it next time.”

Over the past four years, La Roca has become one of the best known skate parks in all of Quito –no small accolade in a sprawling city of 1.6 million with a growing skate culture. The reasons for the recognition are numerous: the quality of the park, the local news and magazine spotlights, and the fact that it recently played host to an internationally recognized skate tournament. But one reason stands above them all: This skate park is a church.

Twice a day, the activity at La Roca Skate Church comes to a halt. The familiar sounds fade as the skaters knowingly step off their boards and begin moving toward the center of the park. Grind rails and fun boxes become makeshift pews as one by one the skaters take their seats in a circle. As the laughter and chatting dies down, one of the leaders at the park, Manuel Ronquillo, begins to read from a sheet of paper.

“Sometimes we seem to forget that we are not alone in the battles of life,” he reads in Spanish. “Sometimes we forget that God Almighty protects us, cares for us.” The message Manuel reads lasts for several minutes before concluding with Genesis 28:15: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go.”

Dissolving the differences

By most standards, the words “skateboarding” and “church” belong in different universes. “In a lot of ways skateboarding is based on being illegal,” says Manuel, who grew up skating in Quito and now serves in ministry there with International Teams. “I think it’s that feeling of being an outcast, being outside the box.” It’s a stereo type that tends to attract youth on the fringes, perpetuated by the sense of being rebellious and counter-cultural. In a not-so-subtle way, typical skate culture tries to be everything church isn’t.

That reality makes La Roca stand out, a bit like a punk skater in the pews on a Sunday. But instead of accepting that dichotomy, La Roca brings the pulpit to the park.

La Roca Skate Church is, in fact, one of several ministry branches operated by International Teams in Quito, Ecuador. Collectively, the ministries are known as Youth World, or Mundo Juvenil, and each is focused on reaching out to the city’s burgeoning population of youth and training up Christ-centered leaders. It’s a strategic focus in a country where the median age is just 26, and especially in Calderon, which according to government statistics is Quito’s fastest growing neighborhood.

Brock Luginbill is La Roca’s founder and manager and for him it all starts with being authentic. “From the beginning, I really wanted to wear our purpose on our sleeve here at La Roca,” says Brock, gesturing toward the main sigh with the adjacent words “Skate Church” printed in bold lettering. “We’re not trying to hide what we’re all about.”

While the culture at most city skate parks could well be described as rough or unsavory, the culture at La Roca is different and it’s palpable. For starters, the facility is clean, the ramps are high quality, the skaters are respectful, and the caliber of talent is high. “Kids [here] are real about skating,” says Manuel. “Other places, you show up, skate a little bit, smoke a joint, hang out, get drunk, skate a little more. But it’s not like that here. Guys come to get good.”

Those differences, both practical and spiritual, have earned Brock and La Roca the respect of skaters across Quito, including David Holguin, a professional skater and the editor of the popular periodical Skateboard Magazine. “… If one thing is obvious at La Roca, it’s the peaceful atmosphere and comradeship among the skaters and newcomers,” Holguin wrote in the preface to a published interview with Brock last year. “The fact that you can enjoy a good skate session, celebrate a trick, help with the maintenance of the park, put together a new board or ramp, compete for a prize, and hear the word of God, all make this a very special place…I hope you guys will see it too. God bless La Roca and its skaters.”

Continue to part 2