By Alex Berg
One by one, seven teenage boys zipped down the hallway on skateboards. Like successive bullets fired out of a shotgun, the teens hit a waist high ramp that launched them into a tango with the air and the board beneath their feet. Fifteen year-old Jose Castillo flew off the triangular ramp, air bound for mere seconds before his feet and board separated, bringing him crashing to the ground under a nearby basketball hoop.
The hoop was tagged with yellow, orange and red graffiti — “Jesus Lives.” The skate ramp was inside a South Bronx church.
Castillo is a member of HeavenBound7, a skateboarding team started by Henry Pena, a 51-year-old computer technician by day and volunteer youth minister by night at La Segunda Iglesia Cristiana Church. Pena is something of a coach to the 30 to 40 teens on the team who come to the Morrisania church on Friday nights to skate on ramps and grind rails he built himself.
During some practices, Pena instructs Castillo to bend his knees or fix his form. Other times he is a quiet onlooker. But his mission is always clear: give kids a constructive activity in an unexpected location to get them off the streets in a neighborhood taxed by drugs and crime.
When the skaters tell outsiders they skateboard inside a church, they’re often met with crooked stares. The fusion of religion and skateboarding strikes people as novel, since religion is associated with discipline and skateboarding is an unconventional sport. Then again, skateboarding is simply a rarity in the Bronx, where there are only three skate parks – Mullaly near Yankee Stadium, one on Allerton Avenue towards the northeast and Throgs Neck in the far northeast – and none in the Central or South Bronx.
“The Bronx is gritty,” said Damion Blair, a 20-year-old student at the Art Institute of New York, who was one of the first to skate in the church with a congregation of 50. “It’s real hard to raise any kids with the violence. It’s not a good environment. You never hear skaters come to the Bronx to skate. Never. You hear skaters go to Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. Because there’s no safe environment for people to skate.”
The church HeavenBound7 calls home, an unexceptional tan building with traditional red doors and a well-lit sign, is located in a neighborhood where more than 40 percent of families lived in poverty in 2007. It is on 169th Street two blocks away from where a 15-year-old girl was shot in the head by a 16-year-old boy when she was caught in gang cross fire walking home from school in November. She remarkably survived.
HeavenBound7 is the first of its kind in the Bronx, though skateboarding ministries are emerging around the country as a way to draw kids to church, said Steve Rodriguez, a representative of 5boro, a New York skate gear manufacturer and skate team sponsor.
“It’s funny to me because it’s like complete irony,” said Mathew Melendez, a 19-year-old City Tech student who was also one of the first to join HeavenBound7. “Skateboarding is all like rebels climbing over fences looking for good spots. And then church people are like good fellow people. Put that all together it’s like, what, a skateboarding team by a church? Whoa.”
At the end of practice, Pena, who counts woodworking as a hobby, used a drill to remove a railing attached to the floor. The team helped with the effort, moving the wood ramps and platforms to the corners of the recreation room. When everything was cleaned up, they congregated around Pena outside before he drove a few of them home. They can’t walk home around 9 p.m. because the streets are “hot,” in Pena’s words.
“I just feel there’s a need for people to be a little bit more sympathetic about kids,” Pena said, as his normally warm voice became raspy and choked up. “Because there’s so many people out there who are willing to say ‘Hey, want to sell some drugs? Want to go beat up this kid? Or go steal this? I want to give them a safe haven to get away from that.”
The team opens its doors to kids who often come from “disadvantaged homes, very sad situations,” said Chanabelle Arriaga, a member of the church and the president of the HeavenBound7 board that advises and supports the team. “I just wish there were more people who cared who would take an interest in the underprivileged and not turn their cheek.”
Pena, who has four daughters of his own, definitely does not turn a cheek; he literally invites kids off the streets into the church to add to the cacophonous clattering and clanking that echoes throughout the building thanks to the skating.
“We don’t have a lot of resources,” said Melanie Figueroa, the mother of Shane Rivera, one of the skaters. “They needed a male role model. They started out with one little trick and they gained so much knowledge.”
Shane Rivera has also acknowledged the benefits of the team, which spurned a personal commitment to school and self-improvement. It has provided Rivera with a religious outlet, though he normally attends a Catholic church closer to his home.
“It’s kind of a weird skate spot,” said Rivera, a muscular fifteen-year-old clad in a trendy skating t-shirt. “I think we’re the only team that does this; we’ll say a prayer before we skate.”
Nevertheless, none of the teens have skateboards that say “I follow Jesus Christ Skateboarder” on the underside of the deck, the wooden board, or t-shirts with “Jesus is my homeboy” across the chest. (And there is most definitely no “Jesus died so you could skate” merchandise.)
Religious participation is not mandatory. There is an occasional Bible lesson or prayer, though Pena usually teaches about “soaring high” in other areas of life, like education, personal hygiene and getting a good job.
The results of Pena’s efforts are palpable. The team, which runs on a $500 stipend from the church and is mostly paid for out of Pena’s pocket, will be giving $2,000 towards two college scholarships in the spring, one for a HeavenBound7 skater and the other for a local high school student from fundraising and money donated by church outsiders and companies like Plaza Construction, where board president Arriaga works.
Some of the costs are due to Pena’s inclination to give out skateboards on the street, as he did before he started the team. After taking a class at the church that encouraged participants to delve into a hobby, Pena tried to construct a skateboard using his woodworking knowhow. He couldn’t build a functional skateboard, but his interest grew and he opened a skate shop with a friend, then one on his own in Mott Haven last year. He left both behind because they were too expensive and too much work to maintain.
Without the stores to worry about, the bills still add up. The team travels to New Jersey and Connecticut to go to skate parks and amateur competitions, where a few of the skaters have placed. Pena spent roughly $3,000 of his own money on raw materials to build the ramps and equipment for the team this year. The church should also purchase special insurance in the event of an injury that would cost $150 per month on top of its current insurance, but cannot afford it.
Fortunately, the skaters mostly throw 360 flips and ollies instead of, say, a “Christ air,” a trick where a skater lets go of their board entirely as he or she is launched off a ramp and holds his or her arms out to look like the image of crucified Christ.
“They want to complete a trick. So I think what’s appealing about it is a sense of accomplishment,” Pena, who became the youth minister nine years ago, said. “Then they transfer that sense of accomplishment to school. That’s one of my regulations. You do good in school you can come here and skate. You don’t do good in school, I’m sorry.”
Since Jose Castillo began participating in the team, he has improved in school because Pena asks to see report cards and he has begun helping neighborhood kids with their skating.
“I used to be the type of kid who used to be in the streets. And like, do nothing else,” said Castillo, who has lose, lanky limbs that matched his relaxed manner. “But after I got involved in skateboarding, met Henry and came over here, it’s like everything just changed. Became a new kid, actually.”
For Castillo, skating has become an all-consuming way of life. He has to make a concerted effort to skate less. During one practice, he cut his foot from a fall. Pena bandaged it up in a bathroom the teens skate out of to propel themselves down a hallway and into the recreation room because they have limited space.
The skaters occasionally skate outside to escape the tight space, a relief from crashing into a wall at the end of the up-ramp. That has allowed some of the participants to go places they normally would not go.
“It opens up your mind to different things. It doesn’t make you secluded. You meet a lot of new people that you never thought you’d meet or talk to. If we never had a skateboard we’d never know half of the places in Manhattan,” Blair, who calls Pena a “second pops,” said.
While the skaters have found a venue for athleticism and personal growth in the team, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Many of the parishioners have voiced their differences with skating in the church, said William Garcia, the president of the church board and Pena’s brother in law.
Skateboarding leaves black marks on the church’s floors, which angers parishioners who want to preserve the condition of the recreation room. There have been scheduling conflicts to use the space and the skating is very loud. (The parishioners who are most vocal against the skateboarding did not return any calls or emails.)
Not to mention, since the days Pena was a teenager himself at the church after he was invited in by a youth minister, different administrations have been more or less welcoming of youth activities. Some have felt it is a nuisance and the church is not a place for teenagers while others have been open to youth activities.
“I feel like he’s the one actually bringing the kids in that church,” Nicole Ortiz, Pena’s 24-year-old daughter, said. “He’s the only one making an effort to reach out into the community. The church is being very rigid and conventional. They don’t want to try new things.”
The skaters are cognizant of the disagreements over the space. Melendez and Blair both said they understood why the congregation would want to preserve the space, since it is used for other activities.
Positive feedback from parents has temporarily assuaged the churchgoers’ gripes. However, there is no answer for the growing team’s need for a larger space. Pena’s next mission is to campaign for a skate park in the Central or South Bronx.
The skaters want one too. Yet Castillo is concerned that if there’s a skate park nearby, the skaters will have to deal with threats other than their safety. He frets that once other kids start skateboarding, they’ll fall in love with the sport and take each other’s boards.
“Around here you got all these projects and stuff,” Castillo said. “You put a skate park in the projects, some kid could come out of nowhere and say ‘hey, give me your skateboard.’ And then they’re going to get so addicted to it they’re going to come every day and take every single kid that comes to the park they’re skateboard.”
Still, more holy rollers would be welcomed, maybe even praised.