Eat. Pray. Skate: A skateboarding ministry offers unconditional love to teens
Teegan Owen, 17, demonstrates his skills at Serious JuJu skate park in Kalispell, Montana. Photos by Hunter D'Antuono / Composite illustration by Claire Doyle Ragin
Serious JuJu is a ministry that meets young people where they are -- in a skate park.
The warehouse, a cold, nondescript concrete block of a building, is incredibly loud. Skateboarders create a relentless din as they thrum from one end of the space to the other, rumble down plywood ramps and slam against the concrete floor.
Over the course of a week, upwards of 75 young skaters, from early elementary kids to young adults, will come to Serious JuJu, a skateboarding ministry and worshipping community with a name as alternative as the skaters it serves in Kalispell, Montana.
They practice their tricks, have a hot meal and talk honestly about life, which for many of these kids includes obstacles like hunger, poverty and unstable or abusive families.
Over the course of 2019, before the coronavirus changed the “come one, come all” Friday skate nights into numbers-controlled small group skate sessions, 400 kids came through JuJu’s doors.
The Rev. Miriam Mauritzen, Serious JuJu’s pastor, navigates hardship and stress with these kids and often their families as well, recognizing that a major part of her work is helping them figure out what to do with their pain.
“We take our broken skateboards and we put them on the cross,” she said, referring to the huge cross on the back wall constructed from snapped boards.
“And we talk about how this is what we do with our brokenness. We don’t need to lock it away. Christ teaches that we put it here, that we share it in community. We embrace our pain until it becomes wisdom and a key for someone else.”
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Mauritzen looks nothing like what one might expect of a skateboard pastor. She has no visible tattoos; her hair is a natural brown; on this particular Thursday, she’s wearing a Patagonia jacket and stylish duck boots. And JuJu looks nothing like a church.
Yet Serious JuJu is very much a place of worship, and Mauritzen is very much the shepherd. Midway through each session, the skaters pause to be fed -- both literally and spiritually -- with a talk led by either Mauritzen or one of JuJu’s dedicated volunteers.
On this night, over a spread of ribs, chicken soup and chocolate cake, Mauritzen is finishing up a gospel-centered discussion on failure when one of the teenage boys raises his hand.
“Hey Miriam, have you ever ‘dropped in’?” he asks, using the term for standing at the top of a steeply curved half-pipe and shooting down into it on a skateboard.
She looks at him, taking a beat before she answers. This is not how she expected the kids to interpret her message.
No, she hasn’t ever dropped in. She’s not even a skateboarder herself. But she did just give a talk on embracing failure.
So she wraps up the group time, puts on all the pads she can find, summons every skater in the warehouse for moral and physical support, and climbs the steps to the top of the ramp.
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She fails. The board shoots out from under her, and she goes down hard. She takes a break. Five minutes later, though, she tells the boys she wants to try again.
They’re instantly coaching her on how to do better, showing her techniques to help her keep her weight forward and avoid a second crash.
She perches atop the ramp again, nervous but determined, ready to do the thing she really does not want to do: pitch herself into the sudden drop, completely unsure of her ability to pull it off.
Serious JuJu has always been throwing itself forward into the void. For the past 14 years, this skateboarding ministry has kept changing to connect with skaters in this small, working-class city of about 25,000 tucked among the mountains of northwest Montana.
What has remained constant is the organization’s desire to love these kids with “strings unattached,” as Mauritzen puts it.
As longtime volunteer and former board member Tom Esch explains it, Serious JuJu is there “to come alongside people wherever they’re at. If they need food, great. If they need help with their apartment, we can do that.
“But mostly it’s to come alongside them, to let them know that they’re not alone, that they are loved and the God of the universe cares for them,” he said.
‘People are already congregating’
Mauritzen, an ordained Presbyterian minister, said her experience in this ministry has changed her ideas about successful outreach.
“Oftentimes, the church kind of misses the boat, because we’re doing that attraction model; we’re trying to make ourselves so attractive that people want to come and congregate with us,” she said.
“We don’t have to do that work. People are already congregating. We need to notice that and pay attention to that and go there and say what they’re congregating about is important, and we, as part of their community, want to stand with them and join them in that.”
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Serious JuJu’s unconventional ministry has been recognized by the church; it is part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement, a testament to the expanding definition of church in the world.
“We want to grow the kingdom of God and our awareness of it and what it means to be a part of it, rather than our version of the Christian church,” said the Rev. Sara Hayden, who directs the movement’s apprenticeship and residency program.
That’s not to say that joining a community and turning it into a ministry is simple.
As Esch likes to say, the story of Serious JuJu is a narrative of “but for” moments, times when God’s hand has taken an all-but-certain death and turned it into the next step forward.
JuJu had an unlikely beginning. After the 2007 economic crash, welder J.D. Carabin got a side job making handrails for a high school renovation. His buddy commented that they would make great skate park accessories, which Carabin saw as a potential business.
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When he took them to the local skate park for feedback, though, he realized how badly the skaters “needed more than a rail,” as he put it.
He and his wife, Nicci, started inviting the kids to their garage on Friday nights for food, skating and Bible study. The home garage turned into a rented warehouse space with bunk rooms for kids who didn’t have a safe place to sleep.
The name dates from this period; Carabin used it for his business and kept it for the ministry primarily out of convenience. But later he realized it still fit, because he regarded Jesus as "serious juju."
But the ministry was expensive, and Carabin wasn’t an experienced fundraiser. The couple ran a skate shop and a coffee shop to generate income; they also sold their house to keep JuJu going. Still, a few years in, they were behind on the rent and facing eviction.
If not for the relationship that the organization had developed with First Presbyterian Church of Kalispell, 2012 could have been JuJu’s end.
Mauritzen, then the church’s associate pastor, submitted a grant application to the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative, and the funding came through, allowing JuJu to pay off its debt and buy a converted bread truck to hold its gear.
JuJu “went mobile,” setting up ramps and a sound system in the parking lots of supporting churches for the Friday night skates.
In late 2014, the Carabins made the difficult decision to move on. Without them, JuJu began to founder, and discussions started about whether it was time to close the doors.
“Yeah, we’re not doing that,” Kianna Chandler remembers telling the board. She was 15 at the time. Her parents, both alcoholics, had divorced.
She’d lived with the Carabins for a few months when her mom moved out of state and her dad was in jail or treatment; she would later become an emancipated minor.
“Right around that time, there was nothing stable in my life,” she said. “I was like, ‘No, this is what the community needs. This is what I need. This is what the kids around here that like to skate need. We need some sort of stable structure in our lives.’ At that time, there was a lot of uncertainty in my life, and JuJu was the one solid thing.”
Chandler, Esch and the Rev. Glenn Burfeind, First Presbyterian’s senior pastor, kept JuJu running on a shoestring budget with volunteers.
They found a new warehouse and got indoor skates going again, but it was not a sustainable model for a year-round ministry that provided everything from spiritual encouragement to food boxes and social support. JuJu needed a leader.
Success has many definitions
Mauritzen already had a full-time job as associate pastor, although First Presbyterian was facing dwindling membership and financial support. The idea of splitting her time between the church and JuJu came up, but Mauritzen didn’t want to take the helm out of convenience.
“I need to spend time with these skaters,” Mauritzen recalls thinking. “I can’t just walk in and say, ‘I’m going to lead you guys.’”
She spent the summer hanging out at the skate park and with the Skate Team, the dedicated core of JuJu that spent extra time both on their boards and in Bible study.
“And after the summer, everything changed,” she said.
“It felt like they took ownership of me; they named me as one of their tribe and adopted me into that household of faith.”
Mauritzen joined JuJu as a half-time pastor, still also working half time for First Presbyterian. JuJu needed more of her, but the funding wasn’t there, and her future with the church also became more uncertain.
With the survival of the ministry in serious question, an unexpected legacy gift to the church, a house in Kalispell’s historic downtown, turned into the unlikely answer.
In 2019, First Presbyterian gave the house to Serious JuJu, which sold it to endow Miriam as JuJu’s full-time pastor.
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There may never be a time when JuJu moves past the “but for” stage. They’re currently working through their latest major obstacle: the lease is up on the warehouse and the owners have plans to develop the space for other purposes.
So JuJu is headed to a former mall that has been repurposed as a community center and occupied by a variety of nonprofits, including the food bank and United Way. They have a grant from the New Worshiping Communities initiative to hire a one-year pastoral resident, though JuJu is a free-standing nonprofit.
Mauritzen is the only paid staff member. JuJu had to tap into its endowment to cover a $13,000 shortfall in the 2020 budget of $132,000, but the endowment was created to be that kind of safety net as the organization finds its footing. Mauritzen said that pledged gifts increased by 50% in 2020, despite the uncertainty of the pandemic.
The journey so far has helped everyone involved see that success has many definitions.
“We have cases where new communities last three or four years. We used to call that a fail -- ‘That church plant failed’ -- and now we’re starting to think of it in terms of, ‘Every organization has a life cycle,’” Hayden said, explaining the PCUSA’s evolving mindset.
“It might not look like we expected it to look, but it’s not a failure.”
Trying ‘this Jesus thing’
Chandler credits JuJu with her own success.
“I definitely don’t think I would be here today, working on my second degree and managing a crisis facility; I think there’s a fair chance that I probably would have gotten in some legal trouble,” she said. “I think after the first or second time I went to JuJu, I called my friend Courtney. I smoked pot at the time, and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m not going to smoke anymore. I’m going to try this Jesus thing.’”
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The friend later ended up getting arrested on a drug charge. Chandler, by contrast, has an associate degree as a licensed addiction counselor. She’s about to graduate from the University of Montana with a bachelor’s degree in social work and will begin an accelerated master of social work program in the fall.
Esch acknowledges that not every JuJu kid has a success story like Chandler’s.
But that’s not the ministry’s focus. “Living in the moment and saying, ‘Tonight was good’ is a measure of success,” he said. “Is this really ministry? Yeah, it really is. Just providing that sanctuary, a place to come, a place to get a meal, a place to share what’s stressing you out and go deep really fast, then jump back out and skate. It’s all part of it.”
Back in the warehouse on that Thursday night, Mauritzen stands at the top of the ramp for the second time. She really wants to nail the drop-in.
She’s listened to the kids’ advice, practiced snapping her weight forward on level ground. She goes for it. And falls again. Not as hard but still a fall. To some, a fail.
But not here, not where showing up and trying again are recognized for the successes that they are.
The boys crowd around her, excited: “Miriam, that was SO GOOD!”