A languid mood occupied Wrightsville Beach at seven in the morning. A few cars paraded the streets. Shopkeepers unlocked grocery marts and souvenir stores. Even the perfectly chiseled joggers passed along the sidewalks as breezy afterthoughts of a concluding summer. For many still curled up in their hotel rooms, it was the last days of vacation before school started; the last chance to enjoy the snooze button. For the early risers, it was the last chance to enjoy a coffee while boats plodded along the Intracoastal Waterway.
I parked my truck a couple of streets past Roberts Market, loaded my camera bag, and started hiking to the beach. I was there to photograph a surfing event – something about autistic children surfing. I figured it would be a small thing, maybe a couple of dozen people giving and receiving surfing lessons. No big deal. It had been weeks since I was out of the house early in the morning to do photography, so even a little event was going to be okay by me. But I was wrong. Nothing about what I will see will be little.
Event tents speckled the beach, surfers, clad in wetsuits, shuffled from place to place, leaders issued orders with handheld megaphones. A group of green-shirted lifeguards held a safety meeting. The pace of the workers felt a bit frantic; too much to do, too little time to do it. It was only until I came to a long table covered in trophies that I started to grasp the magnitude of the event.
I struck up a conversation with a lady holding a heavy, long-telephoto lensed camera. She set me straight. Surfers Healing host surfing camps in Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, and the east and west coast of the United States for children with autism. This wasn’t a local group of mommies and daddies working with a few do-gooder surfers, as I had thought. It was global movement that just happened to be occurring here on Wrightsville Beach. Surfers Healing was founded over twenty years ago by a wave rider named Izzy, who came up with the idea after finally making a connection with his son through surfing.
Now, the camps fill up quickly, the lady with the camera said. She didn’t know exactly how many children participate but she said that it was an all-day event with multiple kids in the water at one time. I was starting to get the idea and looking at the sheer section of the beach taken up with tents and surf boards, volunteers and curiosity seekers like me, easily hundreds of children must take part. I will learn later that over 4,500 children participated in Surfers Healing’s camps last year.
I walked off to Roberts Market to fetch a drink. When I returned the professional surfers had gathered in the ocean bobbing up and down in a giant circle. The sun cracked the clouds sanctifying the event with crepuscular rays as though a voice came from heaven, saying, “You are my sons and daughters, beloveds; with you I am well pleased.” The surfers received the day’s initiation and paddled to shore. They joined a forming circle on the shore. A second invocation was given on land blessing the marriage of land and sea.
The child surfers started arriving in waves. They were suited with a life jacket, partnered with a pro surfer, and escorted into the sea. More and more people gathered on the shore to watch. Quickly the spectators numbered in the hundreds. Cameras were out. The sound of shutters and waves snapped over the sand. People hollered and hooped, clapped and bounced with excitement. And the children were just making their way out.
When I was little, I thought of miracles as events where Jesus did something impossible. It was like Jesus was a magician preforming magic tricks. Poof, wine from water. Shazam, a demon exorcised. Presto chango, a blind man who saw, a deaf man who heard, a cripple who walked. Eloi, Eloi, lema sabach thani, God died. Open Sesame, a great big stone blocking a tomb rolled away.
Maybe it is because I’m older, maybe it is because my theological observations are a bit more practiced, or, maybe it is because I try to live in the real world, but the magical Jesus seems a little too unearthly, a little less believable. (That’s not to say I don’t believe in a God who died or a God who was raised from the dead. I do. Here, though, is not the place to straighten that mess out.)
Standing on the beach watching these children confront their fears and accomplish something remarkable captured the miraculous. The word miracle comes from the Latin word mirari, which means to wonder at. The children waded out in the water, climbed on surfboards, and didn’t become wonderous but revealed it. And in an instant, I knew again that life was more, bigger, and greater than what I alone could experience. For everything I am – my coffee morning routine and bookish accomplishments and privileged experiences of going somewhere and all the other little bits and pieces that make up what I call my identity – the children took to the sea and unmasked divinity: the courage not to conquer or to perfect but to participate and experience. It was a gift they gave me, a resource I couldn’t buy or wield, a reception of grace that said I was witnessing something greater, proof that everything and everyone somehow shared a harmony, something to wonder at.
I felt like Zacchaeus perched in the sycamore tree trying to get a better glimpse of Jesus passing by. And there Jesus went, on a surfboard.
The clapping parents and well-wishing onlookers, the green-shirted lifeguards, the lady walking the nice yellow Labrador, the annoying shirtless guy with the megaphone giving play-by-play commentary, the sea of yellow-shirted helpers, the jogger on the beach who stopped to watch – everyone saw a miracle. Everyone stood in awe.
We don’t need another angel from on high, we don’t need another image of Jesus in the clouds. Standing on the beach we don’t need to ask for another sign, “so that we may see it and believe.” The signs wore lifejackets, marched to the water; the signs rode surfboards. The child falling off and getting back on. The child lying on the board, gripping the sides with a white-knuckled determination. The smiling face of child amazed that she can walk on water. The child who, before our eyes, outgrew the need for a surfing coach and simply surfed. The child who told the crowds to clap for him. The fist-pump of accomplishment. Two hands raised shaking the world of spectators to, “Look at me. Look at me!” Who can see these children learning to surf and not see a miracle? “But blessed are your eyes, for they see,” Jesus said.
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