FRISCO, Colo. (AP) - When you find a group of young snowboarders congregating in the trees, you're probably more likely to smell skunk rather than hear the sound of worship music. But every Sunday in Breckenridge, Youth with a Mission is making a positive difference in the lives of snowboarders and skiers.
Since the end of February, the amount of young people gathering for 1 p.m. Sunday services on the hill has significantly increased, said Foster Miller, assistant director of Boarders Discipleship Training School in Denver. The non-denominational organization facilitates worship services every Sunday at Breckenridge Ski Area and select Sundays (including this one) at Arapahoe Basin. Though they've been doing it for a few years, in the past they only showed up three or four times a season, but this year, they're there every Sunday -- and will be until the end of the season.
"Every year it builds," Miller said.
Ben Smith, a 19-year-old snowboarder, is one of the participants in the five-month program held by Youth with a Mission. One of its programs caters specifically to snowboarders and skiers, age 18 to 25. Students live on the same campus during a three-month program, which includes lectures and outreach evenings twice a week to Denver's downtown. Then, the participants go to Africa, Asia, Mexico or Canada to carry out mission work for two months. Smith will be leaving to reach out to an orphanage in Uganda in a couple weeks.
Smith came to the Denver program from Minnesota, where he was "depressed and down and stuck in the party scene," he said. "Now, I'm at a whole different level with God."
During the 30-minute mountain services, youth sing (carrying their guitar and hand drums up the mountain), give testimonials and speak about how God has affected their lives. The snowboarders and skiers go out on the mountain every Saturday and Sunday and "stay open to what God wants," Smith said, adding that if someone is hurt, they'll approach him or her and ask if they can pray, or they'll strike up a conversation on the lift.
"I love snowboarding, and now I'm getting to use my passion for snowboarding to reach other people," Smith said. "I always wanted to do that, but I didn't know how to."
In downtown Denver, they do a similar thing, only they walk the 16th Street Mall and often befriend homeless people. One man, Glen, wasn't very open to the young people at first, but week after week, as they showed up, he became more comfortable hearing about God, Smith said.
"I think he was searching for love from someone," Smith said. "We found him sleeping on a bench."
Smith has learned from Glen about the importance of not judging a book by its cover, as the two talk about Glen's daughter, who seems to judge people by their appearances, rather than what's in their hearts.
"We see kids come in here, and their lives just get completely changed," Miller said, adding that many have been neglected by their parents, who haven't taught them how to be a (strong) man or woman. "(Many) are coming here being kind of a wreck, not knowing what to do with their lives . they come here, and they see that they have incredible potential, and they're changing the world. It's just indescribable in some of these guys."
A portion of the participants come to Denver from foreign countries; though Youth with a Mission has about 400 training bases throughout the world, the one in Denver has a "school" specifically geared to snowboarders and skiers.
Twenty-year-old Sam Evans came from New Zealand after hearing great things about the Denver program from friends.
His parents were Christians until he was about 10, but then they didn't steer him toward religious views and he went his own way, focusing mostly on basketball.
He felt he made the right decision when he experienced what he called miracles: First, he broke his ankle five months ago, and after praying and being prayed for, a week later the doctor removed the cast and said it was "fine," and he was walking on it a couple days later. He also prayed to sleep well after having insomnia, and now he sleeps great, he said.
He describes the outreach trips to Denver and the mountains as a way to befriend people and love them.
"We don't necessarily talk about God, but just life in general," he said. "It's not old school where a Bible is shoved down people's throat; it's purely just to love them and see if they want any food or prayer. If not, we're not forcing it. We're showing them what Christianity's all about."
Twenty-one-year-old Angela Penner came to Denver from Manitoba Canada because she also heard good things about the snowboard program.
The appeal: "snowboarding, and I got to learn about God for five months of my life -- I get to know him on a personal level," Penner said.
Penner's parents raised her in a religion, "but it was never really personal," she said.
She's looking forward to going to Uganda because she has relatives that have disabilities, and as a result, she has gained empathy and wants to make the orphaned children feel wanted.
She's grateful the program has changed her in "a lot of ways."
"I've never been able to build relationships with family or friends; I kept them at arm's length," she said. "(The program) showed me God's love. It opened me to reach out to people."
- By By Kimberly Nicoletti, Summit Daily News
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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