Water plays an important role in many religious practices and rituals; it’s used in baptism, birth and burial. For surfers, the ocean is more than just a physical pursuit. Waiting for the perfect wave, watching the ebb and flow of the water and experiencing sights and sounds is a relaxing, refreshing and a life-affirming experience. Do surfers have a unique relationship with God and with nature? Can the shaping and riding of surfboards provide meaning and healing after unspeakable tragedy? KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian is joined for the whole hour by avid surfer and former pastor Britt Merrick, who talks about how being in the ocean and his Christian beliefs are so interconnected.
The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Tell us about your childhood, what kind of environment did you grow up in and what were some of your earliest memories?
Britt Merrick: “I grew up in a beach family and a surfing family where surfing was really everything. That's why my parents started their business: Channel Island Surfboards. So all my earliest memories are of the beach. My dad was working and my mom would take us to the beach which was like our park or our daycare. As soon as I was old enough, my dad took me surfing. The way he tells the story [is] that he put me on a board for the first time when I was about three years old, pushed me into a wave and I fell off. I couldn’t swim, so he was trying to find me underwater, feeling for my body, he eventually grabbed me and pulled me up. I have no memory of that, so the earliest surfing experience predates my memory.
I do have strong childhood memories of growing up in the surf shop, right here in Santa Barbara down by the harbor. My mom and dad both went all in on that business, both worked two jobs, so the only place for me to be was there with them.
I have memories watching my dad make surfboards by hand, and you know how strong the sense of smell is, so the smell of resin is really, really powerful. It's sort of repulsive to most people, but for me, it smells like home, like my childhood, like security and the same with the foam dust which is a very tactile thing, so there's all these smells and the touch that are involved in making surfboards which are very strong memories for me.”
KCRW: Do you remember though, when you started to fall in love with the feeling of surfing?
Britt Merrick: “My strongest memory around that would be in grade school when my dad would pick me up every day from school and take me to Rincon surfing and that's really where it started to click. My father gave me the independence because he would just say ‘here we are at the beach, you do your thing. I'm going up here with the big boys. You paddle out here and figure it out.’
I became immersed in this social culture; being out in the lineup and learning the rules and etiquette of surfing and then learning how to survive in a place like Rincon. I remember days when the waves are really big and I was just paddling for the horizons as fast as I could, scared for my life.
My dad would surf ‘til dark, so I’d wait on the beach, in the dark waiting for him to come in and that's when I realized we’d really given ourselves to this, my dad already had the passion for surfing but for me it clicked there at Rincon when I was in grade school.”
KCRW: Did your love of the ocean continue to grow and why is it important to you?
Britt Merrick: “It's more important to me now than ever. Surfing really grows with you as your understanding and experience of it changes. At a young age, it's all about being good, being the best or getting the most waves and then later it becomes about exercise but at some point and I am now 48 it becomes more of a meditation really. It’s my safe place, my quiet and familiar place, a place that resets everything.
There studies on all the benefits of saltwater and all these benefits you get in the water; it's incredibly cathartic to be in moving water, the life that's out there; the birds, the dolphins and whales and seals. All this life and movement. Every time I go in the water, other stuff doesn't matter for a moment. I'm not thinking about my problems on land, I'm just fully immersed in the watery environment and whether the waves are good or not. I come out feeling refreshed, renewed and sort of whole. I’ve realized and I think this is true for all surfers, but if I don't get in the water on a regular basis, I’m not my best self.”
KCRW: Along with your love for the ocean and surfing when did you develop your spiritual beliefs — how did those two worlds crossover?
Britt Merrick: “I grew up in a Christian home, my parents practiced in a way that showed great integrity, they were always kind to people in their lives and their business. But in my high school years, I walked away from it that part of my life, I got into partying and got way into drugs, in fact got arrested on my high school campus for selling drugs. It was a big deal. So my parents said ‘if you get through high school, we’ll help you go on a surf trip around the world.’
And I listened and got it together, graduated and went on a surf trip around the world. I ended up in Australia where I found myself a bit homesick, I’d left my girlfriend, missed my parents, missed my mom, and so I’m 18 years old, first time overseas and missing home. It happened that I met an American, the only American around who happened to be a Christian. He didn't know whether I was or not, but he invited me to do a church service and though I hadn't been in church in several years, I went more or less because I was lonely and homesick and this felt a little bit like home. But when I went I had this reconnection with my faith, that was really, really profound. It was the prodigal moment and I was like the prodigal son coming home. And that happened on a surf trip.
So at that point, for me, there was this real connection between these two lives; my surfing and my spirituality and how one had led me to the other. This pursuit of surf had led me back to Jesus and Christianity. And that's when I began to get involved in Christian ministry and got really serious about it. It's clear to me now that in my own mind then, I perhaps bifurcated the two pretty profoundly because to me it felt like surfing for a while was a superfluous and fun activity but once I rediscovered my faith I felt like I needed to do some real work.”
So you started a church, you’re having a family and then something really sad happens, the death of your daughter. That must have changed your life?
Britt Merrick: “Yeah, for sure. My daughter Daisy was diagnosed with cancer, with a Wilms tumor sort of kidney cancer when she was five years old. At the time, we were told treatment would give her a 90% success rate, but hers’ would not respond, and she fought with it for four and a half years and had something like 20 surgeries.
She's five when this happened and she died when she was nine. So we fought it for four and a half years. And we had incredible experiences through that, the faith community, the whole community was amazing to us, but especially our faith community in the way that they carried us and cared for us.
We went through all the hard questions about God. What does it mean that my wife and I had given our lives to serving God, and now he's letting our daughter die of cancer? How does that impact our view of God? How do we look to God as all powerful and benevolent? We had a website for Daisy, called it Prayor Daisy.com so if we had millions of people around the world praying, why was she still dying? What does that mean?
We had to wrestle through all of that, she had to wrestle through as an eight and a nine year old, she had to wrestle through her own mortality. We'll never be the same from that. You're never the same after losing a child nor should you be, that would dishonor who they were in your life. We asked those questions and I will not pretend to say that we have answers but by having asked those questions, we're better for it and our faith is better for it.
There's something about the human condition that requires suffering and I would never wish for that kind of suffering on anybody but it’s meant to be part of the human experience. So Jesus said to his followers, in this world, you're going to have trouble but take heart and somehow in the darkest places, in our deepest pain, in the most terrifying pain of losing a child, when we stepped into those spaces, we found Jesus to be there. And that was a big deal.”
Reflecting on that experience, what role did the ocean or surfing play? Did it help you in your grief?
Britt Merrick: “I'm so glad that you asked that question. It was a really difficult time and once we started the church, I had walked away from the family surfboard business out of necessity, all the church commitments were so demanding that I couldn't do both.
That was hard, to walk away from the family business, which was such a huge part of my identity, it really was all my hopes and dreams. I never dreamed of being a pastor, I never wanted to be a pastor, I always wanted to be a surfboard shaper and wanted to live that life but I surrendered that for what I believed God was calling me to do.
In the depths of my daughter's illness, there was a knock on the door at our home and this young man named Brian, who as a young teenager, one of those kids on the beach, who we’d talked to and hadn't seen in years, and he knocked on my door and says: ‘I want to build the shaping room in your backyard.’I was like, ‘bro, what are you talking about? I haven't shaped a board in years.’ ‘Yeah’ he said, ‘I know you haven't. But I think you should and I'm building you a shaping room.’ And it was one of those moments when I just accepted and said ‘this is okay.’ He bought all the materials and he and his father went to my backyard and they built me this incredible shaping room and then left.
So I went back there, got a foam block, got my tools back together, which I hadn't touched in years, and began to work with that foam. And man, it was like this whole magical world that I left behind open right back up to me. And I have not had an experience like that of the rest of the world fading away before, maybe ever.
Nothing else entered my mind, I was fully absorbed in this practice, this act, this art, this craft of shaping a surfboard to such a degree that for a moment, I wasn't thinking about my daughter's cancer, I wasn't thinking about my pain, I wasn't thinking about the darkness of it all or about all the hospital time that I'd have to do that week. I was just fully immersed in this craft. And I'm going to be honest, in a real profound way, at that moment, shaping surfboards saved me. It saved me in a way because I had this healthy blessed place of escape.
That was when I discovered: this was a huge part of who I am. It was in my blood. I was a little kid rolling around in a surf shop, in my dad's shaping room; I was born with foam dust in my hair, between my toes. And I rediscovered a part of myself that God had put in me, that God had gifted me with and I think that it was God's providence that Brian came to my door and he did that incredible act of kindness and generosity.
And so I started shaping surfboards and I have not stopped since then. I’ve fully given myself to it and it's been hugely important.
And after my daughter died, I went to the beach, I did not know where else to go. I grew up on Rincon and I just surfed and I surfed and I surfed, and I surfed and I surfed. And I found such incredible healing in that, in the water in the act, and the exercise, in the outdoors and in that community. And so truly then, shaping surfboards and riding surfboards have been indispensable in my healing and coping with losing my daughter.