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Interview: Brian Sumner, pastor and skateboarder

18 November 2016

‘My first experience of God was when I got knocked out’


As a professional skateboarder, my day was simple. Wake up, eat, relax, maybe go to a jacuzzi to loosen up, then head to a local park, skate for an hour or so to get warmed up, then head off to skate different spots and maybe try and film something.


When filming for a video part, you would be working on a specific trick daily, and each day going to that spot, to get that trick for your part. When travelling and touring, you would be driving or flying into towns, and doing demos almost every day.


So picking tricks, going to rails, steps and so forth — to jump down them until we got those tricks was just a part of my life. Choosing graphics for skateboards, designing shoes, and directing what you are doing just plays out.


We filmed The End video, which was the first major film I was in. That was a big deal, as I had just moved to America. Then it was Adio — One Step Beyond, which at the time was one of the biggest films, because the brand blew up and it was in stores worldwide.


As someone who loved it, skating for six or seven hours a day was just something I did since I began when I was 13.


My childhood involved lots of playing in the streets and around town. In Liverpool everyone is getting outside, hanging out, finding stuff to do — and often ending in trouble. The streets were pretty rough, but I feel it taught me a lot about life.


My family life was great. My mum and dad were together, and took us to places like Wales. Now I view their perseverance as a blessing, as they were married for 44 years until my mum passed.


I was 15, and had gotten invited by a local friend and pro-skater Geoff Rowley to come over to the States and skate. Arriving in Huntington Beach, I fell in love with the place. I went back to England, but was soon invited by Tony Hawk’s Birdhouse [a skateboard brand] to come and live in America, as an amateur, and begin to tour, travel, and film. This involved my finishing school at 15 in England, moving into an apartment at 16 with Andrew Reynolds, Jim Greco, and others. All of this took off pretty quickly.


I am an American now. I got my Green card, and then eventually became a citizen. America makes you renounce your previous citizenship, while England still honours it. So I’m thankful to have been raised in Liverpool, but now to be able to live here in America, where today it is sunny outside, and my son literally just walked out the door to surf. As far as my accent goes — yes, I definitely sound crazy. Many Americans think I sound as though I am from Boston, and many from England think I sound American.


My first experience of God, not being someone raised in the Church, was when I got knocked out at 15. I was skating the handrails at the Law Courts in Liverpool city centre. I was sliding down the handrail, and I fell and banged my head. I had kicked the board by accident as I had jumped onto the rail, then hit between my legs, not the rail, failing forward to bang my temple on the floor. I jumped up right away claiming I had “seen God”. My friends did not know I had been knocked out, as it was so quick. But I began throwing up, was repeating things, and was taken to hospital.


I am not saying now that I saw God. I am saying I definitely saw a powerful white light, and got an impression of God, one very similar to what we see in Daniel 7. The reason this is amazing is that I kept telling everyone that God had told me I was “going to ride for Airwalk [a skateboard brand], live in America”, and that “he had a plan for my life”. This was all before I was sponsored, lived in America, or knew he had a plan for my life. The fact that I was on Airwalk by the end of year is crazy. Soon the feeling went away, and it was not until years later, when I came to faith, that I realised I had had this experience.


That experience was all before I lived in America, was a professional skateboarder, and became a Christian. Everything has changed through the years. Back then, I was living for myself, and all I knew about life was video parts, travel, and products. But now my life is about God, my marriage, my family, and the gospel.


My current routine is one of a volunteer pastor, who helps with evangelism, and as a preacher and teacher. I spend much of my time travelling to preach, teach, and do outreaches.


The goal wasn’t to become a pastor. I became a Christian in 2004, after our marriage failed. I was depressed and suicidal, and challenging God (whoever that was to me at the time). He showed up in a powerful way in my life, saved me, saved my ex-wife at the time, and began to restore our lives.


That led to our being re-married, our digging into the Word, and my focus becoming one of sharing the truth and studying God’s Word.


As time progressed, I was travelling lots, serving in my local church. I became a deacon and I was soon invited to be a pastor.


I still skate, but, at 37, I focus on skating with my kids.


A lot of my pastoring and writing is about marriage, because the Bible is about marriage. The Bible is the story of a king who came to slay a dragon, to rescue his bride. Genesis begins with marriage and Revelation ends with one.


When we came to faith in 2004, we dug into all the Bible verses and books we could that focus on marriage. I mean, how do two people who have been divorced possibly make this work? Only with God’s Word.


We began to see just how bombarded marriages get, simply because Christians don’t often know God’s plan for marriage. How could we not want to help?


I’ve been friends with those at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for years. So I was excited to be involved in the Association’s My Hope series of films, which aim to equip and encourage local churches to proclaim the gospel. My story is included in the first film, The Cross.


My Hope UK is now in its third year. It is having a great impact as a free resource for churches and individuals to easily share the gospel message in a relevant and personal way. The latest film is called The Worth of a Soul.


God is always there. He was there in Job, He was there in the fiery furnace, the lions’ den, and when Elijah was looking for evidence of God’s presence. Jesus told us, in Matthew 4:4: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” We have to trust that, and believe it. God does seem closer or further at times. But if my faith is founded on his promises, his covenant, the cross, the blood, then I need to be able to trust him at all times.


What makes me angry? Things that happen to children, injustice, when people lie. Personally, it would just be as things build up each day, or at times of stress. The Bible does not say, “do not be angry”. It says: “In your anger do not sin.” (Ephesians 4:26). So anger is an emotion, but how you react: therein lies the sin.


I’m happiest when things are going smoothly. Feeling that bond with God and with my wife, as we serve and give alongside each other. Just being with family, enjoying one another. And, of course, living out my call: preaching, teaching, sharing the gospel.


Many people have influenced me. My dad, and his hard work ethic. My children, who motivate me. Before I was a believer, Bruce Lee influenced me: he was very philosophical in his approach to understanding himself, and his art. Those principles definitely helped me in those early years of focusing on my skating.


Only Christ gives me hope for the future. I am watching Donald Trump on television now, and my hope is not in anyone but Christ. I’ve learned that as far as I can trust people or situations, I can only do that in the work the Lord is doing in them.


I would choose to be locked in a church with Melchizedek, or Enoch. Those people are so mysterious; it would be amazing to know what they know and to hear about their walks with God. Enoch being taken up because he walked with God, and also the fact that he has yet to die, would lead to some good conversation.


Brian Sumner was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.myhopewithbillygraham.org.uk

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