DRIVE ALONG the sandy beaches in New Smyrna, Florida, near the inlet when the surf is up, and you’re likely to see a 12-foot, wooden cross planted in the sand in front of a white Nissan Xterra. If you hang around awhile, you’re bound to run into the guy who planted it there.
His name is George Alford, and although this 67-year-old just won the Eastern Surfing Association’s Grand Legends Championship for the second year running, most folks in these parts know him simply as “the guy with the cross.”
Some people think he’s a minister or a priest, but he’s not—at least not in the classic sense of those words. George counts his mission to surfers and other beachgoers as one of his most important ministries, right behind his vocation as a husband, father of nine children/stepchildren, and grandfather of 12.
Here’s what happens: after morning Mass, George drives to the beach. First thing he does when he gets there is pull out his shovel and dig a hole about a foot deep. Then he lifts the big cross down from the same roof racks that hold his surfboards, stands the cross in the hole, and hard-packs sand around the base to hold it in place.
After a few warm-up exercises and a prayer, George waxes up his surfboard and heads for the waves, where opportunities for faith-sharing with other surfers often crop up while waiting in the lineup. While George finds it doesn’t take much to get people talking about their faith experiences and their unanswered questions, he has also discovered that the conversations often go much deeper, with beachgoers asking probing questions about God, Church, and the pains and problems of life.
One of the first questions that people ask George is: Why do you plant a cross in front of your SUV at the beach? Another is: What gave you this idea? The answers to these questions lie in a story that begins back in 2004 with George’s entry into the world of surfing.
Surfing for God’s Glory
While the majority of surfers get started surfing as kids, most people are surprised to learn that George didn’t begin surfing until he was 59 years old.
“My daughter, Maeve, was the one who got me started,” George reminisces as he smooths sunscreen onto his face and hands.
“She had become a surfer and thought I would love this, so she invited me to go surfing with her. I had always loved the water—swimming and waterskiing—but it still took me at least 10 tries to get up,” he laughs. “When I finally did stand up on the board, it was only for a second.”
It wasn’t long, though, until George was hooked on surfing.
“It dawned on me pretty quick that God wanted me to surf. I’d pray to get better—‘God, teach me to surf for your glory’—and my body would do something new.”
Little did George know that the extreme sport he took up as a senior hobby would morph into a Christian witness and ministry to surfers, especially to fallen-away Catholics.
“The Church that Jesus founded—the Catholic Church—has the largest following in America, but the second-largest religious group is fallen-away Catholics,” George explains. “When I tell folks that I go to St. Peter Catholic Church, folks are surprised—even shocked. They don’t expect a Catholic to be doing something like this.”
Reaching Out to the Fallen Away
Although George had a desire to minister to the surfers, tourists, and other beachgoers in the community, he admits that he felt uncomfortable about the mission at first. He wasn’t
sure how to get started—what to say and what to do—but he felt a definite call to witness. That’s when the cross entered the picture.
What gave George the idea for the cross was St. Francis’ motto, “Preach the Gospel always and when necessary use words.”
“The cross is the best way I know to preach the Gospel always,” George explains. “I can literally reach thousands of people in a few hours.”
Many of those people are Catholic, or at least used to be.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the fallen-away Catholics I meet on the beach have heard negative stuff about God when they were young, as if God were just waiting for a reason to throw them into hell,” George observes, shaking his head.
“I tell people, when they ask me about the cross, that the reason I put it up on the beach is to remind people how much God loves them. They walk away with a different flavor of the Catholic Church than what they had before.”
Once a conversation strikes up, George looks for an opening, asking a question such as, “What church do you go to?” In turn, they’ll usually ask him what church he goes to. If the person is searching for answers to questions of faith, the conversation takes off from there.
On special occasions, such as Bike Week or Holy Week, George will hoist the cross on his
shoulder and carry it for a mile or two down the beach. During spring break, thousands of people see the cross as he drags it along the water’s edge.
“When people go to the beach or go surfing, they don’t get away from God,” George points out. “My goal is to plant a seed, to remind them to go back to church, to turn to God in suffering or need. God can work in their lives if I can turn their attention to him for a moment.”
The reaction? “I’ve had everything from people wanting to kiss the cross to those who want to burn the cross.”
George gets mostly positive reactions, though.
“Ninety-five percent are supportive,” he says. “I get a lot of back slaps and thumbs-ups, and not just from Christians—from Buddhists and Jews, too! People will say, ‘Thank you for reminding us.’ Pastors of churches will come up to me and thank me.”
George has even had offers to help carry his cross. “It’s heavy, and I’m glad for the help.”
Even though he may see a person for only a few moments, George sees his ministry as giving
the Holy Spirit an opportunity to work.
“I’m not a harvester. I’m a seed planter,” George comments.
“Some great saints worked themselves to death, but most are not called to that. Usually God asks us to serve where we are.”
Prepared for Ministry
After his first wife died of cancer in 1999, George was urged by members of the clergy to consider becoming a deacon.
“I prayed about it,” George says, “but it just wasn’t my calling.”
But his continued active involvement in the Church prepared him to engage in the discussions that come up in his beachside ministry. Over the years, George had participated as a team member in both the Cursillo and Christ Renews His Parish movements. He has also engaged in Catholic apologetics for years.
Meanwhile, his membership in Christian Surfers USA—serving as a “bridge from the beach to the Church”—gave him a taste of ministry to the surfing community. In addition, serving as an account manager with Lighthouse Catholic Media gave him a way to spread the faith, using Catholic CDs from some of today’s top Catholic speakers.
“Lighthouse Catholic Media features the best Catholic speakers and presentations in the world—conversion experiences, personal testimonies, teachings of the Church, lives of the saints, and more,” George states.
“I carry these powerful CDs with me all the time to give away to people. I gave two to the toll taker at the beach—one on the Shroud of Turin, the other on the dangers of the New Age movement. [The toll taker] was Catholic at one time but has been away from the Church, and I’m hoping he’ll come back.”
George also gets support for his ministry from his pastor, Father Tom Connery.
“Father Tom held a surf day for the youth of our parish a couple of years ago,” George says. “We had a cookout, the county provided the surfboards, and about 10 adults from Christian Surfers taught the teens to surf.”
Later, when George approached Father Tom about starting a Catholic surf club at St. Peter’s, Father Tom agreed, but only if George would run it. Thus began St. Peter’s Surf Club, the first
chapter of “Catholics Surfing for Jesus.”
Changing Lives, One at a Time
“For me, it’s all about making a difference in people’s lives,” George says.
One spring break, while George was carrying the cross down the beach, an inquisitive young man with multiple face piercings came walking toward the cross with a cigarette lighter in his hand. He asked, “Can I burn your cross?”
“Why do you want to burn the cross?” George asked him.
“He said, ‘Because I worship Satan.’ The young man wasn’t angry or hostile,” George says. “He just wanted to talk.”
“That’s bad news, dude,” George replied.
“No, Satan speaks to me in my mind,” the young man said.
“Satan hates you. He wants to drag you into hell.”
“Oh, that would be great—going to Satan’s house,” the young man responded.
“No, hell’s a horrible place, full of anguish and suffering forever. You don’t want to go there.” At that point, the young man started backing away from George, and then he turned and walked away.
A year later, George was carrying the cross down the beach again during spring break, and he saw a young man who smiled at George and nodded.
“He looked like he wanted to say something. I slowed down to give him a chance to talk, but he just smiled. I noticed that the young man had scars where piercings used to be. Later, as I walked down the beach, it occurred to me: that was the young man with the lighter!
“His look had meant, ‘Look at me; I’ve changed. We’re brothers.’ I prayed for another opportunity to see him again, but it didn’t happen. I still continue to pray that the Lord will bless him and help him grow in his faith.”
George pauses, then sums up his passion. “Changing lives: that’s the power of the cross!”
Catholics Surfing for Jesus
George Alford is looking for Catholic surfers of all ages to help organize and promote Catholics Surfing for Jesus (CSJ) as a national organization. His vision for CSJ is to prepare surfers to be able to defend their Catholic beliefs through participation in Bible studies and Catholic apologetics.
CSJ seeks to build fellowship and friendships by praying together, studying together, and surfing together. His group also hopes to:
Involve the youth and keep them from falling into selfishness and immorality. “For many young surfers, drugs and alcohol are big temptations,” George points out. “It’s not unusual to see a young person who has joined the surf scene for the drugs and sex and the adrenaline rush.”
Provide a positive Catholic witness to persons of all faiths—and no faith—on the beach. “Protestants often don’t know the truth about Catholics. A CSJ sticker or T-shirt might give someone a chance to come up and talk.”
Form committed Catholic leaders for the surfing community. “It’s fairly easy to get teens excited,” George says, “but not so easy to get the adults to join up. We need leaders and teachers.”
Provide an opportunity to encourage excellence in surfing for children, young adults, middle-agers, and seniors. “You don’t have to quit because you’re getting older,” George says. “Try to find a surfer who is evenly matched in skill. Or find someone who will encourage you to improve.
“My friend Bill Whatley has been a great encouragement for me. I met him at Christian Surfers. He said I should enter a contest, and he even paid my entry fee. I was worried about embarrassing myself, but it turned out that I was the only one who entered in my age class (50-65), so I won!”
George would like to see more Catholic surfers entering contests to build their skills and strategies. Contact him at [email protected] for more information.