Lugging a surfboard to reach remote surf breaks is the bane of wave riders all across the world. Richard Ellerington - a British pastor who has been living with his family in France for the past seven years where they founded a ‘surf church’ - took that idea to the extreme recently when he decided to carry his board with him as he walked the 800 kilometre-long European pilgrim route known as the Camino de Santiago or, in English, the Way of St James.

“It’s been horrifically hard,” says the man known fondly to many as the “Ginger Vicar” thanks to a YouTube channel he shares with "Balding Bishop" Andy Frost, director of UK-based evangelism ministry, Share Jesus International.

Speaking to Sight earlier this month when he was just 47 kilometres away from the finish line at the Atlantic Ocean coastal community of Finisterre in Spain - a place also known rather fittingly as ‘The End of the World', Rev Ellerington says the walk had been a tough but rewarding experience.

“[T]here’s been some very, very long days – lots of blisters and all sorts of knee pain but overwhelmingly it’s been a deeply spiritual experience because there’s been so much time to pray and so much time for me to reflect upon the last 20 odd years of ministry…It’s been a journey of massive highs, difficult mornings and some real lows with pain and testing. But wow, it’s been lots of fun with lots of laughter.”

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Richard Ellerington - with board - on the Camino. PICTURE: Supplied

Ellerington, who only had a week to prepare for the walk and has been accompanied by family members and others on various parts of more than month-long walk, decided to undertake it after waking at 3am one morning with the idea of becoming the first person to walk the ancient pilgrim route carrying his board. 

There were several reasons behind his decision – Ellerington says he undertook the walk partly to raise funds for the next phase of his family’s journey of faith (more about that in a moment), partly to pray for the work of reaching surfers around the world with the Gospel and partly for a time of personal spiritual retreat.

“The walk is me praying for all those surf churches and all the surfers around the world and for all those working in [ministry] Christian Surfers around the world. The walk is drawing a line under the last seven years of pioneering [work] in France. And the walk is trying to directly rouse people for prayer and finance…towards what we’re doing over the course of the next three to four years.”

- Richard Ellerington

“The walk is a transition,” he says. “The walk is me praying for all those surf churches and all the surfers around the world and for all those working in [ministry] Christian Surfers around the world. The walk is drawing a line under the last seven years of pioneering [work] in France. And the walk is trying to directly rouse people for prayer and finance…towards what we’re doing over the course of the next three to four years.”

The new journey he speaks of - which has the backing of church mission organisation Elim Missions, Christian Surfers International and the Surf Church Collective - involves Ellerington and his family - his wife Regi and their three children Mani, 16, AJ, 15 and Indiana, nine – heading firstly to South Africa for a couple of months and then on to Japan, The Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Central America and finally the US over the next few years.

“Some of these places have already got [surf] churches happening – so I’m just going to go in and do some teaching, share our story, do some encouraging but also record their story,” says Ellerington. In others he'll be looking at the establishment of new churches.

It’s not the first time Ellerington and his family have made such a radical life change. 

In 2012, having quit his job as a pastor in the UK town of Weston-super-Mare where he was working with his parents in a pentecostal church which was part of the Elim group of churches, Ellerington answered what he describes as the “call of God” to move with his family to France and settled at Hossegor, near the coastal town of Biarritz, to take the Gospel to the surf community there.

“We wanted to see what would happen if we…were away from all Christian culture, stripped everything back and all there was, was God and us as a family – our Bibles and our surfboards…” he says. “We wanted to see what would happen - could a church be planted for that [surf] community? So that was the vision and dream behind it.”

It was a leap of faith – but one which Ellerington, who had been visiting the surf community in France for years before making the move, says was needed.

“I had a great church, lovely house, Regi had a great job as a nurse and great schools for the kids and it was wonderful and we had lots of faith for all the things in the church," he says. "But there wasn’t much faith being exercised just on behalf of our day-to-day life. So we want to just throw it all to the wind and see what God would do.”

Hossegor Surf Church

The Surf Church at Hossegor in France. PICTURE: Google Maps.

Ellerington says they quickly realised on arriving in France that God had already been “up to some great stuff”.

They were welcomed by the local Catholic priest who Ellerington says “loved our vision”. There was also small group of people who had been pioneering the concept of a “surf church” in the area through summer but had been praying for someone to come and lead the work year-round.

“Within moments of being there I founded a team of young people – five young people who all love Jesus and love surfing and were totally on fire for God,” recalls Ellerington. “And we were away.”

The church quickly started to “explode missionally” as they got to know the community in Hossegor and for the first few years, church services were held in a range of different locations including in nightclubs, garages, a casino and the beach.

Ellerington says it was about four years into the project when the Catholic priest came and told them: “We want to give you this beautiful chapel on the beach to work in partnership with you guys to reach the surfers”. 

“So they basically handed over the keys to this venue for us to begin a new project in there,” says Ellerington.

“Within moments of being there I founded a team of young people – five young people who all love Jesus and love surfing and were totally on fire for God. And we were away.”

- Richard Ellerington, speaking about what happened after his family arrived in Hossegor.

He added that not only was the chapel right next to what he describes as the “best surf spot in all of France”, it was also where, 20 years before, he and Regi had, during a visit to France, stopped and prayed after being moved by the sight of the then derelict building. While praying, they had asked God to “open the doors of this church to the community here”. 

Amazingly, it was to them that the task ended up being given.

“Twenty years later we were handed to keys to start to renovate it and transform it," Ellerington says.

The building has since become something of a community hub – as well as the cafe-style church, it’s also been used for music gigs, art and fashion shows and as a makeshift cinema for showing surf movies. In addition, there’s now a hostel beneath the chapel which attracts travelling surfers and is also used as a training centre for church planters.

And, as people have seen what’s going on there, the idea of the ‘surf church’ has been catching on in other countries as well.

“What has happened is that over the course of the last few years…other people saw what we were doing and wanted to do likewise,” says Ellerington. "So we had surf churches popping up in Porto [in Portugal], in the UK, in Holland and in other places around the world...Christian Surfers [then] pulled us all together at an international conference and we formed this surf church collective. So it’s this group of leaders that are together sharing our resources, passion and our drive so that we can plant churches around the world for the surf community. “

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Feeling it - Richard Ellerington makes his way towards Finisterre in what's believed to be the first time a pilgrim has walked the Camino with surfboard. PICTURE: Supplied.

Ellerington’s own faith journey goes back to his childhood – he grew up in a Christian home – but he does recall a key moment, a “real kind of cry out to God moment”, when he was 15-years-old and being bullied at school.

Praying to God that “if you’re there, I really need to feel you now, I need to know that you’re with me”, Ellerington - who originally hails from the UK city of Bristol - says that what followed was “a radical moment of transformation...and something really dramatic happened in my heart”.

“And I’ve been following The Way ever since.”

His love of surfing, meanwhile, started when he was 11 - “first wave, I was hooked” – and was given a real boost when he went to a Christian Surfers’ camp shortly after.

“I’d found a tribe of people that I belonged to…” he says.  “Suddenly I found identity in surfing and it was an amazing gift that God gave me – a bunch of people who were on fire for Jesus but who were also really crazy, radical people which was really, really good as a young kid.”

That’s a love – which, like his love for Christ – has never dimmed.

“When you’re in the ocean, connected so closely to creation, it’s a deeply, deeply spiritual thing. And there’s also an awareness that you are very small in the midst of something very big and there’s a greater force than yourself – you can express yourself on the wave but fundamentally the wave is in control.”

- Richard Ellerington

“When you’re in the ocean, connected so closely to creation, it’s a deeply, deeply spiritual thing," he says. "And there’s also an awareness that you are very small in the midst of something very big and there’s a greater force than yourself. You can express yourself on the wave but fundamentally the wave is in control.”

Ellerington's dream now is that every single surfer in the world would have access to a ‘surfer-friendly’ church.

“There’s lots of places...where the Christian world has no idea what to do with a surfer," he says, adding that many surfers had told him they'd been told by other Christians at one time or another they should give up the board and "get serious about faith".

“I had the same thing happen to me – I had one of my senior leaders, about 20 years ago, before I worked for my father, say to me I had to give up surfing and get real about God’s calling on my life. And it’s just a misunderstanding – this is a group of people that need the Gospel…They love life, love the ocean and, given half a chance, they’d love to explore what faith is about.”

Given his love for the surf and surfing community, it will come as no surprise what Ellerington was most looking forward to when he spoke to Sight ahead of reaching the finish line at Finisterre.

“Carrying a surfboard all this way, I want to get to the beach,” he says.

To give to the Ellerington family's £50,000 appeal, follow this link. You can follow the adventures of the "Ginger Vicar" - Richard Ellerington - and the "Balding Bishop" - Andy Frost on their YouTube channel.