Skater Recounts International ‘Leap of Faith,’ Urges Growth of Local Scene

MADISONVILLE, KY (9/13/13)—Madisonville native, John Laffoon, 33, transcends the formulaic mold society has set for a man of his diverse passions and faith. And he’s all the better for doing so. From his longtime involvement with skateboarding and teaching, to his in-depth theological studies, international travels, and his hands-on support of positive youth outreach organizations like Urban Action, John stands as living proof that bringing a positive light into this oftentimes darkened world is as simple as believing it can be done and having the will to follow through.

While the perception of skateboarding has undergone what many would describe as an immensely positive change over the last decade—as has the industry’s annual cash flow, which currently sits between an estimated five and seven billion dollars—there are still many individuals, and communities for that matter, that hold on to, and therefore reinforce, negative stereotypes and unwarranted stigmas related to skateboarders. But then you have evidence otherwise—evidence like John.

What’s this “dubious ruffian” shredding today? The Masters of Divinity circuit at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. And in between his spiritual studies and part-time job, he’s no doubt finding time to cruise the local skatepark, volunteer with local outreach programs, and spread the pious word. From an outsider’s perspective, John may seem like an anomaly—and, truly, he partially is—but when you really zoom in, you might just realize that he, just like most skaters, refuses to let unwarranted assumptions and stereotypes guide his decisions and personality.

I can personally vouch for John’s strength of character, too. I met him several years ago at the now long-gone Earlington, KY skatepark and knew almost immediately that he was a genuinely good person. He always had a smile on his face and never had a bad word to say. To us, he was the “really cool old guy” that was always showing up at the skatepark and riding with us “young hooligans.” He was an indelible part of that once-thriving scene.

Then, after the skatepark was destroyed and future construction plans were left by the wayside, I would run into John at random—at a restaurant around lunchtime, at the local super market, and passing by on the street. He would tell me these inspiring tales of his travels to Chile and the kinds of people he was meeting there. He would throw out tidbits of info about the scene there, too, which made his life seem all the more enthralling.

Yet, it wasn’t until several months ago that I really got to sit down and hear his stirring story from beginning to end. And I have to say I was captivated by what he told me. At the same time, what I thought I already knew about John was multiplied tenfold. At the end of the day, John just wants to make a positive impact on this world and he has done so through respectful, selfless actions.

Who is John and where do his passions lie? Read on.

Did you spend your entire childhood here in Madisonville?

Yeah, until I went to college at 18.

Where did you go to college?

I went to Kentucky Christian University over in Grayson, KY. It’s close to Carter Caves [State Resort Park].

When did you get into skateboarding?

Well, in high school, I rode around with some friends. We didn’t really know what we were doing, though. [laughs] But when I was in college, a friend of mine bought Tony Hawk [Pro Skater] for Playstation 1. He was the same as me—just rolling around here and there. He’s from Chile actually. We went out to a couple yard sales and bought some cheap skateboards, and it’s been an addiction ever since.

Were you raised in a Christian household or was that something that came into your life later on?

Yeah, I lived out in the country out past Loch Mary Lake in Earlington, KY. The Suthards Christian Church is right beside where I grew up, so I just rode my bike or walked over there for church.

What denomination are you?

It’s one that confuses everybody. I’m part of the Christian Church, which is sometimes connected with the Church of Christ. The Church of Christ is non-instrumental, while the Christian Church is instrumental. They use instruments. I think the Church of Christ is the only denomination in the US that doesn’t use instruments. The Christian Church was founded in the 1600s and they chose that name because there were all these different denominations with different names—Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and so on—and they wanted to avoid having a separate name.

That’s almost like a non-denominational approach.

I like to think that they may have been the first one. They even said at the time, "We’re Christians only, but not the only Christians." It’s one of the phrases that I really like, but I didn’t learn it until I went to Kentucky Christian University where I had a history class that dealt with it. Sometimes, you might go to a church that’s under a certain denomination and it can feel like it’s kind of close, like they’re the "only one."

What did you go to school for when you were 18?

I originally went to study music. I was trying to do music performance and music education, but I realized that I wasn’t that good, so…[laughs]

What instruments were you playing?

Piano was my main instrument, and guitar and voice were my secondary instruments. So, after realizing I wasn’t that good at playing music, I switched over to education only. I really didn’t know what else to do, but I think it was a good choice. It’s helped me out a lot over the years.

Urban Action Rider Sebastian Castro (backside tail-slide), downtown Santiago, winter 2013.( PHOTO CREDIT/CAPTION: Habacuc)

So, at what point did you decide to head off to Chile, and why?

My best friend in college, who I mentioned earlier, was a Chilean, and he was also a skateboarder. He had started an organization called Urban Action in Chile and invited me to go almost right after college. At the time, I thought living in any location where Spanish was the main language meant that everything was going to be like a desert – like Speedy Gonzales was going to be there and everyone was going to be wearing loincloths or something crazy like that. [laughs] So, for a while, I said ‘No’ to his invitations. I moved out to California and I did youth ministry out there. I was somewhere between 25 and 28 at the time. While I was out there, the town I was living in was kind of like living here. There was a church on every corner, there were a lot of good volunteers at the churches, and most people there really cared about the community. I kept hearing my friend telling me these stories about Chile and the skateboarding scene there, which I was still very much involved in. He told me how there weren’t very many outreach programs there at all, whether Christian or non-Christian. Basically, a lot of the youth there are on their own. I was really bothered by that, and I thought, “I’m single and I’ve got this opportunity to help, so why don’t I just try it?” So I went. I had a little bit of savings at the time – enough to last me for a few months at least – and I thought I could get a job teaching English while also volunteering with the Urban Action organization. That’s how I originally got there. It worked out well, because it was relatively easy to get a teaching job with my degree. I got a job pretty fast. It’s not a high-paying job; it doesn’t it pay as well as it does here.

You mean to tell me that teaching English in Chile isn’t glamorous? [laughs]

Some people there actually think it is in a way. There’s much more poverty there than there is here. If you’re making minimum wage here, the teaching salary there would be good money, though. It would be a step up. But if you’re teaching here and then go there, you’re going to see a step down in your salary.

What city did you go to in Chile?

I went to Santiago, Chile. It’s the capital.

Tell me a little bit about Santiago.

Santiago is the capital and it’s the biggest city in Chile. There are about seven million people there. Chile is a developing country, so there are parts that look nicer than places here in the US, but then there are big chunks in the city that are full of urban-poor.

So the divide is pretty obvious?

For me, it was the first time I had ever seen such a large division between wealth and poverty class-wise. Unlike it is here in the US, where someone who has come from a poor background and does well receives praise, in Chile it’s more about what class you were born into. If you weren’t born into a higher class, you might not be able to get a job. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. You’re not going to get hired there because you’re from “this area” or you went to “this elementary school.” There’s actually a place on job applications where you have to put what elementary school you went to, as if that even matters.

That’s almost like a caste system.

Almost. That was a big shock for me, but there are a lot of people there that are trying to change that. It’s just something that’s been built in so long.

So, you’re in Santiago, and you’re teaching English. Where exactly did you teach?

I taught at a few different places. The place that I taught at the longest, in Spanish at least, was the Instituto Chileno Americano, which would be the American-Chilean Institute in English. It’s a pretty big school. It’s in a lot of countries. I think they even have the institute here in the US in some of our bigger cities. It was a good place to start. There was a lot of confusion associated with it, though, and I think there might have been some corruption that caused some problems there after I left. I also offered some private classes on my own and I worked with a few smaller organizations. One of them was called Private Teachers and English, while the other was called English Adventure.

You were also involved with the Urban Action skateboarding ministry at the same time, which you mentioned earlier. Tell me a little bit more about trying to juggle both.

I was doing it on the side, but when you’re teaching English there, it’s not like a teaching job here that lasts from seven in the morning until three or four in the afternoon. There, you might have a class that starts at eight in the morning and goes until ten. Then, you’ll have two hours until your next class and then four hours until the class after that. So, you might be going from eight in the morning to ten o’clock at night sometimes. That was what really frustrated me about trying to volunteer alongside the youth involved with Urban Action; I just couldn’t be there a lot of the time because of my schedule. I was limited to volunteering just a couple times a week.

Was the school you taught at on a college level or was it for younger students?

It was all ages. It was an institute, so it wasn’t connected to a university or a high school or anything like that. Like I said, there are quite a few of these institutes all over the world, because English is such a desirable language to learn in other countries. I think they go all the way down to kindergarten—though I didn’t teach anyone that young—up to adult classes. I mostly taught high schoolers and adults while I was there.

So, I’m guessing the students pay to go to school there.

Oh yeah, and it’s expensive. The students pay a lot of money to take the classes, but the institute pays the teachers only a little bit of money. That was one of the things that caused a lot of controversy there, because the teachers realized how much the school was getting for each individual and weighed that number against their own salary.

Is that where the “corruption” factor came into play that you mentioned earlier?

Yeah, and that’s why I started working with the smaller organizations. They paid much more fairly.

Going there as an American, what kind of reaction do you get from the people who are native to Chile? Are they open and accepting of other cultures there?

In general, Chileans like people from the United States. Basically, if you’re from the US, Canada, or if you’re white and speak English, you’re a “gringo,” which, in Chile, doesn’t have a bad connotation. It’s just a fun way of saying who you are. The younger population has a lot of communist influence now, and I would see spray paint on walls that said stuff like “Get Out Yankees” as a result of that influence. So, that could potentially be an issue in the future, but I never had anyone dislike me because of that.

So, you’re down there teaching and volunteering with Urban Action. What did you learn about the skateboarding scene in Chile? Since the country is a developing nation, are there a ton of new places to skate popping up all the time?

The skate scene is huge there, which is another reason that my friend started Urban Action. He saw that the skateboarders there were lacking support from the government, state, city, or churches. Chile is on the west coast of South America, so it’s like California here in the US. In Santiago, you’re an hour away from the ocean, so there’s a lot of surfing. There are pro surfing events every year in Chile. Then, you’ve got the Andes Mountains to the east, so you have a lot of pro snowboarders coming in for that, too. Now, because skateboarding is growing so much, there are a lot of professional skate teams coming to the skateparks in Chile as well. Though the parks don’t compare to some of the stuff here in the US, there’s still some pretty nice spots and a lot of great skaters that are under the radar because they’re in Chile.

Are there a lot of Chilean skateboarding companies there? If so, are they the main sponsors behind Chilean pros and ams?

Yeah, there are Chilean companies sponsoring the pros there, but then there are also companies like Vans and Etnies, which are obviously huge here in the US, that have Chilean pros on their team. Typically, if a skater in Chile is sponsored by a bigger company like Vans or Etnies, they make enough to live in a small apartment and have the bare necessities. They aren’t living large like [American pro skaters] Bam Margera or Tony Hawk or anything like that. [laughs]

Were you surprised when you learned that Chile had such a strong skate scene? Or was that something you already knew?

Actually, my friend didn’t really mention that to me. So, I was definitely surprised when I got there and saw the level of skateboarding that existed. The talent there was, and is, surprising for sure.

I know you went down to Chile and came back to the US a couple times. What was the timeframe of the entire experience?

Well, I was there for just over a year teaching English. I came back to the US after that. Then, I decided I wanted to work with Urban Action full-time. That meant that I had to come back and join the mission organization, which is called New Mission Systems International, and I had to raise support in my denomination. To do that, I had to reach out to churches and individuals in search of financial and ministry funding. That took about a year-and-a-half. After that, I went back to Chile and worked full-time with Urban Action for a year-and-a-half. I didn’t come back to the US at any time during that period. This is the first time I’ve been back in the states since then.

What did your family think about you leaving? Were there mixed feelings?

Yeah, there were mixed feelings. Some people were excited about it, but everybody was sad, too. Anytime you move, you have to say your goodbyes. You can’t just drive over to Santiago, Chile for the weekend, so that means you’re going to be gone for a while. There were definitely some family members who couldn’t understand it at all. And even on the ministry aspect, it was still hard for some of them to understand, which was surprising to me. I think a lot of it really had to do with all of us being family, too. You just don’t want to see a member of your family moving so far away. And it was hard—I missed them and all that—but, I think if you’re going to move that far away, you’ve got to have a cause or reason for doing it that you really believe in. I had that. I really believed in what I was going down there for.

While you were down there, what kind of positive effects did you see manifest as a result of Urban Action?

A lot. One, just for the youth to have someone that was a few years older that cared about them and didn’t judge them was really amazing. A lot of these kids are rough—every drug you’re not supposed to do and all the bad things that could happen, they’re involved with.

The Girl Skate Crew keeps on getting bigger! We thank you for praying for them and for making our effort to reach them possible! (PHOTO CREDIT/CAPTION: Urban Action)

It seems like it’s always just right there in front of them, like they don’t have a choice.

Yeah, even right there at the skateparks, they’ll be skating, but when they’re done, whatever you can imagine happens afterward. There are a lot of girl skaters, too, and it’s a tough life for them as well.

It’s hard enough for girl skaters here. I’m sure it’s even worse there.

Definitely. So, just having an adult there to talk to that actually cared about them was very positive. Then, from my angle, as a person of faith, there was almost always questions about who I was and why I was there after short conversations, which allowed the concept of faith to come up naturally rather than forcibly. I really liked that. There were all kinds of individual things, too. There were kids that hadn’t finished high school and we helped them figure out what they needed to do in order to go to Saturday school and finish their education. That would get them one step further to finding work or something else they needed in life. There’s a young couple there now, and the young woman just had a baby. She’s 20-something and is from an orphanage herself, so she didn’t have a clue on how to raise her kid. So, my friends that are there—they’re a married couple with three kids—have been helping her and the dad a lot, giving them advice, inviting them over, and babysitting from time to time. They’re helping them with that process in hopes that their family will work out. The individual things that can be done like that are unlimited. This is just a group of skateboarders in one area of a huge city, you know? There are just so many possibilities and needs out there. It’s a worldwide thing, too. The possibilities are endless with social and ministry style work people can do.

It’s really quite interesting; skateboarding is such a social thing in the sense that it’s spawned such a powerful subculture. When you see someone skateboarding alone, and you’re a skater, you feel like you already know them a little bit whether you’ve ever talked to them or not. You have a common bond instantly. When you mix faith into that equation, I’m sure the connection becomes even stronger, too.

That’s something that a lot of people don’t understand—the subculture that skateboarding has created. You can try to explain it all day, but unless you’re talking to someone like yourself who’s been a part of it, it’s really hard to understand.

It really is. Being a skater, you learn a lot about your environment from a totally different perspective. You learn from just being out there on the street. You experience homelessness directly and you see a lot of the “unseen” parts of life. You look at the world differently. Yet, a lot of people have this perception that skaters are just run-of-the-mill hooligans looking to break things and destroy property. What’s your take on that perspective?

Well, there are a lot of hooligans that are going to tear stuff up, but not all of them skate. [laughs] I would say that that’s all the more reason to have structures set up by both the government and ministries, because if people are investing in the lives of our youths in positive ways, they are going to be far less likely to participate in destructive activities. For the most part, if they’re given a good place to skate that’s in a safe environment, that’s where they’re going to be. Most youths don’t want to be out destroying things; that just comes as a result of boredom.

Basically, if there’s a good outlet there for skateboarders, that’s where they’re going to put their energy.

Exactly. The majority of skateboarders don’t care about drugs; the interest just comes as a negative side effect of boredom. All skateboarders really want to do is skate at the end of the day. They are passionate about skateboarding just like musicians are passionate about playing music.

Just another great opportunity to share what God has done in our lives! Mini ramp sessions at our local church building. (PHOTO CREDIT/CAPTION: Urban Action)

Locally speaking—as far as on a city and county level—what kind of things do you think could be improved upon for the youth? Are there things you’d like to see?

Yeah. [laughs] I might step on some toes, but I definitely think it’s a shame that the skatepark in Earlington [KY] was torn down. There were only so many people that went there and skated, but they all did it consistently even though it was small and built relatively poorly. You know, there were kids coming there from Earlington and Madisonville, and even farther sometimes. I definitely think Madisonville could have a nice skatepark set up. There are a lot of big, empty parking lots in Madisonville that would work well and wouldn’t take much work to prepare. The big fear people have when talking about building a skatepark is directly related to insurance. People think someone is going to break their arm and sue, but there are all kinds of insurance possibilities and other things that can relieve that worry. And it’s very rare that a skateboarder or their parents sue over an injury.

After skateboarding for more than 15 years on a daily basis, and traveling all over this part of the country as a result, I can honestly say that I’ve never heard of anyone suing because of an injury. Injury is implied when it comes to skateboarding, you know? It’s an accepted risk that comes with the territory.

I think there may be two cases of it ever actually happening. [laughs] Skateboarders know what they’re doing. Most people don’t sue over hot coffee either. [laughs]

Except for that one person who didn’t expect their coffee to be hot at McDonald’s. [laughs] That’s just crazy.

In truth, football is far more dangerous than skateboarding and results in an overall larger amount of injuries every year, but they’re not going to ban football or tear down football fields.

It’s the same thing with basketball. According to annual statistics, basketball players sustain more than double the injuries skateboarders do each year.

Definitely. So, I think people and cities all over the world need to realize that skateboarding is a truly positive athletic and artistic outlet that a lot of youth can participate in. It’s good for them in the sense that not everyone wants to be on the football or basketball team, too. They can pick up a skateboard and have a group of friends already there waiting for them. It gives them ‘outside time’ as well. Everyone talks about pulling kids away from video games; if you build a skatepark they’ll go there.

And that relates back to what you said earlier about boredom, too.

From what I’ve come to understand, boredom is a pretty big issue for youth in this area. If people feel like there’s nothing to, they end up going out and getting in trouble.

Hopefully, that might change over the next few years. We were talking about the skatepark in Louisville, KY last night. That skatepark draws in professional skateboarding teams from all over the world. Tourists come all the way from California and Canada to skate there. That brings a lot of money into the city, as well as tourism.

Of course, it would be improbable and impractical for Madisonville to build a skatepark of that magnitude, but a nice, public skatepark is definitely within reason. With the progress they’re making with I-69, having a decent skatepark or skate plaza could add more tourism value to the city. The skate plazas are really popular right now and they’re less expensive. A lot of skateboarders are willing to travel to a good skatepark, even if it’s smaller.

If a skatepark is built right, it can last a long time without the need for a lot of annual maintenance, too. So, now that you’re back from Chile, what are doing?

For the next three years, I’ll be working on my Masters of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. It’s just outside of Boston in Hamilton, Massachusetts. So, that’s going to be pretty intensive. I’ll be working part-time while I’m going there and studying a lot. I’ve already checked out the skateparks up there, so I’m hoping I’ll still have time to skate. I’m hoping I can find people to help out in that area, too. After getting my degree, I’ll have a lot of opportunities—there’s working overseas, preaching or teaching in a church, and working at the college level. I think being around all the scholars there might open the doors to other possibilities as well.

Is there anything specific that you’re leaning toward?

Well, I love Chile, so if there’s a possibility to go back there, I definitely will. I love speaking Spanish and being in that culture. At the same time, I think about other countries that have a much higher need in the areas of faith and social structures. I could potentially have a bigger impact in those countries, so that’s always in the back of my mind, too. I would say my personal area of strength is in the area of teaching, so something at the church or college level would be great. If it happens to be overseas, that would be sweet. So, there’s really not one specific thing that I’m going for.

What was the arts and music scene like down in Chile? Are the people there open to different ideas and lifestyles?

Santiago, again, is a major city, so there were things like art shows and concerts. Every single night of the week, you can go to a concert at two o’clock in the morning if you want. That’s not the case in all of Chile. You have small towns there just like you have here.

Is Santiago the largest metropolitan city in all of Chile?

Yeah. Basically, you have this super long country and almost everything is concentrated right in the middle with Santiago, Valparaiso, and Vina del Mar, which are right on the coast. Valparaiso is a major port city. Vina and Valparaiso touch each other, so they’re like sister cities, I guess. Valparaiso is like San Francisco here in the US because it has a lot of hills. There is a huge art scene there, too. They have colored houses there, there are always a lot of art shows going on, and they have musicians on the street all the time. When you ride on the buses or public transportation in Santiago—which, along with the metro, is how you really get around—there’s going to be some type of musician riding along nine times out of ten. They’re asking for a tip or ‘propina.’ Sometimes, there are some really amazing musicians playing guitar or singing on the buses. That’s when I liked to leave a tip. But sometimes you get a 16-year-old kid who thinks he can rap and he’s got his cell phone or a cruddy beatbox and he’s yelling crazy rap at you. Those are the times you want to just hurry up and get off the bus. [laughs]

Patricio, backside 5-0 at Oh Park in Chile. (PHOTO CREDIT/CAPTION: Habacuc)

Do you think the community here in Hopkins County could become more familiar and open when it comes to the music and art scene?

I think that’s always a positive area for any city to embrace. Though I’ve been away for a while, I definitely think there’s a lot that could be done here. Like in Nashville and Louisville, you have these big cities that offer a lot of music programs and other things going on. As far as I know, we just don’t have a lot of that going on here. You know, we have a lot of kids participating in band at the local high schools and they’re learning how to play instruments, but, after they graduate, they may never play it again because there aren’t a lot of ways to continue with it.

You know, it’s crazy to me that funding for music and art programs in high schools is being cut back when bands like the one at Madisonville North-Hopkins High School here in Madisonville are making huge strides. They’ve been the state champs for almost ten years in a row now. These kids, who are obviously intelligent, need the music program as an outlet for their talents and creativity. It just blows my mind to think that those on the outside would consider those programs to be expendable.

I’m definitely against the funding being cut for programs like that. They base a lot of those funding decisions on test scores, but I don’t think that’s right. At the same time, I’m not sure what the answer is, though. I think that’s an area where those looking to set up some kind of outreach program would have a good chance to make a difference. You could set up a music studio or at least a common ground where people could come together and play music on their own time.

You mentioned earlier that your denomination is actually kind of non-denominational in approach and presentation. Was that the approach you took when you spoke to people about faith in Chile?

Yeah, because the majority of people in Chile, at least nominally, are Catholic. It’s like this: you’re born in Chile and you’re Catholic. It’s just assumed there. It’s on a grand scale. It’s not like it is here. If you’re a Baptist here, you’re probably going to church and sometimes you’re parents are making you go, whereas the people in Chile don’t go. It’s mainly older folks that attend church there. So, that’s something you have to think about. Anytime you’re thinking about working overseas, you just have to think about that aspect. You’re working with different denominations and you have to be respectful.

So, how long are you planning on skating? Are you going be 80-years-old still out there riding?

I don’t skate as much as I used to and I’ve never been great at it. I think I may have started a little late; it’s like the ‘old dog trying to learn new tricks’ thing. [laughs] I do love it, though. I mean, Tony Hawk is 10 years older than me and Tony Alva is 20 years older than me, and they both still skate, so I figure I’ve got at least until 63. [laughs]

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Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
John Laffoon photos by Jeff Harp 
Other photos provided by Urban Action

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