When the ‘King of Skate’ Met a Missionary

The suitcase and chair gave their lives for a good cause.

That’s what twelve-year-old Kelvin told himself as he screwed the small, black wheels onto the wooden board, stashing the now-unrollable suitcase and the spineless chair in the corner.

Kelvin drew his mother’s ire for destroying a perfectly good chair and suitcase, but her scolding faded into the background as he beheld the beauty of his new, jerry-rigged skateboard.

He had no idea how fast his life would roll on from there.

Nairobi’s King of Skate

Buzzing through the streets of Nairobi’s City Square, across the steps in Uhuru Park and through the Central Business District of Nairobi, a rapidly growing skateboarding crowd can hardly go unnoticed. With 3.5 million people and counting, about 75 percent of whom are under the age of thirty, Nairobi is the perfect place for the skateboarding culture to take off.

I met one of Nairobi’s rising stars of skateboarding, Kelvin Murage, who’s earned the title “King of Skate” several times over from local skate-offs (like dance-offs, on a skateboard). Kelvin gave me the chance to see the East African skateboarding scene through the eyes of one of its own. We sat in a local coffee shop for a chat among the midday lunch crowd taking a break from work and studies to visit with friends and drink a glass of chai. Kelvin, dressed in khaki shorts, a plaid button-up with the sleeves rolled, and the classic flat-bottomed skater shoe, blends in well with the university students and young professionals crowded around tables beside us. But as he starts in on his story, I see this type of setting hasn’t always been his place.

A Lonely Childhood

Kelvin grew up in a small farming community in central Kenya called Nyeri, where life for him was not so easy. With only one older half-brother, Kelvin is the youngest child of his mother Jane. He was raised in what he described as a half-Christian family. His mother was a believer, but his father—when he was around—was an abusive alcoholic.

The distance between houses in Nyeri was far, and his only community was his classmates at primary school. His time in school was also not a pleasant experience, he admitted with a grimace, saying he was shy and often quiet, making him an “easy target” for his classmates to pick on.

When Kelvin was twelve, his family purchased a television with three channels: one for movies, one for the news, and one for cartoons. Kelvin spent his whole summer watching cartoons and an occasional movie. One day a skateboarder flashed across the screen during a movie, and Kelvin was instantly hooked. He had never seen one before.

Kelvin took this new fascination and fashioned his own skateboard from the back of one of the family chairs and the wheels of an old suitcase—a project that did not go over well with his mother. He took the board out for a test ride. Although the grass and rocks of rural Kenya weren’t optimal for his new mode of transportation, Kelvin knew his makeshift skateboard was the beginning of an unexpected journey.

Skating into Community

Time passed and interest grew as Kelvin continued to tinker with boards he made himself. His school received computers and the internet during his last year of school. Like most teenagers across the world, Kelvin discovered YouTube and wiled the time away with videos of interest.

One day, he stumbled upon a video about a recent skateboarding competition in Nairobi in which one of his classmates took second place. He sought out his classmate and bombarded him with questions. After taking advice from his classmate, Kelvin bought his first board for 2,300KES (about $23), which took several months—and the sacrifice of many after-school doughnuts—to save from his monthly allowance. At this point in our conversation, Kelvin’s grimace turned to a grin. “The first time on that skateboard, it was love at first sight.”

Kelvin uses skateboarding to share the gospel with his fellow Kenyans in Nairobi. Photo by Anthony Rivers.

Kelvin finished boarding school and headed off to the University of Nairobi, books under one arm, skateboard under the other. He quickly found a community willing to accept him: skateboarders. Many of the skaters struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, a struggle Kelvin knew well from his experiences with his father. Though he wasn’t interested in adopting that part of their lifestyle, Kelvin joined them simply for the chance to skate with others who shared his interest. Together they skated across campus and in Uhuru Park.

One day, a missionary from Ukraine approached the group because he also was interested in skateboarding. As the conversation progressed, Kelvin heard the gospel and was invited to a Bible study that same week. Sitting among people with Bibles open, Kelvin finally understood the difference between Christ as his Savior and “Christian” as a cultural label—a distinction many Kenyans have difficulty making. He claimed a life in Christ that day and left the Bible study a changed young man.

From that point on, he wondered how many others were out there. How many Kenyan youths struggled through the same struggles he did growing up? How many of his skateboarding friends needed to hear this same truth? As Kelvin grew in his walk with the Lord, he was burdened with a desire for his friends to know truth.

Fame for a Purpose

In 2016, Safaricom, a popular communications company in Kenya, launched a television network geared toward providing resources and training for Kenya’s large youth population to help them find jobs and start their own creative businesses. They debuted this initiative with an advertising campaign showcasing a drummer, an artist, a dancer, a Muay Thai fighter, and a skater. Kelvin was selected as the skater, and he instantly became one of the faces of Kenya’s skateboarding culture.

Kelvin suddenly had an unexpected platform to share the truth of the gospel—not just to his friends in Kenya, but through connections in international skating ministries like Skaters for Christ. He now rides the international skateboarding circuit, sharing an all too common story of a childhood filled with rejection, but with the not too common ending of finding full acceptance before God in Christ. Kelvin, already integrated into a brotherhood of skaters, delivers good news to young men looking for somewhere, or Someone, to whom they can belong.

Photo by Anthony Rivers.

The skateboarding community in Nairobi and around the world needs more people like Kelvin—people with unique gifts and platforms willing to use both for the sake of the gospel.

As Kelvin wrapped up his story, he made an off-handed comment that God used to convict me: “We are all gifted differently, and it is all for the glory of God.”

Good Gifts for a Greater Purpose

As we left the busy Nairobi coffee shop, Kelvin headed off to skate in the park, and I walked away pondering his words and the Scripture in Isaiah 6:8, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Kelvin knew his talent for skateboarding was for more than just recreation. It was the mechanism through which God would send him out as a herald of good news in Nairobi and beyond, for the glory and kingdom of God.

God has given all of his children unique gifts, talents, and passions to use for that end. One Ukrainian man’s passion for skateboarding and his willingness to walk in obedience allowed Kelvin to hear the life-changing truth of the gospel. That example has led Kelvin to do the same with others. The Lord’s gifts to us aren’t accidents or given without thought. They are opportunities to connect with others so they can be connected with our Father.

So evaluate the good gifts God has given you, and take steps toward using those gifts for his kingdom. “You know what’s at stake?” Kelvin said. “People need Jesus.”

Whitney Jones is serving a two-year term with IMB in East Africa.