The manic beach preachers

Sexy, pierced and tattooed, they hate President Bush and love Ibiza's dance scene. But one thing sets these club kids apart - their mission to convert the island's ravers to Christianity. Kimberley Sevcik spends a summer with the party preachers
Click to follow
The Independent Online

They press through the crowds, four sober people among the drunken masses, looking for openings: a friendly face who wouldn't mind a little unsolicited chat; a swerving body that could use a steady arm to help it home. The bar promoters are the easiest ones to approach. They'll talk to anyone - most of them work on commission, and every conversation is a potential sale.

A guy with spiky hair in a FCUK T-shirt calls out to two of the missionaries, Lorraine Joslin and Charli Franklin. "Hey ladies, what you doing later? Stop by for a drink?"

"Sorry, we're not drinking tonight," says Charli, a throaty-voiced 23-year-old with a tiny rhinestone stud in her nose. This elicits protests and confusion from the tout.

"We're praying," she says.

He looks even more confused.

Charli and Lorraine introduce themselves, and so does he. His name is Mark.

"Is there anything we can pray about for you, Mark?" Lorraine asks. She's 25, a witty brunette with Cleopatra eyes who gets a kick out of belching in people's faces.

He thinks for a minute, then grins. "Yeah," he says. "Pray that I live until September."

"All right," Lorraine says. She sounds a little uncertain. "What makes you think you won't make it until September?"

"I'll probably die from all the drugs I'm doing." He turns toward another group of women, stuttering past on high heels. "Ladies: can I interest you in a drink tonight?"

The missionaries are headed for the Bull Bar, a sour-smelling grotto with a reflex tester on the bar that rewards low scorers with a free drink. The Bull Bar serves as the base of operations for the 24-7 Prayer mission team on Tuesday and Friday nights. While 24-7s very own DJ, 22-year-old Matt Riley, mixes acid-house music for a crowd that would rather be gyrating to Beyoncé, the rest of the team passes out free fruit to patrons. As they see it, handing out fruit is a way of doing something generous in a place where most people are bent on maximising their own pleasure. It's also a way of warming people up to talk about Jesus.

Matt's been DJing since he was 15, when he took a workshop with a Christian youth group. He was hooked from day one. He felt as if God had ordained him to DJ, to lead worship through the decks. There was only one problem: becoming a good DJ required hours of practice, and hours of practice required buying his own decks. But decks cost about £800 each, and Matt didn't have that kind of money. He wrote to church members and family friends saying, "I'm really feeling this is from God, and to get good at this, I have to get my own decks." Within a couple months, he had £1,000 in donations. "It was good," says Matt, "because they weren't really my decks, were they? They were God's. So I had to come through for him."

The Bull Bar isn't exactly a dream gig for a DJ looking to build a career. But Matt says he's not playing at the Bull Bar to advance his reputation. "There's a need for 24-7 in the West End," he says. "If Jesus were in Ibiza, he'd be at the Bull Bar."

Ibiza is the clubbing capital of the world and its excesses are legendary. Club kids, models and playboys come to Ibiza to dance at the altars of DJs like Pete Tong and Roger Sanchez and take cocaine or ecstasy - or both. Around 6am, everyone takes, a taxi over to a day rave, where they continue to dance until two or three in the afternoon, then pass out on the beach for a few hours before doing the whole thing again.

Across town, in the West End, soccer hooligans and builders spend their evenings downing pitchers of Sex on the Beach, gawking at the abundance of cleavage on display and making clumsy attempts to appropriate it for the night, before staggering home alone, only to wake up face down in a gutter.

You would expect the typical evangelical Christian to be horrified by Ibiza. But the 24-7 Prayer missionaries aren't your typical evangelicals. They tend to be pierced and tattooed, anti-war and pro-fair trade, and the minute they get off prayer duty, they're going to go clubbing until noon the next day. They might even have a drink or two. Like all missionaries, they want to be down with the people who they're preaching to but, in the case of 24-7, they're not faking it. The primary difference between the average Ibiza clubber and a 24-7 missionary is what gets them off. "To know that the God who made the heavens and the Earth loves me and wants to know me - that's an amazing high that lasts much more than a few hours," says Bruce Gardiner-Crehan, a 24-7 missionary.

It's not that the 24-7 missionaries don't see the devil lurking in Ibiza. As born-again Christians, they view the whole world as a battleground between God and Satan; but in Ibiza, the struggle is concentrated. Their role, as they see it, is to wrest the island from Satan's clutches, and help deposit it safely back in God's hands. "Ibiza offers a drug option, a sex option, a clubbing option - everything but a God option," says Vicky Ward, who came to Ibiza with 24-7s first mission team five years ago.

The mission to Ibiza grew out of a prayer movement which was itself inspired by rave culture. The movement was launched in 1999 as a round-the-clock worship session in a warehouse in southern England, with Moby playing on a stereo and 22-year-olds showing up at 3am to dance and pray and shout out to God. The intention was to pray in shifts all day, every day, for a month; it went on for almost four. Today, there are prayer rooms in 55 countries, including 130 in the US.

"We had a sense that people would be more excited about praying at 3am on a Thursday than they would at 11am on a Sunday," says Pete Greig, the 35-year-old pastor who helped found the 24-7 Prayer movement. "Young people are drawn to extremes." Greig himself isn't a raver, he's a family man, vaguely bookish in his wire-rimmed glasses. But he and his 24-7 colleagues are doing their best to make Jesus feel relevant, through trendy gear (dog tags and hoodies inscribed with fragments of scripture), seminars offering tips for praying on-line; and missions to what Greig calls the "high places of youth culture". For the past six years, 24-7 missionaries have been taking the gospel to skate parks and music festivals in the UK, as well to party destinations around the world.

For the moment, though, 24-7 is primarily a European movement - which may be why their form of evangelism seems looser than the US Ashcroftian brand that winces at topless statues. Of the two dozen 24-7 missionaries who travelled to Ibiza this summer, only two were American: Heather and Jonah Bailey, a young married couple who provide moral support and guidance to the prayer teams. Even they don't fall cleanly under the umbrella of American evangelism - both are vehemently anti-Bush.

24-7 Prayer sends two types of prayer teams to Ibiza. Short-term teams come for two weeks, and they take the blitzkrieg approach to evangelism - strolling up to drunk strangers in the West End and offering to pray for them. Long-term team members settle in Ibiza for the whole summer, and they're less direct about their intentions. Their approach seems inspired by a bit of scripture from Matthew, found on the last page of the 24-7 Prayer Manual that all of the missionaries are encouraged to read. "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves," it says. "Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." They filter through the community, working as club promoters and waitresses, initiating friendships and doing good deeds. Eventually, they hope, they'll find an opportunity to slip in a few words about Jesus.

When the prayer team reaches the Bull Bar, the rest of the 24-7 missionaries are milling around outside, looking dejected. They've just received some bad news: Matt has been sacked, and the fruit hand-out is off. Business has been flagging, so the woman who manages the bar has come up with a new marketing strategy: she'll be replacing Matt's music with the cheesy 1980s hits that inspire drunk people to dance.

Ejected from their base of operations, the prayer team trudges down the West End's sticky cobblestone street to a fountain where a trio of musicians are playing jaunty Balearic folk music. They form a prayer huddle and ask God for some advice. Bruce wonders if they should just give up. "It's OK if that's what you want, Lord, it's really cool." Katie asks Him to bind up the demons in the Bull Bar, to foil their plans of boosting business by selling sex. Lorraine tries to think positive: "I'm sure you're up to something cool behind the scenes, God, something that we just can't see." She seems less dismayed than the rest of the group.

After about 20 minutes of pleading and questioning and praising, the prayer team is rejuvenated. They set out again, striding purposefully up the West End's main drag. At the top of the hill, where the herds of party people begin to thin out, they run into Gary.

Before setting out tonight, the team made lists of people they had met previously in the West End whom they hope to encounter tonight: these are their salvation prospects, their unwitting partners in a sort of spiritual buddy system. At the top of Bruce's list was Gary. He's a tout for one of the trendy clubs in Ibiza Town, and he's handsome the way a Ken doll is: well-groomed hair, clean Aryan features. Bruce asks if there's anything he can pray about for him. Gary shakes his head, polite but reticent. "Don't think so. It's all good, thanks." But Bruce isn't giving up. "Anything I can get you to help your night go better? You need an ice cream, something to keep up your energy?"

Gary looks surprised. "Sure, that'd be cool."

Heading back down the hill in search of ice cream, they spot another salvation prospect. Jonney Silvester is standing in front of Ground Zero, the rock club where he is employed as a promoter. His dark hair is scraped back in a ponytail, his nails are painted black and he has an eyebrow piercing. Jonney's name cropped up on a couple people's prayer rosters. Charli had him on her list. So did a guy named Tom Godec, a soft-spoken 21-year-old with the icy good looks of a Calvin Klein model. "The first time I talked to Jonney, it was a bit intimidating," says Tom, "because he looks like quite a hard guy. But he's very open. We've had some good talks about religion."

Tom is relatively new to Christianity, and he still seems self-conscious talking about it. Tom found Jesus at age 17, after a girlfriend broke his heart. "This is kind of embarrassing," he says, "but I was so lonely I asked my mum to sleep in my room for three nights." Picking up on Tom's despair, a friend invited him to go to church with him. He said it might lift Tom's spirits. He was right. "People at the church nurtured me for who I am," he says.

Charli and Tom aren't sure Jonney is ready to be prayed for, so when they see him, they keep the conversation light. The missionaries know that proselytising about damnation is no way to make friends and influence people - particularly since their audience has come to Ibiza to indulge in carnal pleasures. Better, then, to ease people in by emphasising the altruistic side of their work. When asked what they do, the 24-7 missionaries generally tell people that they're with a Christian charity that cleans beaches, that sort of thing. If the listener asks more questions, they'll get more answers. Most don't.

Giving away prayer and refreshments may not be the fast track to winning converts, but it moves things along. By the end of the prayer walk, Gary has invited Bruce to go with him to a club-promoters party, and a tout named Simba has offered to help him clean the beach.

The other missionaries aren't quite as fortunate. They weave through the crowds in groups of two, asking to pray for one bar promoter after another, most of whom are trashed by midnight. They talk to Claire, a diminutive blonde in yellow trainers. One of the missionaries asks if she can pray for her, and Claire says, "What a nice question." For a moment, it seems as if Claire might cry. Then she says, "Can you pray that I find £1,000?"

Evangelising among the wasted can have its benefits, though. Last week, Bruce had one of the biggest breakthroughs of the mission at the Bull Bar. At around 1am, he tried to start a conversation with a trio of brooding guys hovering over their pints. Nothing.

Within an hour, one member of the trio, Matt, sought out Bruce on the dance floor and greeted him like they were old friends. "They had taken ecstasy and it must have kicked in, because he became incredibly friendly," says Bruce. Suddenly, no topic was off-limits: they talked about music, about school, and finally, finally, about religion.

Matt must have gone back to his table raving about the second coming of Christ because the next thing Bruce knew, Matt's friend Brian approached him. He wanted to let Bruce know that he had a bad leg, and couldn't walk properly. "I told him that I believe Jesus can heal people," says Bruce, " and I asked if I could pray for him."

Ten minutes later, the third guy, John, took Bruce aside for a full-on spiritual counselling session. He told Bruce he was terrified of dying, and that he couldn't sleep. He'd been having counselling for two years but nothing helped. "By then, I was going for it," says Bruce. "I said, 'Listen: I believe Jesus can touch your life if you let him. Can I pray for you?'" John was happy to submit. Afterwards, Bruce advised John to get himself to a church as soon as he got back to England. "I said, 'You need to find some people you can talk to about Jesus.'" They all bear-hugged goodbye.

Among his peers, Bruce is known as a crack evangelist. His tremulous excitement about his faith seems to transcend any self-consciousness he might have about spreading the Word. Of course, he's hardly an amateur when it comes to evangelising. Born into the charismatic church, and educated at Bible college, Bruce went on his first mission at age 16. Ibiza is his eighth.

Still, he feels a bit frustrated at having only two weeks in Ibiza. He'd like to move beyond a few powerful prayers. He'd like to have his own Andres Isea story.

Andres is 24-7's trophy boy, their one bona fide convert. After four years of cleaning beaches and massaging strangers' feet and escorting drunk people to their hotels, the 24-7 missionaries finally reaped a little harvest.

Restless and itching to see the world, Andres Isea left his native Venezuela at 18 and has been in Spain ever since, scraping together a living, bouncing from one wretched apartment to the next, with intermittent periods living on the street. Andres is the kind of guy that backpacker girls go crazy for. There is something raw and untamed about him: his hair is wild and full, his nose is pierced and he wears a string of puka shells around his neck.

When the 24-7 prayer team met Andres two summers ago, he was living in a squat, working for the Bull Bar - and dealing drugs. He was doing a lot of drugs, too: popping pills, smoking dope and snorting coke. "I was really disappointed with myself," says Andres. "I'd left Venezuela because I wanted to avoid all that."

Andres was disarmed by the 24-7 missionaries. "The more bad stuff they saw me do, the closer they got to me," he says. "If I was drugged up, they would put their hands on my head and pray for me."

Before leaving Ibiza, three members of the prayer team invited Andres to a café to talk about God. One of them felt he was getting a prophetic word from God for Andres, and he passed it along: God wanted Andres to know that he was his son, and that he was pleased with him and he loved him. "To be honest," Andres says, "I wasn't sure if it was God or that guy who was speaking, but it was stuff I needed to hear." Andres broke down crying and, to the surprise of the tourists sipping cappuccinos around him, yelled out, "I need you, God!"

For a couple of months after 24-7 left, Andres tried to hang out with churchgoers and stay straight, but life kept getting in the way. He lost his job. His flatmate was shot dead while on holiday in Switzerland. He thought about giving up the whole Christian thing, about going to the Canary Islands and giving himself over to partying again. But he decided to give God one last chance. "I made a deal with God, I said: God, I'll stay in Ibiza, and do the best I can to seek you, but you've got to take care of me."

God came through. Within a couple weeks, Andres got a job as a stripper one night a week. He earned about £30 a week, barely enough to live on, but it left him time to pray and read the Bible. He began going to church again, and a 24-7 missionary named Tim Hirst continued to email him, encouraging him to stay the course.

When Tim returned to Ibiza this summer and called Andres, the first thing Andres wanted to do was pray together. Tim was thrilled. Now instead of hanging out at the Bull Bar, they hang out at the prayer room that 24-7 has established, sitting on the floor with their arms around each other and a Bible between them.

The evening of the short-term team's final prayer walk, the prayer room is on fire. Exultant worship music plays on the stereo. Lorraine lies on the floor, pounding it with her fists. Bruce is having a fervent one-on-one with God.

The missionaries have a goal tonight: they want to tell everyone they've been praying for that they're not just a bunch of nice people who give out fruit. They want to tell them that they came to Ibiza because of Jesus. It's their last night. They have nothing to lose.

That said, giving out fruit is a great way to start a conversation. They stroll through the West End like earth-bound flight attendants, plastic trays poised on their hands, asking, again and again, "You like some fruit?" Some people look at them suspiciously. But most grab at it, taking three, four pieces, shoving them ravenously into their mouths. "There isn't any vodka in it," they mumble to each other, disappointed.

Bruce is standing near the corner where he last saw Gary, scanning the street anxiously. "I really hope to see Gary tonight," he says. "I want to tell him that I'm here because Jesus died for our sins. That's why I gave him the ice cream." But Gary is nowhere in sight.

Jonney is out, though, loping around in front of Ground Zero in a Marilyn Manson T-shirt. Tom strolls down to say goodbye, and tell him that the prayer team is leaving the next day. "That's too bad," Jonney says. "Yeah," Tom says. They're both quiet for a minute. Then, before he can think about it too much, Tom takes the plunge. He tells Jonney that God loves him.

"I know it sounds kind of cheesy," he says, when he recalls the conversation later, "but it was really important to me that he hear that before I left." I ask him how Jonney reacted. "Well, he didn't scowl. But he didn't give his life to Jesus or anything."

A couple of days after the short-term team leaves, I visit Jonney in the sock-strewn apartment he shares with two flat mates over Ground Zero. It's 7pm. He has just woken up and pulled on a pair of jeans, but his shirt is off and he has a barcode tattooed on his back, with the word "Rejected" underneath. On either side of it, riding the swell of his deltoids, are two black angel wings.

As it turns out, Jonney knows a thing or two about Christianity. He was raised a Jehovah's Witness. It was a miserable experience. Forbidden from hanging out with outsiders, he found himself virtually friendless. At 17, he finally wrote his parents a letter telling them he was leaving the faith, and their house. Needless to say, he's not very big on religion.

"But I really liked the prayer guys," he says. "They were always sober, and they seemed to care about other people."

I ask him how he felt when Tom told him that God loved him, and he laughs. "I don't know," he says. "It's a nice thought, but I don't really believe in God." Over his head is a poster of flames shooting up from the earth, the word "Lucifer" floating above them.

So it doesn't bother him that they want to convert him? He laughs again, and takes a drag of his hand-rolled cigarette. "Not at all," he says. "I don't think it will work. But I won't hold it against them."

Comments