Soul Surfer Shares Faith’s Role in Shark Attack Recovery

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When people ask Bethany Hamilton, the teen surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack, what her faith means to her, she usually answers in just one word: “Everything!” Read her inspiring story in Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board — now in theaters!

I believe in God.

I don’t mean that I believe in Him like a person might believe in, say, gravity or the sun coming up in the morning. Those are just facts that don’t mean anything. I mean I really believe in God.

Nobody made me believe; I don’t think you can or should try to force someone to believe something. And even though my parents taught me stuff about God and read Bible stories (the story of Jonah, Christ walking on water, Noah’s Ark, and the tale of the three brave Hebrews and the fiery furnace are my faves) to me from as early as I can remember. They also made sure that I was in church or Sunday school each week. But beyond that, it was my choice to become a believer in Him. The way I see it, putting your faith in God is something that each person has gotta come to on his or her own. It’s your own personal relationship with Him; a bond that’s as unique as a fingerprint.

Some people don’t think much about this kind of stuff unless something terrible happens to them, or like my parents, until they are older. But I can remember putting my trust in Christ when I was just a little kid, probably around five years old. I know that’s pretty rare — and some people might see it as a little weird. But I’m not embarrassed. Being tight with God is even more important to me than surfing.

When people ask me what my faith in Christ means to me, I usually answer in just one word:“everything!” This was true before the shark attack as well as after. And I truly believe that this faith is a big part of what did get me through it. It helps to know that even when you don’t have a clue why something has happened in your life, someone up there has a master plan and is watching over you. It’s a tremendous relief to be able to put your trust in God and take the burden off your shoulders.

My parents became Christians just a little while after they got married. They kept bumping into friends whose lives were completely changed for the better when they became believers. It got them interested, so they started reading the Bible and meeting with other Christians in their homes.

If you were to visit our house today, you would find a lot of evidence of our faith just lying around: music by Christian bands Zoe Girl, Relient K, and Cutlass; easy-to-read Bibles; even surf movies like Changes or Specimen produced by Christian surfers. We’re proud of our faith — even though I know some people don’t understand it or think we’ve gotten a little carried away in the whole religion thing. That’s okay, because I don’t think you ever have to explain or apologize for being a believer. It’s the same as surfing: you can’t know what it feels like, what it does for you, unless you’re part of the club. All I can say is it gives me a really strong foundation for everything I do in life. It’s like having a house built on solid rock.

My Inspiration
I was once asked to name someone in history whom I admired a lot, someone I thought of as an inspiration or a role model. I had to think about it for a few minutes, because there are all kinds of people that I’ve learned about who are amazing. In fact, I could probably come up with a pretty long list. But I said “Father Damien.”

Not many people know who Damien was or what he did, especially people outside Hawaii. I didn’t know that much about him until I watched a video movie on his life just before my shark attack. To me, he’s a role model of compassion.

His real name was Joseph Damien de Veuster, and he is one of Hawaii’s most famous heroes. He was actually born in Belgium. Damien and his brother both became priests in the mid 1800s. It was Damien’s brother who was supposed to go as a missionary to Hawaii but when he got too sick, Damien asked to go in his place.

During this time, leprosy was widespread on all the islands. It’s a horrible disease: people lose the ability to feel the ends of their fingers and toes and so they often bang them or cut them without knowing, and this causes infection. The disease deforms people’s faces as well. Doctors and officials, not knowing how to cure the disease, decided to force all those diagnosed with it to a remote section of the island of Molokai. Thousands of people were dumped at a place that was called a living graveyard. And there they just waited until their bodies were twisted and ruined by the disease that finally killed them.

Father Damien asked to be assigned to the leper colony at Kalaupapa, where, for sixteen years, he gave love and hope to all of those poor people. Damien eventually got leprosy himself and died, surrounded by his fellow lepers and friends. That happened in 1889; Damien was only forty-nine years old. Damien sacrificed his life to help those who were suffering. He listened to God, fought for those who couldn’t fight for themselves, and even gave up everything to serve others.

Following in His Footsteps
In my life I try to help by supporting, with my own money, a six-year-old girl in El Salvador named Dennis Vanesa Saltos. Even the smallest amount of money can make such a big difference. And I am working on plans to do other things to help kids who have limbs missing. I’d like to meet as many as I can and share with them my story, maybe help them work through all the fear and self-doubt. I’ve experienced it all firsthand, and I’m living proof that there’s no such thing as a handicap — it’s only in your head.

My church takes high school kids to work with poor people in Mexico every year. Now that I am finally of high school age I really look forward to it. On the trip, we don’t talk to the people much about God — hardly anyone speaks Spanish well enough anyhow. Instead, we show people our faith though our actions. So basically we try to help in any way we can.

Our kids, working with some people in San Diego called SPECTRUM Ministries, go over the border and into the back hills of Tijuana, where thousands of people live in little shacks without running water or sanitation. We set up portable bathhouses, and little kids line up by the hundreds to get a hot shower and a change of clean used clothing. We also distribute food and medicine and sometimes just play with kids in the local orphanages.

If I had to pick someone else I really admire who’s actually around today? Okay, I admit it: I’d choose Mel Gibson. I have gotten to meet lots of famous people such as Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, and Peter Jennings since my attack, but I’d love to have a conversation with Mel and tell him how much his movie The Passion of the Christ meant to me. I saw the movie with my family when it first came out. I was moved to tears. Mel made this movie in spite of all the Hollywood people — and even some of his friends — telling him he was nuts. He didn’t think he was wasting his time and money. He went ahead with it because of his faith in God. For this reason, Mel is kind of a missionary in his own way.

The way I see it, that’s what a good missionary does: they spread the word of God through personal example. When I go to the mainland and talk about what happened to me, I always try to say something about my belief in God. I tell people, “God has a lot more to give and to offer than the world has to give. I am here today because of God, and I owe Him a lot.” So maybe someone listening will be inspired to pick up a Bible or go to church and their lives will be better and richer as a result.

Things like that have happened already. I see that God is able to use my story to help others. Once a girl (I never got her name) came up and told me that she had had cancer. When she saw my story it made her realize that she didn’t need to give up; it made her want to fight hard too. She ended by saying, “Now I’m cancer-free.”

I don’t think I had anything to do with curing her of cancer — she did that herself. But if my story made her pledge to battle this disease and beat it with her own strength and willpower, than that would be enough for me.

The other day I got an e-mail telling me about another kid who lost his arm. He is an eighth grader from Raleigh, North Carolina, and he was very athletic like me, only his big sport was wake-boarding. He even had taken up guitar like I was doing before the attack. The lady who wrote me knew that Logan was pretty down, and she hoped that I might be able to cheer him up.

I grabbed the phone, called his house, and said “Hey, Logan, this is Bethany Hamilton from Kauai, Hawaii. You probably heard that I lost my arm to a shark.”

“Yeah,” he said softly.

“I just want you to know that I am surfing in the national finals with one arm,” I told him.

“Yeah? Cool,” he replied.

“Look, I know you may not feel great right now. I’ve been there. But I know that you can do a whole lot of stuff, too. You can and you will. Okay?”

Then we chatted some more, and I could feel his mood brightening. “Keep in touch and let me know what you’re up to, okay?” I added. He promised he would, and I know that Logan is on the road back.

I felt great when I hung up the phone — and I think he did, too.

So I hope that kind of makes me a missionary. That would be cool, and I think both Mel and Damien would be stoked — and God would be proud, too.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bethany Hamilton, author of Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board (Copyright © 2004, 2011 by Bethany Hamilton), who YM magazine called the “Bravest Girl in America,” has been surfing since she was seven years old. Since her shark attack last year Bethany has participated in numerous competitions and has received the 2004 Teen Choice award for Most Courageous Teen and the 2004 ESPY Award for Best Comeback Athlete.

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