June 20th is International Surfing Day, the spirit of which reflects the humanitarian effort from Sean Brody and Daniel Hopkins when they co-founded the Kwepunha Surf Retreat in Liberia (To read about the origins of the retreat, click here). While the details of their story are unique, their mission is globally shared: A surfboard can be a transformative agent for reconciliation and joy all over the world. When an unexpected visit with Pope Francis popped up in May, it marked the opportunity to gift the Roman Pontiff with his own board—his first, we assume—provided by none other than San Diego legend Eric “Bird” Huffman of Bird’s Surf Shed.
The Scholas Occurrentes, an international organization created by Pope Francis in 2013 that encourages societal peace through technology, arts, and sport, gathered for its annual conference in Rome on May 29th. An invitation for Brody and Hopkins to not only attend the event on behalf of their work, but to speak to Francis himself, soon led to a bold decision and a phone call to Bird.
“Sean came to me and thought it would be interesting to bring some boards down with him to the Pope and present him with one,” Bird said. “I had a couple of brand new boards, a few Javier XTR tri-fins, and I said to him, ‘Take these. If you use them, great. If you can't, that's okay. It's the Pope.’"
Brody and Hopkins flew to the Vatican Synod Hall in Rome, where they drew stares from hundreds of invitees as they walked the hallways with two boards in tow—one to present to the Pope as a gift, and the other, for him to sign for the world’s surfing community. When the time came to approach the stage, and after the pair described their experience in Liberia and the country’s rejuvenation through surfing, the Pope wore a confused look as the boards were slowly brought to the podium. He instantly smiled when he recognized the gesture. [Move to 1:08:20 in the video below to watch the scene]
“In Liberia, we’ve been able to keep the kids out of trouble, keeping them in school, and using the sport of surfing as one big family,” Brody said to the Pope. “In the surfing world, we have a sign for peace—the Shaka sign. There are two types of people in the world: People who surf, and people who want to surf. And we would like to invite everyone to join us, to join our tribe and family.”
One of the boards is probably racked atop the Pope-mobile for Francis’s next Mediterranean road trip. The other, back safely in Bird’s possession and graced with the Pope’s signature, is a keepsake from a once-in-a-lifetime exchange.
“It's absolutely the pinnacle of my retail surfing career. It's the most special board in the word,” says Bird. “It's amazing to even think about the Pope touching that thing.”
“For surfing as a whole, the moment is historic. Who would ever put together a surfboard with the Pope? It just goes to show there's a little bit of surfer in everybody.”