SOUTH PADRE ISLAND – It isn’t her first time, so Haley, a college student from Nebraska, thinks she knows the reason why the vans provide free rides, anywhere on the island, during spring break.
“It’s about your religion,” she says.
A student from UT-Tyler nods. That’s it, she says, sort of – and in explaining the purpose for the “Jesus vans,” a gospel conversation unfolds.
It’s one of nearly 10,000 similar moments during Beach Reach, the annual effort, led by Baptist Student Ministries from Texas Baptists, to reach college students for Jesus.
Every March, as tens of thousands of college students flock to Texas’ Gulf Coast, looking for a party during spring break, hundreds of other college students are there, as well, volunteering to serve, hoping to show the love of Christ – and to help them come to know Him, too. Joe Osteen, director of Baptist Student Ministries at UT-Tyler and one of the coordinators of Beach Reach, calls it a “concentrated gospel opportunity” and a “strategic moment in the rhythm of college life.”
From March 4-17, when most colleges and universities were on spring break, 1,017 Beach Reach volunteers from BSMs and churches across Texas and several other states provided 17,765 safe rides. They had 9,670 gospel conversations. They prayed with 7,229 people.
There were 183 college students who professed faith in Christ, and 91 more prayed to recommit their lives to Him. Forty-nine students were baptized in the Gulf of Mexico.
“The light shines brightest where it’s darkest,” says Reid Burkett, director of the BSM at UTSA. “They’re so open to hearing about Jesus.”
Beach Reach is a massive operation. During the two-week period, teams of volunteers from Texas Baptist Men (TBM) served 18,737 free pancakes, during very late breakfasts in the parking lot of Island Baptist Church and in the wee hours of the mornings outside one of the island’s most popular bars. They also served first responders.
Each day, teams of Beach Reach volunteers hit the beaches, too. But instead of soaking up the sun, they helped clean them and spread out looking for opportunities for evangelism.
But there’s never such a concentrated gospel opportunity as in the van rides. They’re known as “Jesus vans” – sometimes affectionately, sometimes derisively, but very few of the spring breakers will turn down the offer of free rides anywhere on the island. Many make use of the service by calling a central hotline and reaching a call center set up in a second-floor classroom at the church.
Most rides last only a few minutes – maybe a half hour at the longest. Early in the week, many spring breakers don’t know what to make of the vans filled with peers who are eager to talk. But as the week goes on, meaningful moments occur.
“Sometimes it’s a spring breaker’s fourth, fifth, sixth time on a van, and they’re ready for a spiritual conversation,” Osteen says. “Or sometimes on a Wednesday night, they’ll say, ‘OK guys, why are you doing this?’”
One night, BSM students from UT-Tyler are squeezed into the van dubbed “Orange VANta.” (Part of Beach Reach tradition involves nicknaming the vans – usually with a pun on the word “van” – and decorating them. There’s “Apollo Ele-van,” “VANtom Menace,” “VANimal Crackers” and so on.)
Driven by Amber Bader, associate director of the UT-Tyler BSM, “Orange VANta” traverses the island’s streets from 11 p.m. until a little after 1 a.m., picking up spring breakers and dropping them off. Most often, the spring breakers are headed out to find a party. On their way, they’re introduced to Jesus. Many are very open to listening.
“It’s a little weird, but spring breakers are here to meet people,” Osteen says. Like Haley, the student from Nebraska.
Around 11:15 p.m., she and some friends climb into “Orange VANta.” They’re headed from their rented condo to Louie’s, one of South Padre’s most popular clubs. Yes, Becca Langley tells Haley, the vans are here because of religion – or actually, because of the relationships the students from UT-Tyler have with Jesus Christ. She explains that they hope Haley and her friends can have the same relationship.
“We do it,” says Becca, a freshman at Angelina College in Lufkin, “because Jesus is the ultimate gift.”
Macy Weatherford, a sophomore from UT-Tyler, asks: “Would you consider yourself a believer?”
“I don’t know,” Haley says. “I’m more wishy-washy. When times are tough, I pray.”
A few minutes later, she asks: “How do you know when you’re saved? How do you know when God knows you?”
Meanwhile, in the back, Alex and Eli are talking with Derek, one of Haley’s friends. “There’s this big hole in your heart,” Alex is saying. And the conversation goes on, street by street, until the van pulls to the side of the road about a block from the club. But Haley isn’t ready to get out just yet. For another five minutes, she talks, asking questions.
Finally, her friends say it’s time to go. But first, Macy asks: “Can we pray for you?” And the van gets quiet as she asks God to protect the students from Nebraska and to show them the truth of who Jesus is.
In the moments afterward, the BSM students debrief. Whether the students listen or seem more interested, like Haley, gospel seeds are sown – and for more than 40 years now, that has been the overarching purpose and goal of Beach Reach.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to share with people,” says Elija McClain, a UT-Tyler senior. “I have a heart for God, and it’s one of my earnest pleas for people to know Christ.”
Before arriving on the island, the teams of Beach Reachers go through five weeks of training in evangelism. And before climbing into the vans each evening, the Beach Reachers gather at the South Padre Island Convention Center for worship and a brief message. Osteen reminds the volunteers that the conversations might be difficult.
“Those hard conversations remind us why we do what we do – because our world is broken,” he says. “We serve an evangelistic God. He is a God who pursues.”
Drawing from Revelation 12:10-11, he reminds them they “have compassion and mercy and kindness – but this is a war,” and as they share the Good News, they’re not doing so in their own power.
“We are in a battle in a strategic moment in the rhythm of college life, where darkness piles up on one island and thinks it has won the day,” Osteen says. “You don’t have what it takes – Jesus does. And so, you do have what it takes. It’s Him in and through you.”
Then he prays: “Lord, please enable these students to speak the gospel with great boldness. May all these vans with funny names be filled up with passionate praise and gospel witness. May our vans be filled with your Spirit.”
As some of the students pile into vans, headed into the streets, others gather at Island Baptist Church, which serves as the nerve center for Beach Reach. Upstairs, a dozen students wearing headsets take calls and dispatch vans around the island, using computers to know which are available.
Many others pray.
“Beach Reach,” Osteen says, “runs on prayer.”
He is referring to two weeks of continuous prayer in the worship center, as students take turns in prayer – but also the prayers of Texas Baptists and others during the run-up to and during Beach Reach.
During Beach Reach, an online prayer wall constantly updates with real-time information from the vans, often tweeted using the hashtag #BRSPI23. It’s displayed on a big screen in the worship center, where students watch and pray over each new prompt:
“Picking up Cody party of 2!! Pray for gospel convos and open hearts! #brspi23””
“Eric is sharing the gospel with one and Elidia and Rebecca are discussing beliefs with the other. #brspi23”
“We had a party of three men – spiritual convo – prayers for the Lord to continue to draw them to himself”
“Parked and conversations are still happening #brspi23”
It’s a little after 2 a.m. – closing time – at Louie’s, a block off Padre Blvd., the island’s north-south artery. In various conditions, spring breakers emerge from the bar, pour out onto the sidewalk and spill into the parking lot across the street, where many get in one of two lines. Some want rides home; vans are lined up, waiting. Others want “midnight pancakes.”
A misty rain is falling, but no one seems to mind. As they wait in either line, they talk with Beach Reachers. Burkett, the BSM director at UTSA, is coordinating the van pickups, but he also regularly engages in long, deep conversations.
“It looks like a mess,” Burkett says, “but it’s a funnel. You’re funneling to gospel conversations.”
Jake Stratton, a sophomore from Sam Houston State, finds himself in one with a student named Andrew, who’s in the line for pancakes. They talk for 15 minutes before Andrew’s friends pull him away.
“I’m not gonna lie,” Jake says. “That’s probably the most gospel-led conversation I’ve had tonight.”
And a few minutes later, Andrew texts Jake, hoping to grab lunch later. There’s more gospel conversation ahead.
Earlier in the night, Jake bumped into some of his high school buddies as they were headed into Louie’s. He says it reminded him of who he was before meeting Jesus, and it motivated him to share Christ with others whenever he can.
Early Wednesday morning, Lily Carnes, a junior at UTSA and a member of First Baptist Church of Castroville, is in the worship center at Island Baptist. She spends time praying for each member of her San Antonio-based team in the van “Bidi Bidi VAN VAN.” Around 2:30 a.m., she sees a tweet hit the prayer wall. Her van has picked up six young boys at Subway.
She begins praying: “God, you can totally bring every single one of them to salvation. Lord, let them accept you and want to follow you.”
Of the six boys, four are teenagers. One is 20. One is 11. In the van, they are joking around, seemingly uninterested in serious conversation. But Cesar Montoya, a senior at Baptist University of the Americas, speaks up.
“I want to share my heart with you,” he tells the boys in Spanish. “Suppose we had an accident right now and everyone died? There is a heaven and a hell. Where do y’all see yourselves?”
The atmosphere is suddenly solemn.
“I don’t know,” one of the boys says. “We have done many bad things, but we know about Jesus.”
When they begin discussing the good things they’ve done, Cesar shares the gospel and explains from Ephesians 2 that salvation comes by grace through faith, not of works. A few minutes later, he tells them, “Y’all are in this van because you need to hear this. I want y’all to know Jesus. Do you want to accept Jesus?”
One by one, each boy prays, professing his trust in Christ.
“It was word for word what I was praying for,” Lily says. “It’s incredible. I was just totally bawling. It’s amazing!”
The boys literally change directions, too. Instead of the beach bar that was their original destination, they get dropped off at McDonald’s. Before leaving the van, though, they make plans to meet Cesar to talk again, desiring to know more about how he came to know Christ and how he follows Christ.
Similar stories of transformation unfold every year during Beach Reach. People pray. Students sow seeds. The Holy Spirit opens spring breakers’ hearts.
“It’s amazing how God works to show them there’s a better option,” Osteen says.
Also amazing are the ripples outward in the weeks and months after Beach Reach, when the volunteers return to their hometowns and their college campuses. BSMs regularly report an increase in people coming to Christ because of participants who return home with increased fervor for evangelism. Beach Reach often becomes Campus Reach.
“All these students come back to campus feeling different, talking different and living different,” says Nathan Mahand, BSM director at Houston Christian University. “They have a burden for the lost.”
As [at]VANtomMenace, the twitter handle of the San Antonio BSM, tweeted as Beach Reach ended: “… please pray that we can take the gospel far and wide back home. #brspi23”
Texas Baptists is a movement of God’s people to share Christ and show love by strengthening churches and ministers, engaging culture and connecting the nations to Jesus.
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