SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, TEXAS — The conversation at breakfast begins casually, with small talk. After all, it's been a long week of beaching by day and clubbing by night.
"Which school are you from?" asks Lee Brinkley, adjusting her camouflage miniskirt as she sits down at the table. "What are you studying?" "Do you go to church?"
Whoa, where did that come from? This is spring break, after all. A time to cut loose, forget about real life, relax.
After a cool response from these Texas A&M University males, Ms. Brinkley screws up her courage and continues, "Church is important. You have to make time for it."
It may seem out of place, but for college students like Brinkley who've made their way to South Padre Island this week, the climate couldn't be better. They are participating in Beach Reach, a Southern Baptist Convention program that sends hundreds of Christian college students to spring-break hot spots to provide help - both material and spiritual. It's part of a burgeoning movement in Evangelical Christianity, called servant evangelism, which was pioneered by a Cincinnati pastor in the mid-1980s. The idea is to use kind deeds to show the love of God in action.
In the case of Beach Reach, that means providing free rides, free pancake breakfasts, and free sunscreen and water to overextended spring-breakers. And, yes, you may get a little free ministering in the process.
For the most part, college students say they appreciate the efforts of Beach Reach - even if it comes with a small side of Jesus.
South Padre Island has long been considered one of the most popular spring-break destinations in the country, and every year it is overrun with college students out for a good time. This year, 100,000 students are expected to party here during the month of March. Most return home safely, but there are alcohol-related deaths nearly every year. One has already been reported this spring break.
Roupen Mouradian, a senior at the University of Southern California, says his group hasn't gotten too out of control, "the parts that I can remember anyway."
He and his fraternity brothers are taking advantage of free food - the mantra of every college kid - at the morning pancake breakfast. They learned about the daily breakfasts - one in the morning and one at midnight - by Beach Reach members who were handing out cards earlier in the week.
Mr. Mouradian says the idea that they may have to talk religion doesn't keep them away. He says the group got into a long discussion about their beliefs at a breakfast the day before.
"There was some conflict, but it wasn't like they were trying to force anything on us," says Mouradian, wiping the remaining syrup from his lips. "We just agreed to disagree on a few things."
The frat boys finish their pancakes and head to the beach to bury a keg in the sand. There, artist Randy Hofman has just competed a new sand sculpture, entitled "Jesus Is Alive." Each day of the program, he completes a new sand sculpture with a religious theme as a way for Beach Reach members to start conversations about the Scriptures.
Many spring-breakers get their photos taken in front of it or wander around it trying not to spill beer. Earlier in the week, someone climbed on top of one such sculpture and destroyed part of Jesus' face. He was quickly pulled down and beaten up by angry onlookers.
Many Beach Reach members, who have led relatively sheltered lives, admit that they were more than a little intimidated when they first wandered around the beach. Thousands crowd together, drinking, smoking pot, and flashing one another.
"At first, I was nervous and didn't know what to say to people or what their reaction would be," says Beach Reach member Chris Hopkins from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. "But I soon learned that God was speaking through me, and I didn't want to spend time on small talk anymore."
Yes, Beach Reach is really about learning how to be a better minister, says Coloma Cox, the group's prayer leader. "It's kind of like our classroom," she says.
The idea grew informally at first when Buddy Young, then a seminary student in Dallas, took a small group of students to South Padre during spring break in 1980. They camped in tents and shared the Gospel as opportunities arose.
Several years later, the group realized that providing free rides (from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.) would be an effective way to keep drunk college kids off the streets and thus safe. Indeed, Beach Reach is just as much about providing protection as it is about theology, says Dr. Young. Local law-enforcement and city officials have welcomed the group's efforts, which include beach cleanup every morning.
In 1998, the South Padre Beach Reach model expanded to Panama City, Fla., and other spring-break sites in the US. Argentine, Chilean, and Taiwanese officials have also expressed interest in the program, says Young.
After watching a group get baptized in the Gulf of Mexico, Kass Ricks gets in party mode.
"I think it's nice what they're doing," says the bikinied junior from the University of Wyoming. "But I really don't think it's going to have any effect. I mean, 80 percent of the people here are drunk."
Her Mardi Gras beads are swinging from her neck. "And anyway, we all have our own beliefs, and we don't need somebody telling us what to think," she says. "We're just here to have fun."
Young knows that his beach brigade isn't going to reach everyone they come into contact with - at least not immediately.
"A lot of these students have grown up in churches that tell them what not to do. We are here to show them an example of what Christ would do," he says. "And that may not have an effect on them now, but it may plant a seed for the future."