Bathers, cyclists and boaters were out, like any other day on the coast – except this recent Sunday, a small procession made its way from the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Longport to the Seawall of the other side of the street.
A young man in shorts carried a large metal cross and walked with a priest in vestments, a flock of worshipers and a bagpiper in a kilt playing “America the Beautiful”. As the church bell rang, they watched the dozen boats dancing in the bay.
“God’s blessing upon you and the waters you sail,” intoned the Reverend Henry Hudson, a visiting chaplain through Selma, Ala. Raising his right hand, he read Psalm 107:23-32, where Jesus calms the stormy sea. “May you stay safe on the waters and may you enjoy the beauty of all of God’s creations. Amen.”
Call it religion, Shore style. Along the Jersey Shore, places of worship offer special beachside programs to connect with the seasonal crowd. The mission: to keep faith at the heart of R&R.
“For us, it’s an opportunity to engage the community around us,” Hudson said. “It’s an informal time, where the church can reach out to people’s lives here and say, ‘As you go, praise God and give thanks to God for the beauty of creation around you.
At the start of his visits to the church in Longport, the priest said he was asked to bless the bay and then the boats. This seemed appropriate given that the 1908 Spanish-style church faces the waters and its stained glass windows celebrate marine life (jellyfish, octopus, horseshoe crabs). “I thought, ‘Jesus blessed the ships. I can do it,” Hudson said. Somewhere along the line, bikes were added to the lineup, and on that day he wished safe journeys for people on two wheels – and strollers.
“It’s a free insurance policy,” said Lee Scanny, a retired union carpenter who lives in Linwood and attended the blessing of his 23ft boat which he uses for fishing and cruising. “I’ve been through some lousy stuff in my boat, unexpected storms. I’d like to think the man upstairs had something to do with it.
Church administrator Anne Peterson Martin, a Longport resident who helped organize the blessing, said Redeemer – seen as a summer sanctuary – is always looking for ways ‘to bring the community into the church and the church in the community”. Next year, she said, the plan is to take the priest to the boats on the bay for individual blessings.
In Ventnor, at Shirat Hayam, an amalgamated Conservative and Reform synagogue whose name means Song of the Sea, services move to the South Newport Avenue sandbox and promenade on several Friday evenings throughout the season.
“There is no reason for worship to be serious,” Rabbi Jonathan Kremer said, adding that about 150 people attend, settling into lounge chairs and participating in prayer and chanting. “Sometimes it should be. More often than not it should be just happy, quiet joy, or maybe exuberant joy. At the beach, it’s more exuberant.
Ellen Glassman from Broomall is a weekend regular in Margate, where she and her husband have a home. “We always say Shabbat is magical when your toes are in the sand and the seagulls are above your head and the waves are rushing in,” she said.
For many coastal houses of worship, outdoor rituals also offer a way to attract newcomers to the fold, even if only for the summer months.
Chabad at the Shore in Ventnor is setting up a tent to sell its challah bread, drawing a line 100 meters deep, said synagogue director Rabbi Avrohom Rapoport. “At the side, there is a small stand where people could say a prayer and put on a tefillin,” he said of a ritual usually performed inside the synagogue. “By bringing all of these traditions outside the building, it helps people know we’re here.” Saturday services can draw 150 people, up to five times the winter crowd.
Founded in 1869 as a Christian resort for “sacred recreation,” Ocean Grove offers more than 100 outdoor religious programs at the city’s Boardwalk Pavilion, according to Michael Badger, president of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association. This includes Lighthouse: Songs & Currents, Under the Umbrella Bible study and many beach baptisms.
“A lot of Jesus’ story was on the waterfront,” Badger said. “People connect in places where they’re on the edge, on the edge of a mountain, on the edge of the ocean. It opens them up to the expanse of nature and opens the soul’s window to see God.
Sometimes, the proximity of the Shore turns out to be an unexpected boon. “People come from far away places, from North Jersey, Philadelphia, Connecticut,” said Avinash Gupta, chairman of the board of directors of Siddhivinayak Temple USA, adding that visitors to the Hindu temple can triple on weekends. summer up to 100 people. “They can take God’s blessing and visit Seaside Heights or Seaside Park at the same time. They have a double attraction.
For Pastor Bill McGowan of Zion Lutheran Church in Barnegat Light, “water ministry” helps keep places of worship vibrant.
On Father’s Day this year, he and other pastors, along with a rabbi, gathered at the dock for the annual blessing of the fleet which welcomed a few dozen clam and scallop fishing boats, 60 to 80 feet. After the ritual, the dozens of spectators enjoy free boat rides across the creek. “It’s a real community day,” he says.
The church also hosts services at the Bay Breeze Pavilion on Sunday mornings as well as other shore-based activities with a religious touch, including blessings and burgers for the local beach patrol and sunset worship services near of the bay.
“The secret is to always get out there and spread the message,” McGowan said. “People have a lot of time constraints. Sometimes when they are on vacation, they have free time and meet at church.