WILDWOOD – Children run down the iconic boards, as their parents follow close behind. The sights and sounds of the Boardwalk are in full swing despite COVID-19 and its impact on the Jersey Shore.
For 75 years, the Boardwalk Chapel has had its share of the summer experience, calling people of all ages and backgrounds to pause and consider their soul beyond the whirl of amusements.
Unprecedented events led to the chapel’s creation during World War II. The Boardwalk was shrouded with heavy canvas to avoid detection by enemy submarines and ships. War changed the Wildwoods, as did COVID-19.
Rev. Leslie Dunn, the chapel’s creator, was burdened by the spiritual needs of residents and tourists alike and wanted a Gospel witness. Dunn was pastor of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church, in Wildwood, at the time.
Along with three other pastors, Dunn held services under the Boardwalk until 1942. Services were held in the American Legion Pavilion until theater owners complained.
Another location was chosen, and the chapel opened every summer, hosting preaching and musical events. In 1944, the Boardwalk reopened, and the rent-free location was no longer available to Dunn. The search was on for another location.
According to historical accounts, “He (God) will meet every need if we exercise a little faith,” and Calvary Church purchased the present lot, in August 1944. Work began, in May 1945, and a dedication service was held July 1, 1945. The approximate construction cost was $11,000.
This year (2020) marks the chapel’s 75th anniversary, and the doors are still open. Staff members, comprised of mostly young people, are passionate about sharing the Gospel, even under new restrictions.
“It’s going decently well,” said staff member Mike Wold July 17. A student at Geneva College, Wold trains the staff and volunteers. Wold is a native of upstate New York and studies evangelism.
Wold said he trains the staff on how to approach people and tell them of Jesus Christ and the free gift of salvation. Even with less Boardwalk traffic, Wold said the reception has been “good” so far.
When Gov. Phil Murphy lifted restrictions on indoor religious gatherings, the chapel was ready to open, said Wold. Hand sanitizer is available, and chairs are spaced apart, in adherence to social distancing.
Keyboard, electric and acoustic guitars, and tambourines add lively strains to the song service, as staff members sing. Some pause and watch for a few minutes before moving on, while others sit down. Curious or seeking truth, the chapel is open to all. Seating capacity falls in line with Murphy’s order, according to staff member Emily Learn.
“I fell in love with it,” said Learn, who is in charge of promotions and social events at the chapel. Her home church, in Virginia, sent a group a few years ago, and Learn kept returning.
“I love the community,” she said. Close bonds form between staff members, as they use their talents and abilities for the good of others. Most of the staff comes from the East Coast. Learn said many attend Orthodox Presbyterian churches.
According to the chapel’s website, staff members serve full or part-time. Full-time staff “receive a $500 stipend back at the end of the summer,” while part-timers can work a second job.
A staff house provides housing and meals for both full and part-time staff. House-keeping responsibilities are shared between members. Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church oversees the chapel, and Rev. James Zozzaro serves as director.
Will the chapel survive the economic impact of COVID-19? Donations are accepted and givers can do so online. The chapel plans to carry on its mission – people’s souls matter most.
Come war or viruses, Dunn’s vision continues to this day, sharing the good news along the boards and sand.
Faith Matters is an ongoing series exploring the connection between individuals and their faith, impacting their families, community, and beyond. Those with a story of faith to share should contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.