On Public Land, Sunday in the Park With Prayer
article by Neela Banerjee
The New York Times, July 24, 2006
photographs by Kalim A. Bhatti for The New York Times
COWANS GAP STATE PARK, Pa. — This is what church looked like to Deana Wingert on a recent Sunday: the wind ruffled the lake behind the pulpit, evergreens towered above the pews, a yellow butterfly danced over a sunny patch of grass, and the scent of lighter fluid wafted through, followed by the smell of meat grilling.
Most members in the congregation did not know one another. They had come, like the Wingerts, to Cowans Gap, about 100 miles southwest of Harrisburg, to camp, swim and picnic. But it was Sunday, and for the 100 or so Christians with baseball caps and bug spray who wanted to worship, the park offered itself as their church.
“This is the day that the Lord has made,” the congregation sang to the cloudless sky, as the chaplain, Bruce Carriker, strummed the guitar and began the service. “We shall rejoice and be glad in it.”
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, 42 state, national and private parks in Pennsylvania hold nondenominational Christian worship services. It is the only state with such a program, said the Rev. Paul L. Herring of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches. The chaplains come from local towns and faraway states, as do the worshipers, mostly Protestants. Last year, 18,000 people attended services in Pennsylvania parks.
Cowans Gap usually has about 85 people at Sunday service — not a bad turnout for what is essentially a small-town church. Many people come because they would never go a Sunday without hearing God’s Word. But they are also drawn by the beauty and novelty of praying outdoors, and they become open, they say, to understanding their place in the world in a deeper way.
“It is enriching to be here,” said Ms. Wingert, 34, from nearby Fort Loudon, Pa., who comes regularly to the service with her husband and two young sons. “Your mind wanders a bit, but it focuses, too: on the fact that you’re in it, you’re in God’s creation, and that there is so much beyond your control.”
Although the services are held on state land, the chaplaincy program is financed with private money from local churches and denominational bodies. The program began 46 years ago when the Parks Department approached the Pennsylvania Council of Churches because many denominations wanted to preach and evangelize in the parks.
The council developed a program in which the chaplains conduct nondenominational worship services, and they are prohibited from proselytizing, said Mr. Herring, the council’s coordinator of leisure ministries.
Over the years, some people have objected to the religious services being held on public lands, but there has never been a formal complaint or organized opposition, said Mr. Herring’s administrative assistant, Audrey Crawford.
This year, 27 chaplains are working in the parks, Mr. Herring said. About half are ordained ministers; the rest are college and divinity school students and lay people.
Full-time chaplains usually live in trailers in nearby private parks, in apartments or in local homes. They receive $4,000 for the 15 weeks they serve in the program.
For Mr. Carriker, an intense, bustling man whose gray hair curls down to his shoulders, his only previous experience in Pennsylvania had consisted of two trips on the turnpike.
But after being checked out by the program’s selection committee (and the state police), the 49-year-old retired infantry officer and former minister in the Church of the Nazarene was assigned to Cowans Gap three years ago. At home in Kansas City, Mo., he works with juvenile offenders. Here, he said, he satisfies his itch to preach. He lives next to forested hills and a shimmering lake. He is a small-town pastor.
“After I came here,” Mr. Carriker said after a recent service, “I finally understood the idea of coming home to a place you had never been before.”
Over the summer, people use the parks as they would their own churches. At French Creek State Park, a large Alcoholics Anonymous group meets outdoors, many members arriving on their motorcycles. They like having the chaplain there, but the members run the meeting, Mr. Herring said.
Mr. Carriker holds a movie night on Fridays, and for reasons unknown to him, he must attend a sand castle fest on the lake’s shores on Saturdays. But mostly, he walks through the campgrounds and lets people know he is there to listen and pray.
And they turn to him. People like the couple whose son committed suicide years ago but loved the park like no other place. Or the veteran who asked Mr. Carriker to pray for his son in Iraq. Or the woman whose granddaughter is struggling with anorexia, as is Mr. Carriker’s older daughter.
“Sometimes the best thing you can do is keep your mouth shut and cry,” Mr. Carriker said. “You may read a Psalm once in a while, but sometimes there are no words you can speak.”
Though they have some guidance from the council, chaplains fashion their own services, and in general they are more informal than those in a traditional church setting. At Cowans Gap, the service is usually held at an amphitheater at the lake, and when it rains the service is in a nature center with displays of stuffed foxes and birds. People bring their own Bibles, sometimes their own chairs, and Mr. Carriker provides the songbooks.
Mr. Carriker uses the lectionary, a three-year cycle of readings from Scripture of the main teachings of Jesus, as the basis of his services. He always places a small wooden cross before him.
On a rainy Sunday, Mr. Carriker read passages from the Gospel of Mark, in which a storm on the Sea of Galilee threatens a boat carrying Jesus and the disciples. Jesus calms the storm and rebukes the disciples for their fear.
Mr. Carriker was a stranger to most of those before him. But he used the homily to share his life and to show that he knew theirs. He told them that though people strive for control of their lives, a storm always rises. It may be the dark spot on the X-ray, or the drugs found in an honor student’s locker, or a daughter’s anorexia, he said, his voice cracking just a little. It takes a lot of courage to have faith in the face of such storms, he said.
“But through faith, we can always figure out who is in the boat with us,” Mr. Carriker said, “because he is enough. He is always enough.”
John Morrow, 77, a retired Presbyterian minister from Acme, Pa., had heard homilies on the passage before, but none as good as in the nature center of this small park, he said. Mr. Morrow had heard something new, and the surprise fed his faith.
“When you’re traveling, it’s easy to assume that you’re alone in your faith,” he said. “But with all these people here together, you realize you are not alone, and it’s reinforcing.”
The New York Times ~ July 24, 2006
P.S. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BRUCE!LOVE, KIT