SOUL at Seaside Sanctuary: Time stopped years ago in Ocean Grove, N.J., a seaside resort that can renew the spirit.

June 23, 1996|By Randy Kraft | Randy Kraft,ALLENTOWN MORNING CALL

"I just want to rock and let his spirit roll," sang Promises. "Jesus is the one, y'know, who died for me."

People of all ages sat inside the open-air pavilion along the Atlantic Ocean at Ocean Grove, N.J., to enjoy the free evening performance by the contemporary Christian music trio.

Others strolling, jogging, biking and skating by stopped to watch and listen. A young mother danced with her baby on the boardwalk. Overhead, a long-tailed kite also seemed to dance with the music.

As a full moon rose over the ocean last summer, children played freeze tag on the beach. A few blocks west, at the far end of a wide commons called Ocean Pathway, the sun set over the Great Auditorium -- where a white cross glowed on the highest steeple.

"Would you please read something I wrote?" asked a man as he handed out tracts that questioned if we are spiritually prepared for the possibility of imminent death. That somber message did little to detract from the feel-good moment.

In a tune about Ocean Grove, Jeff Dingsor of Promises sang: "God's Square Mile is the place to be, when you want to feel the calm of the deep blue sea."

Whether you're looking for spiritual renewal or just a few quiet days at the beach, Ocean Grove certainly has many attributes.

Passing through the brick gateways of this tiny Victorian seaside community, you may sense that you have arrived at a unique place.

This seems like the kind of place developers would try to create as a tourist attraction, if it didn't already exist. This National Historic District is an authentic, lived-in community.

There also is a sense of sanctuary about Ocean Grove. People living here say it's like a small, safe neighborhood.

Most of its homes are Victorian, and most of them are immaculate -- with turrets, upper-level porches, striped canvas awnings, flower boxes and American flags.

Ocean Grove's sloping beach is nice, not too narrow and not too crowded. But beach passes must be bought to use it.

One of the most amazing things about this community is that many people spend their summers living in a tidy neighborhood of 114 tent structures surrounding Great Auditorium, Ocean Grove's most prominent landmark.

While Ocean Grove has been popular with older folks, it also is becoming popular with younger couples and parents with small children.

"Young people are discovering this Victorian treasure," said Alyn Heim, president of the Ocean Grove Chamber of Commerce. "They just love it."

Bulletin boards on the boardwalk promote gospel concerts, performances by Christian rock groups and worship services in Great Auditorium. One notice even advises when you can exercise to Christian and inspirational music.

No soul-saving hard sell

For many, watching children in activities outside the auditorium brings back memories of vacation Bible school. Children of summer visitors are encouraged to participate. In fact, anyone can participate in Ocean Grove's services, concerts and other religious programs -- offered daily in summer. But there's no soul-saving hard sell.

Some just come here for the Victorian charm. Even pay phones are in pseudo-Victorian boxes.

Most of its structures aren't as grand and ornate as hotels and houses in Cape May at New Jersey's southern tip. But Carolyn McNeil, the Chamber of Commerce vice president, calls Ocean Grove "New Jersey's other Victorian showplace."

Ocean Grove is "dry" -- no bars or nightclubs, no alcohol served in restaurants.

Not a noisy, tacky, honky-tonk, hard-partying beach town, it is so quiet and peaceful that even a loud car radio seems inappropriate.

No highways rumble through the community, which has no traffic lights or parking meters. You can park your car for free, right along the boardwalk in mid-July, and leave it there until you go home.

Easily walkable Ocean Grove covers less than one square milebut seems spacious. One reason is Ocean Pathway, a wide lawn between the boardwalk and Great Auditorium.

Much about Ocean Grove makes you feel you've gone back in time -- maybe not 100 years, but certainly 30 or 40 -- from the old-fashioned Sampler Cafeteria to Days Ice Cream Parlor, and from the huge interior of Great Auditorium to the tiny rooms of the old hotels.

Ocean Grove was created in 1869 as "a Christian seaside resort" -- a place Methodists could go for summer religious revivals, called camp meetings, without the "secular influences" of other 19th-century beach communities.

Weeklong camp meetings still are held here, although now they are interdenominational.

The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association still owns all the land here, but not all the buildings on it.

Not everyone in Ocean Grove is Methodist, Protestant or even Christian. The doors are open to anyone who wants to visit or live here, said Dr. Anna Nichols, a camp meeting association trustee. She noted 25 percent of the association's trustees are not Methodists.

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