A park service


Unconventional church to celebrate Easter outdoors

April 12, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Free of walls and a conventional religious atmosphere, an outdoor pavilion overlooking a tree-lined lake just may be the ideal setting for a community Easter service.

But melding the spiritual and natural worlds during spring when the Earth itself is being reborn is hardly a groundbreaking concept, so why stop there? Why not follow up a program of Bible teachings and acoustic music in the park with a petting zoo, carnival games and cotton candy?

That's the thinking of Dan Sexton, pastor of Calvary Chapel-Ellicott City, a nondenominational congregation of 150 that meets in the auditorium of Centennial High School.

Though Easter in the Park is marking its third annual appearance at Centennial Park, the fair is a new component this year.

"The concept of pews and a steeple is not a part of my history," said Sexton, who was raised in a family that did not attend religious services.

"I don't have a lot of ideas about what a church should look like," the 36-year-old Florida native said.

But he does have a very specific notion of what a church should do, and that is to teach the Bible verse by verse, chapter by chapter.

"It's an unusual style of teaching, and it isn't as prevalent as it should be," said the pastor, who prefers "teaching" to "preaching." He said he plans to use Gospel accounts from the Bible on Sunday to explain Jesus' death and resurrection.

The idea of holding a community-oriented service in the park on such a revered holy day was an epiphany for Sexton two years ago, he said.

Describing Howard County as a community-oriented place where residents focus on family, sports and the outdoors, he felt a community Easter service would be well-received.

When the first event was held in 2007, the temperature was 19 degrees and it snowed, he recalled. Still, 200 hardy souls turned out. Last year's event attracted between 400 and 500 people, he estimated.

The decision to hold a full-fledged Easter Fun Fair after simultaneous services for adults and children came last year, when many families hung around after the service to enjoy the park. So this year, there will be pony rides, face painting, a duck pond, beanbag toss and more. Volunteers have assembled 1,000 goodie bags for kids.

But it will not be a day for proselytizing, the pastor said.

"Many people feel that the economy, housing market and job security are failing us, and they really are looking for hope they can depend on," Sexton said. "It is not our intention to get people to join our church. We just want to share the hope that can be found in Jesus Christ." No offering will be taken during the service, nor will there be a request for donations, he said.

Sexton embarked on his own personal journey of faith by a circuitous route.

Though he lived in Ellicott City during his school-age years and graduated from Mount Hebron High in 1990, he moved back to Florida to attend college. That's where he met his future wife, Cameron, and where a friend introduced them to Calvary Chapel-Gulf Breeze.

"I was hooked the very first time I went to services," said Sexton, who had graduated from the University of West Florida with a degree in history. He took a job for two years managing the church's coffeehouse, where he spent a lot of down time studying the Bible.

Soon, he and Cameron married and he became an assistant pastor at Gulf Breeze. She also was employed by the church, they owned a home that faced a bay, and life was good, he said.

But the Lord had another plan in mind, he said, and the couple left family and contentment behind to move to Ellicott City.

"We just showed up in 2003, not knowing anyone," Sexton said.

When he held his first service in August at the Kiwanis-Wallas Recreation Center off U.S. 40, four people came. The second service attracted the attention of Jason Meyerson, an Ellicott City chiropractor who said he was familiar with the teaching approach of Calvary Chapel churches.

"I grew up Jewish and then became a follower of Jesus, but I'd never found a church that felt like home," Meyerson said.

After attending, he and wife Kimberly, who was raised Christian, became faithful followers of Sexton's.

"Dan has a real gift to share the Scriptures," Meyerson said.

"Teaching the Bible simply - that's our schtick," said Cameron Sexton, who is expecting the couple's third child. "We want to bring the Gospel into public view."

Calvary Chapel-Ellicott City is affiliated with 1,500 churches in the United States and overseas, Sexton said. The first Calvary Chapel was founded in 1965 in Costa Mesa, Calif., and grew from 20 members to the 15,000 or so it has today, he said. That church also has television and radio ministries.

"When Calvary Chapel pastors are called into service somewhere, they generally stay there for the rest of their lives and that's what I intend to do," said Sexton, who also works part time as a building attendant at a county recreation center. "I wouldn't trade my life for anything."

As for Easter in the Park, the pastor hopes it will continue to grow.

"Every year it seems to get a little more recognition," said Cameron. "We would love for this to become a huge tradition."

if you go

Worship service: 11 a.m. (Separate services for adults and children will be held simultaneously, though families may attend either service together.)

Easter Fun Fair: Noon to 4 p.m.

Centennial Park, 10000 Route 108, Ellicott City

All events are free and open to the public.

More information: www.howardcountyeaster.com.


Is there a noteworthy person or event in your neighborhood? Contact Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg at jholzberg76@msn.com or 410-461-4150.

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