I’ve spent all my life living in two states, New Jersey and California. In New Jersey, you might hear a friend say, “I’m going to the shore.” In California, your friend would probably say, “I’m going to the beach.” You’ve got to learn the local language.
When I was growing up in a Christian family in north Jersey, “going to the shore” meant going to Ocean Grove. The oldest shore resort community on the central Jersey coast, Ocean Grove was founded as a Methodist camp meeting location in 1869. Starting as a summer tent community, it grew as a vacation destination during the next few decades, and many wealthy New Yorkers built elaborate Victorian summer homes there. But its main focus continued to be on the tent-meeting revival tradition. Its central feature is the enormous Ocean Grove Auditorium (above photo), built in 1894, seating 6,000+ for worship services and concerts and housing one of the largest pipe organs on the East Coast.
Even though Methodists were a bit suspect in my more fundamentalistic church circle, vacationing with them was considered a better risk than vacationing in “The World.” No alcohol was served or sold in the town, there was a 10 pm curfew on public activities, the beach was closed on Sundays and there was a sensitivity about “modesty of apparel” on the beach. That all made it a more “Christian” place to be.
However, right up the boardwalk a few feet to the north was the beginning of Asbury Park. That’s where you could get to know “The World.” The lower picture above is The Casino, the first structure you encounter walking into Asbury Park from Ocean Grove. It’s full of arcade games, foods (including alcohol) and other edgy activities. In its heyday, the boardwalk featured an elaborate carousel and other thrilling rides. Bruce Springsteen grew up in nearby Long Branch and began his musical career in Asbury Park’s Rock ‘n’ Roll bars that stayed open until the 5 am curfew. Since the 1970s, the town has gone into a serious decline for a variety of reasons, but it has begun to climb back in the past twenty years. Interestingly, Bruce Springsteen and his wife Patty Scialfa (also a native) have moved back to settle down and raise their kids in an area a few miles from Asbury Park.
But I was a teenager before Asbury Park’s decline, before Bruce Springsteen’s career, even before Rock ‘n’ Roll. When our church had a youth outing at Ocean Grove, we’d sneak a trip up the boardwalk to experience a little of “The World.” Then we’d return to the familiar comfort of what we cleverly referred to as “Ocean Grave.”
I don’t know why it took me so long to realize this, but just yesterday I learned that these two Jersey shore towns that symbolized my youthful tension between “Christian” and “Worldly” values have been joined at the hip since birth. I read about James Adam Bradley, a New York City financier who, in 1871, had a salvation experience in an evangelistic service and was invited to an Ocean Grove meeting to learn more about his new faith. He fell in love with the place and bought some open beachfront property to the north. With a developer’s eye, he saw the chance to build something different, something which could bring pleasure to a broader spectrum of people. He chose to name this new resort after Francis Asbury (1748-1816), the first Methodist Bishop in America, and that’s how Asbury Park began.
The Church and The World feed on each other in the circle of Joisey life. There must be a lesson here somewhere.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
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