A couple weeks ago I worshiped God on a beach in Fairfield. It was an interesting and spirit-filled experience, to blur the lines between sacred and public with 40 other people on the sandy shore of the Long Island Sound.
The Rev. Curtis Farr is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fairfield and he invited me to check out Church on the Beach this summer. St. Paul’s holds Church on the Beach every Sunday in July and August at 8:30 a.m. at Jennings Beach, Fairfield.
“We have always made efforts to be visible in our local community . . . and Jennings Beach is located near the parish and right between the marina and beach club.” Curtis said. “A lot of morning walkers and swimmers see this community gathered with joy in prayer and song, and sometimes they join in on our worship.”
It might be a bit easier for someone to join in, because the people gathered didn’t look like the typical congregation. “If you saw members of the congregation approaching the service, you would think that they were just out on a Sunday morning stroll. Not only is the congregation sitting lower to the ground at the beach, they are dressed for the beach,” Curtis said.
The service was a BYOBC- bring your own beach chair event. Some people had beach chairs, some had foldable chairs, and some chose to stand. The family next to me brought a blanket and sandcastle-building tools, though no castle survived the whole service.
Curtis led the congregation in a pretty typical church service, although a bit rushed as it was sweltering hot out. “The sand, the wind, and the sun force us to adjust our expectations of a church service in order to be open to the moment,” Curtis said. There were guitars instead of an organ, the songs were repetitive and the bulletin shorter to reduce the potential of unintentional paper airplanes, and shoes were optional.
The sermon was also a little bit different. Curtis didn’t have a microphone, so he came forward and preached walking back and forth in the sand. There was a sense of realism when talking about God’s beauty in creation and our relationship to it when you looked out and saw families on the beach and locals out for their morning swim.
“When I preach on the beach, our surroundings immediately join in on that conversation: How is a parish different from an exclusive beach club? Is this public beach and beautiful vantage point for God’s creation truly open to everyone? Are we taking enough time in our busy lives to simply appreciate our existence?” Curtis said. “Some of these questions are more theoretical when asked in the church building.”
There were three baptisms during the service. There were three baptisms during the service. Curtis led the congregation down to the water singing “I went down to the river to pray” (which is one of my favorite songs), and invited those interested to enter into the water. Unlike a traditional baptism using a baptismal font where the water for baptism is set aside to be blessed, in the Long Island Sound,the water used “for baptism” and for the general public is one and the same. “I will often joke about how we do not quite know how to measure how much of the Long Island Sound we have set aside as water for baptism,” Curtis said. “Do these swimmers know that the water in which they swim is holy?”
It was a powerful experience to participate in a baptism in a public space. It is our initiation rite exposed, the symbol of what we as Christians believe, open to any bystander. “To hold such an occasion and to share in Baptism and then Communion in a public space is very special, quite unusual for Episcopalians, and even evangelical,” Curtis said.
Holding a church service in a public space blurs the line between what it means to do and be church. A structure isn’t needed, traditions become malleable, and being Christians worshiping in the open becomes a witness in and of itself. It is empowering, it is unconventional, and quite frankly, it is biblical. Jesus worshiped on the beach, why can’t we?
“Everyone leaves [Church on the Beach] emboldened to share what their faith community and what these experiences of the Living God mean to them,” Curtis said. “So do I.”