Remembering Ocean Grove
by Ronald J. Gordon
It was a simpler time in life when I attended Annual Conferences in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, during the 1950s and 60s, or perhaps that's just the way I saw life in general while still in school. My father was self-employed before he went into the ministry, so I grew up attending Annual Conference before and after his ordination. Every summer we were going somewhere: east coast, west coast, and all over the middle. I had the pleasure of telling classmates that I visited forty-two states before I got out of high school, modestly of course. Richmond (1957) was nice. Grand Rapids (1955) was very nice. Long Beach (1961) was super, but the several conferences that I attended at Ocean Grove will always be the most memorable. I'm referring to what children and young people do at Annual Conference. It was a time when my friends and I could walk around town or play at The Beach without any fear of being kidnapped or molested. I loved walking up and down the Boardwalk.
Here you would see Men Relaxing with their feet propped up on the railing. Ocean Grove was more than just a conference, it was an experience. It was a time to meet God in a very religious place of great natural beauty. Spiritual lay leaders founded The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in 1869 and incorporated this one square mile of ocean property for the glory of God. Year after year, churches and religions organizations have continued to fulfill their vision. Annual Conference at Ocean Grove was a time for serious Church Business and a time to absorb the beauty of God's creation. There is something special about oceans. People drive great distances just to walk in the water, listen to the pounding surf, build something in the sand, collect things, and smell the salt air. I liked walking around town and looking at the old buildings. Ocean Grove has the largest collection of Victorian architecture in the country. It's now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. East-west streets were designed to be wide and directly facing the ocean so as to maximize the greatest funneling effect of incoming ocean breezes, and it works beautifully. You don't visit Ocean Grove - you experience it. In the early 1960s, commercialization had not yet ruined this beach front paradise.
From every angle, the Auditorium was an awesome sight. That big lighted cross on the front could be seen at night from many places around town. I was too young to understand deep spiritual things but I knew that it had a beckoning effect on me. Everywhere my parents took me I would keep looking to see the cross. Don't get me wrong, I liked big city arenas too but there was something about that structure that commanded respect. You won't play basketball or ice hockey in that Tabernacle. It was built for worship. People came here to be spiritually uplifted. It was finished in 1894 with a seating capacity of about 6,500. The Pipe Organ was installed in 1908. One day I discovered a little door in one of the upper front rooms that opened to a steep staircase leading down behind the organ pipes. When the organist was playing, the sound was almost deafening to my ears but I liked to watch the huge wooden flaps open that revealed sets of little pipes beneath. Few people jubilantly singing the old hymns of the church knew that I was standing behind Those Pipes. Sunday in Ocean Grove was truly different from any other city in the nation. All vehicles were banned from the streets by city ordinance. You could walk anywhere without fear of getting run over. Dad asked me to point at Brethren Standing In Line across a street, waiting to eat at a restaurant. Other People were just as fascinated by this unusual circumstance.
Things have changed dramatically since then. I'm in my sixties now. Annual Conference is still enjoyable but seems to be more of an organized rush. Business sessions, meal times, worship, insight sessions, agency luncheons, visit exhibits, give blood, more insight sessions, more business sessions, more worship, and all in a much shorter timeframe. Back then, people didn't seem to be in such a hurry. Conversation outside the Auditorium seemed to go on for hours. My friends and I played by running around all the different groups of people. We eventually became bored and wanted to go back to our lodgings but Mom and Dad would keep talking to relatives and friends as if there were no place to go and nothing else to do. Everyone dressed in nice clothes, every day. Young kids like me were the only ones wearing shorts. It was warm but the ocean breeze made it nice. You could feel it about all day long. I'm sure that made it easier on the men who always wore suits.
I remember that groups were important. My own age group did fun things but I liked to tag along with the older youth, especially when they went to Sunrise Service. Occasionally I would walk north on the boardwalk to Asbury Park. Lots of rides and fun things to do. Dad took me out on a two-seat paddle-boat and years later I was old enough to captain one myself. One thing that was especially moving during Annual Conference was the Consecration Services where the whole front of the rostrum was filled with people on their knees and others standing behind them for the laying on of hands with prayer. They held this service almost every year but at Ocean Grove 1962 the people to be consecreated filled the platform from one end to the other, and the lady on the right was kneeling right at the edge. I miss those services. I will also miss Ocean Grove. Someone has said that Annual Conference will not be held in Ocean Grove again because it's too small. They're probably right. The Exhibit Area at Ocean Grove 1954 was about the size of a large garage and the Exhibit Area at Richmond AC2008 was almost as large as the Ocean Grove auditorium. This raises an interesting thought; back then our denominational membership was almost double the current total (2013) but now we need larger accomodations with only half the membership. It's probably better that we don't go back. Memories have a way of preserving only good things. Besides, security would probably not let me go down that same pipe organ staircase.