Chaplaincy Program Marks 50 Years Service to Campers
Early on Sunday mornings, sunlight filters through oak leaves and pine boughs cast shadows upon all those seated on the wooden logs of the amphitheater on the far western shoreline of Locust Lake in eastern Pennsylvania. Nearby a bullfrog croaks and the sudden splash of a fish breaking the stillness of the lake draws the eye.
Under the leadership of Minister Jack Murphy, Orwigsburg, Pa., all rise and begin the morning worship service by singing "Morning Has Broken."
"The setting here is just beautiful. People come over in canoes. I can't think of any place better to worship. It is inspiring," Murphy told the Pottsvile Republican prior to the service.
Murphy is just one of 25 ministers involved with the Chaplaincy in the Parks program this year. The program — celebrating its 50th anniversary — provides interdenominational, outdoor worship services to Locust Lake State Park in Barnesville and 39 other state park campgrounds and private campgrounds each camping season.
The Chaplaincy in the Parks program touches the lives of 35,000 people each year, Murphy said.
He stressed the fact that this program is not state-sponsored. It is not a program of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources which oversees Pennsylvania state parks. Rather the ministry is a program of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches. This council is comprised of various churches and agencies in the state representing a number of Anabaptist, Anglican, Orthodox, Pentecostal and Protestant communities.
"They (DCNR) are supported by your tax dollars, we are supported by your offerings," said Murphy, noting that local churches also provide financial support for the program in their respective areas.
According to information published by the program, the ministry did get its start with a public servant. In the late 1950s, the head of the state park program in Pennsylvania, Dr. Maurice Goddard, recognized the need for an organized, dependable worship program at the state's campgrounds. He approached the Pennsylvania Council of Churches with the idea. A pilot program was undertaken and in 1960, Shawnee State Park in Bedford County became the first state park involved with the Leisure Minister program of the council.
The Department of Evangelism of the National Council of Churches undertakes a similar program assigning ministers to 20 to 25 national parks each summer. This program, the Christian Ministry of the National Parks, began in the early 1950s.
Murphy, a retired ordained Lutheran pastor, first became involved with the ministry in 1986. For that summer, as a seminary student, Murphy ministered to campers at French Creek State Park on the border of Berks and Chester counties. This is his second summer ministering at Locust Lake and at Rosemount Camping Resort outside of Tamaqua with the program.
"I was attracted to the program because one, it was outdoors and two, because it is interdenominational. I enjoy the challenge of both preaching and ministering to people of various Christian faiths," said Murphy.
In addition to leading worship services, Murphy conducts visitations throughout the campgrounds each weekend.
Murphy said in this role he tries to be "a friendly presence," inviting those willing to attend Sunday services and acting as "welcome-r" to the park as well as a pastoral counselor, lending a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen.
He finds that the somewhat anonymous nature of his ministry does seem to allow for people to be open to share with him. All counseling is held in strict confidence, said Murphy.
He pointed out that after a request to him by a couple at French Creek, an Alcoholics Anonymous group was established at that park during the summer season.
"I hang out at the fishing pier, at the concession stand, just wherever I can meet people in a very low key way. Being a chaplain is so rewarding to me both spiritually and personally. Sometimes I feel I am more served than the people I am ministering to," he said candidly.
At each Sunday service Murphy conducts a "gather and share time" where he introduces himself and learns a little about the attendees. He noted that the majority of campers seem to be from Pennsylvania but recently a family from South Dakota was in attendance.
Experienced camper Leslie Poltrock, Wallingford, said she was surprised and pleased about the availability of worship at Locust Lake.
"My husband saw a sign for it last night so we thought we'd come. We will look for it at other state parks," said Poltrock, who attended the service with her husband, Dennis, and daughter, Lauren, 8.
"We were here last year, so we came back this year. If this wasn't here we would not have gone to church this morning. We enjoy it. It is a nice setting here for church with the birds and all," said Jeremy Orlick, Pottsville, who was attending the service with his wife, Christy, and son, Hunter, 8.
"Worship is really a family time and we do get many families at services. It is a great blessing to have two state parks in our county. Many naturally think of the Lord's blessings while spending time in nature, so it is appropriate to celebrate Him together in this place," said Murphy.
At each service the worshippers sing and pray together, listen to Bible readings and a brief sermon by Murphy. The Sunday service at Locust Lake is held at 9:30 a.m. at the amphitheater. If weather is inclement, services are held at the picnic pavilion near the concession stand on the northern shore of the lake. Services at Rosemount are conducted at 11 a.m. at the main building.
A special worship service will be held 1 p.m. July 18 at Locust Lake in celebration of 50 years of ministry in Pennsylvania parks.