By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
After giving his welcoming remarks, Pastor Chuck Swanson opened Sunday’s services by leading the congregation in the singing of a hymn inspired by the 97-year-old Trinity Community Church.
“O come to the church at the inlet. O come to our church at the sea,” the lyrics say.
Commonly known as “The Little Church in the Inlet,” the quaint sanctuary at the corner of 85th Street and Landis Avenue, close to the ocean in Townsends Inlet, has survived countless coastal storms and the sweeping redevelopment of Sea Isle City’s real estate market since it was built in 1923.
However, Trinity Community Church, along with the rest of the country, is facing a brand new challenge this year – the coronavirus crisis. As preparations were being made to reopen Trinity for the summer season, church leaders discussed whether they should stay closed in 2020 because of the pandemic, Swanson said.
“We prayed about it as a leadership team. But God wants us here. We have 97 years of history and we wanted to open the doors,” he explained.
So on Sunday, the church’s red doors opened up for 10 a.m. services after Swanson, Republican congressional candidate Bob Patterson and others held a celebratory ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Eight worshippers showed up for the first service of the summer season. They were spread out in the eight rows of wooden pews while maintaining social distancing.
“If it’s eight or 80 we’re going to be here for services during the summer,” Swanson said in an interview afterward.
He believes that the number of worshippers will grow as the summer plays out. During the height of Sea Isle’s summer tourism season, the nondenominational church typically attracts 25 to 40 people each Sunday.
“It is great to have you here,” Swanson said while greeting the parishioners Sunday. “We’ll grow over the summer. I guarantee we’ll be back to normal by July.”
For now, “normal” means that the worshippers are wearing face coverings, using hand sanitizer and observing social distancing.
Standing in the front row, Bev Goshow, the church’s pianist and music director, held up a bottle of hand sanitizer just as services were about to start.
“Does anyone need a squirt?” Goshow asked.
Face masks and another bottle of hand sanitizer were placed on a table in the church’s vestibule. A note in the church’s program alluded to the safety precautions implemented by Gov. Phil Murphy to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in New Jersey.
“As long as the governor’s guidelines on social distancing remain in effect, let’s do our best to respect one another as we all desire to stay healthy and safe,” the note said.
Goshow, 75, who lives with her husband, Dave, in Souderton, Pa., has a summer home in Sea Isle and has been attending Trinity Community Church since 1992.
When asked whether she and her husband had any fears about attending church on Sunday because of the coronavirus outbreak, Goshow replied, “Absolutely not.”
“It’s not a concern,” she said. “It’s something we believe in and do because we really wanted to come here and worship together. We don’t have fear. But we do pray for anyone who may fear the disease.”
Swanson, 64, who is celebrating his 11th year as Trinity’s pastor, referred to the pandemic a number of times during his sermon.
“How’s this COVID thing been to you? It just makes me shake my head,” he said, solemnly, to the parishioners. “It’s been a challenge, hasn’t it?”
However, he emphasized that people have been inspired by God to reach out to others who need help during the pandemic. He mentioned one man who is devoted to feeding the homeless in Philadelphia to help them through the crisis.
Despite the pandemic, Trinity Community Church plans to hold its regular summer schedule until Sept. 6. Sunday services begin at 10 a.m. The church will formally celebrate its 97th anniversary on July 15.
Trinity closes down during Sea Isle’s quiet off-season months. Originally known as Trinity Lutheran Community Church, the name was changed to Trinity Community Church decades ago, after the Lutherans stopped sending a pastor to Sea Isle. At that time, the church became ecumenical.
The church property is held in a trust set up by the Lutheran Synod of New Jersey, but is owned by the Trinity Community Church corporation, a group controlled by a board of directors comprised of parishioners, Swanson said.
“The deed says it can never be sold,” he said of the church.
Glistening in white paint, the tiny building is topped by a modest steeple and surrounded by a knee-high decorative concrete wall that appears as old as the church itself. A series of rectangular windows are trimmed in a muted gold color.
Swanson noted that church leaders were anxious to open this summer season, in part, so that worshippers could see the new improvements made to the building, including the repainted interior and landscaped grounds.