Wilderness and worship in Pa.

August 13, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

FORTLOUDON, Pa. - Leading an open-air worship service beside a mountain-ringed lake is a novel experience for someone who has spent much of his life in Kansas.

Bruce Carriker has been preaching and playing the guitar every Sunday this summer as the chaplain at Cowans Gap State Park, a 1,085-acre park in the mountains of Fulton County, Pa.

"When people who aren't from here think of Pennsylvania, they think of Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. I didn't know this existed," Carriker said.


Carriker works for the Chaplaincy in Pennsylvania Parks program, a ministry of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches in Harrisburg, Pa.

According to the council, park chaplains provide worship events such as Sunday services and vesper services; a listening ear for campers with spiritual concerns or other problems; emergency pastoral care; special events for families and children such as hymn sings, campfire events, volleyball, children's craft and story hours and family movies; and prayer.

They serve about 30,000 campers across the state each year.

On a recent cool, breezy Sunday, about 70 people gathered on the wooden benches of the amphitheater overlooking the 42-acre lake. Most brought jackets and umbrellas. Carriker preached, led the singing and called the children up front for their lesson.

Attending the service and requesting prayer from the congregation was U.S. Army Sgt. Chad Burch, who was visiting his home in McConnellsburg, Pa., while on leave from active duty. Burch said he has been stationed in Germany for two years and was to fly back the next day for another year. His children, Gage, 2, and Mason, 4, sat with him at the service. A phone installer, Burch said he could be sent to the Middle East.

Other worshippers approached Burch after the service, shook his hand and said they pray for him.

When Carriker is home in the Midwest, he worships at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in Overland Park, Kan., and is in his third year of a three-year graduate program at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. He previously has served as a pastor, associate pastor and worship leader.

"The reception from local people has been great," he said. "I can't say enough good things, especially about the committee folks who help with the program."

Carriker retired from the U.S. Army in 1998 after 18 1/2 years of service in Germany and Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth, both in Kansas.

"You join the Army to see the world, and I got to see ... Kansas," he said. Carriker was an infantry officer.

After the service, Carriker and some of the attendees loaded the hymnals and collection plates into the trunk of his car. "That's 'church in my trunk,'" Carriker joked.

In addition to preparing his sermon, Carriker's duties during the week include being "visible and available" to everyone in the park. He is "a friend and a presence" to people using the picnic areas and campgrounds, and to the rangers and lifeguards, he said.

While chaplains usually serve for only one term at Cowans Gap, "I may change that," Carriker said. "It's up to the Harrisburg folks, but if I'm unassigned (to a church) next spring, I'd like to come back."

Average attendance at the 10 a.m. nondenominational services is 50 to 60, Carriker said. Everyone is welcome, whether or not they are staying at the park. The last service will be Sept. 5.

Thomas and Patsy Andrews of Scotland, Pa., said they have attended the outdoor services "for a number of years. We've been blessed with many good chaplains."

Thomas Andrews said he has been coming to the park since 1940, when his 4-H club held summer picnics there.

"That was a big thing," he said, adding that his grandchildren love the park.

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