Methodists and gay residents reconcile at Ocean Grove fund-raiser

Posted: July 23, 2013

OCEAN GROVE - Six years ago, Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster could never have imagined befriending the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, the Methodist group that owns the beach in this seaside Victorian town. When in 2007 they applied to celebrate their civil union in its open-air boardwalk pavilion, site of many marriages, the association turned the two women down on religious grounds.

"It was like a giant slap in the face," said Paster, a former academic librarian who felt "surprise, anger, some element of humiliation."

"I was hurt," said Bernstein, a retired school administrator. "This was my town."

What a difference a hurricane makes.

On Friday close to 500 Ocean Grovers wolfed down hot dogs, pizza, and turkey wraps at a "together picnic" to raise money to rebuild the town's splintered boardwalk. The co-sponsors were the one-time foes: the Camp Meeting Association and Ocean Grove United, a gay-rights group chaired by Bernstein and Paster.

The picnic was Bernstein and Paster's idea. The camp meeting supplied the location, muscle power, and lighting and helped round up volunteers, while OGU handled ticketing, publicity, and food. Paster and Dale Whilden, a dentist who is the president of the camp meeting, worked side by side stringing up blue crepe paper.

Extreme heat and biting flies notwithstanding, the mood was lighthearted. "This is a wonderful thing," said Ralph Del Campo, the camp meeting's acting chief administrative officer, who was wearing the official blue "together" T-shirt. "It really is the essence of the community. We all understand that we're not going to agree on everything, but we all really love to be together."

The journey to togetherness has not been smooth.

After being denied use of the pavilion, the lesbian couple filed a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, alleging discrimination in a public facility. The pavilion also had a state tax exemption that mandated public access.

Representing the camp meeting, the conservative Alliance Defense Fund launched a suit to halt the complaint. Bernstein and Paster enlisted the ACLU. The camp meeting discontinued marriages in the pavilion, and Bernstein and Paster celebrated their civil union on the town's fishing pier.

Meanwhile, the couple's supporters organized Ocean Grove United. Equality flags - two golden stripes on a field of blue - fluttered over porches. Banners with crosses appeared over others. Ocean Grove, with a mixed population of gays, old Methodist families, and liberal newcomers, was a town divided.

New Jersey voters support same-sex marriage by a 2-1 ratio, a recent poll shows. The Democratic Legislature passed a same-sex marriage bill last year, which Gov. Christie vetoed. Legislators are now seeking a veto-proof majority.

The camp meeting eventually lost its suit, and Bernstein and Paster won their complaint. They did not ask for damages, and none were assessed. "The only thing we wanted was fair and equal treatment," Bernstein said. The camp meeting subsequently underwent a change in leadership. And while it would be going too far to say that the rift has healed, when Hurricane Sandy blew into town, a giant opportunity opened up for everyone to just get along.

The camp meeting estimates the cost of boardwalk repairs at $2.5 million. Assured of FEMA money, neighboring beachfront communities have restored their boardwalks. But because the camp meeting is a private nonprofit group, it was ineligible under FEMA rules for money to rebuild a facility whose primary use is for recreation, such as a boardwalk.

After FEMA turned down its application, the camp meeting appealed, arguing that its boardwalk was not primarily recreational but served as "a public thoroughfare in providing emergency access and life-saving operations." FEMA did not buy that argument. A second appeal is in the works.

Strapped for money, the camp meeting turned to local groups for help. None was more responsive than Ocean Grove United, now headed by Bernstein and Paster.

Some of their members were less forgiving, Bernstein said. "We got feedback from people who did not understand how we could work with people who were denying us our civil rights." It did not help that the camp meeting had provoked a new spasm of outrage last year by hiring former teen star Kirk Cameron as a high-profile speaker for a religious event. Appearing on national TV, Cameron had recently labeled homosexuality "unnatural" and "destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization. "

"The anger built all over again," recalled Bernstein. OGU staged a large protest march, bearing signs that said: "Kirk! Your words hurt us."

Seeking to resolve the conflict, OGU invited Camp Meeting trustees to hear five gay youths discuss bullying and other painful experiences. Whilden, the Camp Meeting president, afterward proclaimed himself " impressed" with the youths' "insight and courage."

Given this apparent breakthrough, Bernstein and Paster were dismayed when the camp meeting this year booked former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose hostility to gay rights is even better-known than Cameron's. Following the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, Huckabee likened homosexuality to prostitution and polygamy. He tweeted, "Jesus wept."

Bernstein and Paster protested privately to the camp meeting but decided against another demonstration. "We think it would be counterproductive this year to rebuilding the boardwalk," they said/

Whilden says Huckabee has been told to lay off anti-gay remarks during his appearance.

Friday's picnic raised $8,000. But money, say the couple, was never the main point. "For us, it was all about doing something as a community," Bernstein said. "I don't think the Camp Meeting Association will ever look at us again as a 'we' and 'them.' "


Mary Walton can be reached at marywalton2000@yahoo.com

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