OCEAN CITY—Sun-baked vacationers - their bodies tired, their bellies full, their brains unfettered from workplace worries - shuffle along the boardwalk in a balmy late-evening breeze, in no particular hurry to get any particular place.
Some tote ridiculously large stuffed animals won in amusement park games of chance. Some shovel funnel cake into their mouths, not bothered by the powdered sugar that clings to their cheeks like clown makeup. Some linger outside shops or wander inside for an impulse buy.
All in all, could there be any better place to troll for souls?
Jeff Mayon thinks not.
That is why, for the eighth time this summer, he has come from his home outside Harrisburg, Pa., to stand on the boardwalk of Ocean City and preach - loudly, at times, getting more worked up than you'd think a recovering alcoholic with a defibrillator implanted in his chest ought to.
It's also why the Campus Crusade for Christ has sent dozens of college Christians here to spend the summer befriending strangers and spreading God's word, just as they do on the Jersey shore, in Virginia Beach, Va., Myrtle Beach, S.C., Daytona Beach, Fla., and along the West Coast.
It's why surfing ministries, like two that have formed here in the past four years, are catching on - enabling congregants to worship God, the sun and the perfect wave in oceanfront gatherings that can include bonfires, singalongs or even luaus, such as one held recently by Ocean City's Third Wave Ministry.
It's why Randy Hofman has been building larger than life, Bible-based sand sculptures on the beach here for 25 years. His work is part of a local ministry that feeds the hungry, delivers sermons on the boardwalk and hosts the Jesus at the Beach Music & Ministry Festival. The three-day event drew hundreds last week to the city's convention center for praying, singing and, lastly, a mass baptism in the surf.
And it's why even mainstream religions have hit the nation's beaches, recognizing the bounty of unclaimed souls they harbor - especially during that annual rearing of sin's ugly head known as spring break, when Southern Baptists, among others, send missionaries to counter the mayhem.
It's as simple as this: Beaches - even those not rife with sin, even those not crawling with lost souls, even those where girls don't go wild - are ideal grounds for evangelism, the perfect place, with their combination of wondrous natural beauty and huge, unhurried crowds, to spread the gospel.
"People come to the beach to do things they can't do at home," says Ed Van Brunt, a traveling minister who has led Bible meetings in Ocean City, Rehoboth Beach, Del., and around the country. "They want to kick up their heels. They do things they wouldn't do in front of their neighbors."
But, he notes, the sense of liberty that the beach seems to stoke, while it can lead to sin, can be a sandy path to salvation as well.
"It works both ways. Just by looking out the window, you are partaking in a gift of God," says Van Brunt, who lives on Indian River Bay in Delaware. "It's a spiritual oasis in the middle of what's ungodly."
Ocean City is not particularly sinful as beach towns go. It might even be a little more wholesome than most. Here, when phrases printed on T-shirts get too risque, police will ask boardwalk merchants to move them to the back of the store. Here, when the owner of an ice cream shop chain opened a new store, he bought and closed two neighboring bars to provide a more family-friendly setting. That's how what was Duffy's Love Shack became the Lighthouse International Ministry.
Traveling evangelist Mayon, though he often chooses his locales based on what he perceives as their sin quotient - hence his visits to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, Baltimore during Preakness - says he returns to Ocean City for a different reason.
"The people here seem more spiritually open," he says. "They're friendly and receptive, and there's a lot of lonely people, too. I've been all over the country, and I've never seen a place where people are more persuaded toward the Gospel. There's a good foundation here for God's love."
Even so, only a few people stop to listen to Mayon - far more make a point to veer away as they come down the boardwalk - and after 15 minutes, he needs a rest.
"That's about all I can do because of my heart," he says as he takes a seat on a boardwalk bench, pulls out a handkerchief and wipes the sweat from his face.