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Devotion by the ocean

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.

This, after all, is the beach, where decorum and restraint sometime go by the wayside, where minds open up, whims are followed and curiosity, not the clock, rules - all of which can be seen in the mass of humanity that, even at its carefree pace, still passes by at a clip of more than a hundred people a minute, up to 8 million a summer.

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.

A former bar owner-turned-church pastor, Mayon first came to Ocean City last fall to visit a friend. When their boat broke down, they went to the boardwalk pier to fish. But Mayon was soon casting for something else entirely, handing out religious tracts and sharing the Gospel.

On this trip, he is accompanied by a younger assistant, Tim Gruver, who gets up to preach after Mayon sits down. He is more animated than Mayon, and his words loaded with fire and brimstone, leading one vacationer to complain to passing police officers - specifically about Gruver's use of the word "whoremonger."

The traveling preachers aren't breaking any laws, except the unwritten creed of Ocean City - "Thou shalt not upset the tourists" - so the officers simply ask that they keep it down, watch their word choice and maybe consider calling it a night.

After a five-minute talk with the police, during which they try to hand the officers pamphlets on Satan's evil ways, the men pack up their gear. Like countless other missionaries, evangelists, Christian youth groups and street preachers intent on planting a seed on these wooden planks, they head home, feeling they have made their mark.

Sculpting Moses Randy Hofman is kneeling on the face of Moses.

As he sweeps sand together to form a distinctive nose for the prophet, using his fists to poke in nostrils, a crowd gathers, snapping pictures and marveling as the wrinkly visage, the size of a Volkswagen, takes shape.

Hofman, using only a shovel, a crab pick and his hands, has created hundreds of gigantic religious tableaus in the sand along Ocean City's boardwalk during the past 25 years. While he considers these temporary masterpieces sacred, he would be the first to acknowledge that they are also, in a way, well-placed advertising.

"It's the perfect place for this," he says. "Everybody here is relaxed. They're not putting on their professional faces. They're on vacation. Families will line up tonight and look at this, and kids will say, 'Dad, what's that mean?' and a conversation will get started. This is real entry-level Christianity."

Hofman, 54, who studied advertising in college, says he has learned to keep the message light.

"There's milk ministry and meat ministry," he says. "Milk ministry is the light stuff. Meat ministry is the fire and brimstone. It's better just to go with the milk. The heavy-handed, going-to-hell stuff won't go over here."

Brevity is also important, he notes. The Moses he is sculpting will not have all Ten Commandments on the tablets he is holding, just a couple of slogans including "[heart] God 1st."

"That's a nice, tight message there," Hofman says.

Hofman, an oil painter, grew up in Montgomery County and came to Ocean City in 1974. He met a man who was creating sand sculptures on the beach. Hofman watched, learned and became his apprentice. In 1981, the sculptor moved away and Hofman took over.

With a friend, he founded the Son'Spot, a storefront ministry, to spread the Gospel along the boardwalk. Proceeds from the donation jar in front of the sculptures go to Son'Spot, which puts Bibles and other religious trinkets out, free for the taking.

Hofman, an ordained minister, has cut back on his sand sculptures, from about 70 a summer to about 10. That's something he was able to do after he learned, at a sand-castle competition, that a coating of watered-down Elmer's Glue could extend the life of his creations by weeks.

He has taken his art form beyond Ocean City. Hofman goes to South Padre Island in Texas for spring break - at the invitation of a Southern Baptist program known as Beach Reach, which attempts to provide college students with more wholesome alternatives to the annual drinking and debauchery.

Meanwhile, Hofman's sand art continues to draw crowds at Ocean City, and more than a few traveling evangelists stop there to preach.

"It has become kind of a platform for wannabe street preachers," says Hofman, after climbing off the sculpture to take a break. He wears long khaki pants, a blue long-sleeved shirt soaked through with sweat and a cap with a cloth under it veiling his neck.

"I learned how to preach out here," he says. "There's nothing as exhilarating as open-air Gospel. You have to learn how to use the wind. It acts as an amplifier to the people downwind, but people upwind can't hear you at all."

As he sits on a boardwalk bench, an airplane pulls a banner over the ocean advertising a nightclub. A boat pulls a flashing sign across the ocean announcing a $15.95 lobster dinner. Fewer than five minutes passes before Hofman hops up, grabs his shovel and heads back to the sand.

His message is unfinished. Moses is waiting.

100,000 free CDs Several blocks south along the boardwalk, John Krishak sets up his boom box. The 54-year-old man says God has told him to give away 100,000 copies of his inspirational compact disc, Big Beach Outreach.

Krishak will spend the next two hours singing along with himself. He hands out about 200 CDs a night. He says he has only found two that were subsequently discarded.

"My hope is that people driving back to Baltimore and Washington will listen to it in their car and make a commitment to God," he says.

Kirshak returned last spring to Ocean City from Florida, where he had a delivery business. He hasn't found a paying job yet, but every night he brings crates of the CDs he burns three at a time to the boardwalk, stands outside the Golden Plate restaurant and sings.

The crowd seems appreciative, he says. He has handed out 6,000 CDs this summer. "At the beach, people are more receptive to looking at things," he says.

Campus Crusade for Christ has realized that as well - much of its summer outreach effort is aimed at the nation's beaches, including, for two years, Ocean City.

This summer, 28 members of the organization are living and working here, interacting with other young people and "demonstrating the Christian lifestyle," says Michael Frey, a staff member who is coordinating the group.

The crusade members take part in local Bible study groups. They also hold events, such as volleyball games or building a 50-foot-long ice cream sundae, in which they invite beachgoers to partake.

"A lot of it, though, is simply going out on the boardwalk and meeting people - talking to them, finding out where they're from, then changing the conversation and exploring with people where they are spiritually," Frey says.

Finding God Dick Sands grew up Catholic. He left the church after, among other things, hearing comedian George Carlin's withering send up of religion. In 1980, Sands found God again.

During one of his regular visits to Ocean City with his wife - whom he first met on the boardwalk here in 1965 - they wandered into the Son'Spot.

"The Lord spoke to me when I walked in here. He said, "You're going to come here, you're going to feed people and help these teenagers out,'" says Sands, who was a physical-education teacher in Anne Arundel County at the time.

Quiet and low-key, wearing a T-shirt that says "My God is an Awesome God" and a visor that reads "Jesus is Lord," Sands, 63, is now pastor of the Son'Spot. He coordinates much of the Gospel-spreading that goes on in Ocean City, from housing visiting church groups to divvying up boardwalk turf among proselytizers to helping arrange the just-concluded Jesus at the Beach festival the ministry sponsors.

Whether through gratitude for a hot meal, a remembered phrase from a boardwalk sermon, a pamphlet on Satan that ends up as a bookmark or a vacation photo of Jesus cast in sand, the ministry's efforts reach millions of summer visitors, Sands says.

"It's kind of like walking into a smoke-filled bar," he says at a dinner, where a mix of foreign students and the down-and-out eat spaghetti, corn and green beans as a Gospel group sings. "When you leave, whether you know it or not, you take some of it with you."

john.woestendiek@baltsun.comFor previous installments in the series and to view a photo gallery, go to baltimoresun.com/shorestories.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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