Embracing the Legacy of Aldersgate

December 6, 2021 | | GNJ News

“It only takes a spark to get a fire going, and soon all those around can warm up in its glowing. That’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it; you spread his love to everyone; you want to pass it on.”—lyrics from Pass it On, a song often played at Aldersgate

The legacy…and spark of Missionary Henry Appenzeller and memories of campfires, discovering a calling and singing songs were alive on the afternoon of Nov. 27 on the main campus of Aldersgate Center as about 65 former campers, counselors and friends from as far as Ohio and England gathered to bid farewell to a special place.

From the fireplace room in Wesley Lodge, Dietz Swimming Pool and lemon meringue pies to the music and drama camps, the fire circle with the cross and the talent shows in the dining hall, these memories and many more of Aldersgate Center are intact and ones that many GNJers still see as seminal moments in their lives.

“It was such a moment to be able to say goodbye to a space that has meant so much. I am grateful for a space to be able to say goodbye and to dream about what is to come,” said Rev. Gabrielle Corbett of Pearl River UMC who led the coordination of the event and shared a blessing and benediction for those who attended on that sunny, chilly day in Newton, NJ.

“My ‘funeral’ today was the closing and deconsecration of Aldersgate. It was painful and wonderful, sorrowful and hopeful. Losing it feels like losing a piece of myself, but I am reminded that when one grain dies, a hundredfold can come forth,” she added.

Prior to the ceremony, some attendees came early to take a walk on the campus and reminisce. They were welcomed into the Appenzeller Chapel by YoungKwang Jun, Denville UMC’s director of music and worship media, at a piano playing music written by Mark Miller, professor of Church Music at Drew Theological School who grew up on the property with his family and later led a music camp along with Rev. Dr. Tanya Linn Bennett.

Bennett, who preached at the service and whose own journey began in 1969 sleeping at Hogan’s on a platform, said, “A heartfelt celebration and thanksgiving for Camp Aldersgate. So glad to see all who have been encouraged, affirmed and loved unconditionally—and who have shared this ministry with decades of young people.”

A place to belong. Thanks be as it moves to next life as a NJ state park. May many be blessed by the beauty and power of God’s creation,” said Bennett who recalled how inclusive the environment was and how the outside allowed them to connect so closely to God as she shared some of her stories of love, acceptance, belonging and community.

Rev. Sang Won Doh recounted the history of Henry Appenzeller and the building of Appenzeller Chapel, which was dedicated by GNJ Korean Caucus and Korean Methodist Churches in Korea over 20 years ago. After a passion for ministry and discipleship was ignited in the heart of the 26-year-old Appenzeller in 1885, he later went on to found a church, start a school and assist in medical missions. The chapel named after a man who transformed many lives was built and consecrated through the sacrificial donations of about $600,000 from 85 churches including the Methodist churches in South Korea,  Korean United Methodist Churches in the United States, many organizations and many individuals to honor his memory.

Although the camp closed in 2013 and the difficult decision was made in 2020 to sell the property to be used as a park by the Department of Environmental Protection, Director of Connectional Ministries Eric Drew, who had also been a camper there, shared how excited the leadership team was about the prospect of hosting several events at the Dietz Lakefront Property in Spring 2022.

“Personally, I was touched to see several of my counselors from seventh grade, to sing familiar songs in the chapel and to reflect on the legacy and transformation from GNJ leaders, especially Rev. Steve Bechtold and others,” said Drew.

“Camp Aldersgate was important in my faith journey and the journey of many of our clergy and congregational leaders. It was moving to gather with them again and I have great hope that the legacy of Aldersgate will continue to be passed on through Dietz, Next Generation Ministries, and the many passionate clergy and congregational leaders who have experienced it.”

Other clergy and lay people like Rev. Charles Perez of Barryville UMC, Sue Brogan and Rev. Dave LeDuc of Nutley UMC also contributed to that day in liturgy offering prayers and readings.

In reflecting on the day, LeDuc said, “Karen and I were  honored to participate in a closing service there on Saturday. It has meant so much to our family and to my faith and ministry journey.”

Rev. Dave Tillisch of First UMC of Blairstown, also instrumental in the planning of the event, shared how people could get in touch with him to be involved at the Dietz Lakefront Property that he now leads.

Former Conference Director of Lay Servant Ministries, Warren Harper reveled in the energy of the day, saying, “Great memories and many calls answered. I was counselor in ’65-‘66. I was there for the opening of the chapel. Many hearts are sad but always looking forward.”

Lisa Holmgren Burse echoed that sentiment, reflecting as so many did about how the legacy was shared from generation to generation: “So many wonderful memories there as a camper in the 60’s. My son also spent many weeks there at the summer camp. Sad to see it close.”

So did former camper, Allyson Brandford: “I can’t quite put into words what this place has meant to me for 34 years of my life. I first stepped foot into Wesley Lodge when I was 12 for a Fall Away weekend with David LeDuc. That was when I found my love for conference youth activities. I enjoyed every moment of time spent there over the next few years. Fast forward 1992: I was due there for CCYM training less than a week after my dad passed away. I went and the people and experiences there continued to shape my life in amazing ways. Fast forward many years, Brian and I worked there as admin, living in the gatehouse, for a few years. We found out we were pregnant while there, and also suffered a loss there too. Through the ups and downs, I met the absolute most incredible people that I still love and cherish to this day. I will miss this camp like crazy but will visit when it’s reopened as a state park and again visit the chapel where we said farewell to camp today.”

Following the ceremony and another walk across campus, a group gathered at a nearby Applebee’s to share a meal and continue telling their stories of calls to ministry, experiences of God and lives transformed.

“It was an incredible experience to be able to fill the room with people who so deeply loved Aldersgate and were reminded that even as one chapter of Aldersgate closes, God is faithful to us and will continue to shape and reshape the land, and that the best parts of Aldersgate live within each of us,” said Corbett as she reflected on the Spirit-filled day.

“For so many, Aldersgate was a place where people could come and be accepted for who they were and given the sense of belonging to explore all parts of who they were and to find a community that has withstood the tests of time and distance. We said goodbye, but we rest in the sure and certain hope of resurrection–one fruit of which we are hoping to see in the vision of the Dietz property.”

LeDuc also embraced the memories he holds for this special place but is hopeful that more memories are to come. “From youth retreats to summer camps to spiritual formation experiences to church picnics from childhood to now, God has used this place to shape me and countless others in faith and for service in Christ. Thank you to those who birthed it, nurtured it and now have reimagined the purpose of this land. May the fire that was and is Aldersgate burn on in me and in those who caught the Spirit here for generations to come.”

Stay tuned for new events coming in 2022!