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By Mary Walton

As the 2012 Labor Day weekend drew to a close under cloudy skies, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association reported a somewhat gloomy financial picture at its traditional season’s end review.

Operating income of $3,164,000 fell $39,000 short of operating expenses. Contributions to the choir festival, Camp Meeting week and other special events were down by $24,500 over last year. And ticket sales to the Saturday night entertainment programs experienced an especially severe drop. They totaled 20,347, compared to 27,588 in 2011, a 26 percent decline that resulted in the lowest profit margin in eleven years.

Dr. Dale Whilden, CMA president, attributed the fall off in Saturday night attendance to competition from new entertainment outlets in the surrounding area, particularly Asbury Park. The loss of revenues when Johnny Mathis cancelled his August 11 appearance was another factor. Whilden added, “And the economy has got to be a part of this.”

On the bright side, as of Aug. 20 beach revenues had outpaced expenses $928,000 to $760,000. Beach profits, however, cannot be used to defray operating losses.

More than 100 people attended the meeting, which was held this year in the Youth Temple rather than its customary venue, the Bishop Janes Tabernacle. In another change from past years, the meeting was closed to the media.

“This meeting is targeted for supporters,” Ralph del Campo, interim chief operating officer, told this Blogfinger reporter before the meeting began. I was invited to sit in, but told not to report. He explained that people were under the false impression that the CMA was a public entity, which has not been the case since it was a municipality running Ocean Grove, a role now occupied by Neptune Township. He noted that as a religious organization the CMA is not obligated to make its sessions public. There was no explanation for why the change was suddenly enacted. In fact, Blogfinger has covered the meeting in past years. “We’re not trying to hide anything,” Whilden chimed in.

The change in policy was not announced during the meeting, and Bonnie Graham, a reporter for the Coaster, took notes throughout. Graham was unaware of the no-reporting rule until I made an issue of it during the questions and comments session that concluded the meeting. I asked that the CMA reconsider its policy in the interest of openness. Graham also objected to the rule against media reporting, and afterward said she was shocked and mystified. Trustees apparently were not aware of the decision either. “What’s that all about?” one asked me.

On another subject, Joan Caputo spoke for Ocean Grove United, a gay advocacy organization that has often been at odds with the CMA, most recently over the appearance of actor and evangelist Kirk Cameron, the author of harsh anti-gay remarks. After an OGU protest, Whilden and other CMA officials met with a group from the organization to hear their concerns. Caputo thanked them for having “in many ways opened their hearts and taken the time to meet with us, to listen and to share. Let the dialogue continue.” She made her remarks available to Blogfinger.

CMA Trustee Douglas E. Arpert responded to a questioner who asked the status of the North End development of condos, homes and a hotel. The CMA and a company called WAVE (Wesley Atlantic Village Enterprises) are co-developers. Arpert told Blogfinger they hope to conclude a redevelopment agreement with Neptune Township by the end of the year and to break ground in 2013.

After the meeting Del Campo and Whilden sat down with me to review the information that had been presented at the meeting, so that it could be included in this article.

In addition to financial news, they said that the search for a chief operating officer is nearing its conclusion. After an initial round of searching last year failed to produce a suitable candidate, the search was widened in the spring. The search committee received more than 30 resumes, and has narrowed the field to three, all men. The committee will conduct interviews in September and expects to name the new officer by year’s end.

In other statistics of interest, the most popular speakers this summer were Ravi Zakarias, who drew 2,900 Sunday morning worshippers this past Sunday, followed by Kirk Cameron, 2,300, and Tony Campolo, 2,058.

Neil Sedaka attracted the largest Saturday night crowd, 2,722, followed by Diana Krall, 2,470, and Michael W. Smith, 2,316.

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Flags on a porch on Mt. Carmel Way suggest coexistence. Photo by Mary Walton

By Charles Layton

On Saturday, the ice broke.

After years of distrust and outright hostility, leaders of the Camp Meeting Association and Ocean Grove’s gay rights community found a way to come together. Or so they seem to hope and believe.

The CMA’s president, Dr. Dale Whilden, and eight CMA trustees showed up for lunch at the home of Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, co-chairs of Ocean Grove United. Other OGU board members were there. So was Stephen Goldstein, who heads the state’s leading gay advocacy group, Garden State Equality. So was Randy Bishop, Neptune Township’s gay mayor, who lives in the Grove, and Congressman Frank Pallone. And so were five gay and lesbian high school students from North Jersey, along with a parent of one of the students and the sister of another young man who is gay.

The first thing these people did was share a cold buffet lunch. Then they crowded together in the living room/dining room area for conversation.

“We made certain the Camp Meeting trustees and the kids all sat near each other,” Bernstein said. “Each and every one of these teens spoke about their own experiences of being bullied because they are gay.”

Whilden said afterward that he and the other CMA officials “were impressed with these kids. They had insight and courage and just a perspective I’m not sure we all grasped as well before the meeting as we did after the meeting. These are brave kids. They’ve been through a lot.”

Members of the CMA and Ocean Grove’s large gay and lesbian population have had an antagonistic relationship since 2007, when the CMA refused to allow Bernstein and Paster to use the boardwalk pavilion for a civil union ceremony. They and other gay residents fought back, forming Ocean Grove United as a civil rights organization. Blue and yellow equality flags appeared on porches all over town.

A law suit over the pavilion issue made national news. It was resolved just this past January when a judge ruled that the CMA had violated New Jersey’s anti-discrimination laws.

By that time, tempers had moderated somewhat on both sides, but then came Kirk Cameron, a visiting minister who provoked the gay community all over again by making insulting remarks about gays on national television.

On Friday, when Cameron made his appearance in the Great Auditorium, Bernstein and Paster led a silent demonstration outside.

But at the same time, they extended a hand to the leaders of the CMA, in the form of the luncheon invitation, which those leaders accepted.

The gay teenagers took center stage during the living room discussion, describing how it feels to be persecuted by one’s peers and attempting to explain that when religious leaders make harsh public remarks against gays they feed such persecution.

Bernstein said a straight girl at the meeting, whose brother is gay, “explained how Kirk Cameron’s words really affected them, how hurtful they were, and how those are the same kinds of words they’ve been hearing since middle school, from kids who were bullying them.”

“They drew the connection,” Paster said, “that such words from people like Kirk Cameron – public figures – make it easier for other people to use similar words. It has a ripple effect.” Cameron had said on CNN that homosexuals were destructive of the foundations of civilization.

Paster and Bernstein said these teenagers’ testimony seemed to make a genuine impression on the trustees. “One trustee who had a career in education commented that he had seen the same thing in the school system,” Paster said. “He validated exactly what the students had said. He had seen it first-hand.”

Whilden not only agreed that the trustees had been impressed, he predicted that a new day might be at hand in Ocean Grove. “It seems to me we’ve gone to another level of friendliness and neighborliness,” he said. “We’re not going to agree on everything. But we can work together, we have a lot of things in common, and we all love Ocean Grove.”

After about 2 ½ hours the meeting broke up without any specific plans for followup. However, both sides agreed that the dialogue would continue.

One concrete suggestion, made by one of the teens, Corey Bernstein (no relation to Harriet), was that the gay organizations and the Camp Meeting might work together on some sort of anti-bullying event in Ocean Grove.

New Jersey’s new anti-bullying law designates the first week in October as a “week of respect,” during which schools are asked to teach the consequences of intimidation and harassment. That week might be a good time for some kind of Ocean Grove event, Corey Bernstein suggested.

Whilden later told me that such an October event could be a practical problem, because the CMA’s program committee meets in the middle of that month to decide on events. “So I’m not sure that we could put something together this year … but I hope that’s not going to be discouraging to the kids.”

Change may take time, Whilden said, but he thinks there is a new “level of community awareness.”

“We don’t expect people to change their views,” Harriet Bernstein said. “They’re going to follow what they believe. What we’re asking them to do is be more sensitive to the diverse population that lives in Ocean Grove. And that I think they can do.”

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By Charles Layton

Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association officials will have lunch on Saturday with leaders of local and state gay rights advocates. The topic: Camp Meeting speaker Kirk Cameron’s condemnation of homosexuality.

Cameron was also invited, but declined.

According to Ocean Grove United’s co-chairs, Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, the invitation to the Saturday luncheon was extended by Corey Bernstein (no relation), who is 17, a New Jersey resident and a leader in the movement against the bullying of gay and lesbian teenagers. He says he “endured brutal bullying at my former school because I am gay.”

Corey Bernstein

His invitation, addressed to Cameron, said in part: “In a kind, respectful and constructive way, we’d like to talk to you about the pain your words about being LGBT have personally caused me and other LGBT youth… We yearn to grow up in a world that provides us dignity and safety. That is our simple, most heartfelt dream.”

Cameron, a featured speaker at the Great Auditorium this weekend, has ignited protests because of a March 2 CNN interview in which he said homosexuality was “unnatural” and “destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.”

While continuing its support for Cameron, the Camp Meeting Association has recently expressed an interest in establishing a dialogue with members of Ocean Grove’s gay community. The CMA also issued a statement last month saying it “does not support derogatory remarks about any groups or individuals.”

Kirk Cameron

Saturday’s luncheon is to be at the home of Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster. They said CMA President Dale Whilden and six or eight CMA trustees will attend. This was confirmed by Ralph Del Campo, the CMA’s acting administrator. “A few of us will be going and we’re looking forward to it,” he said.

Also attending will be members of Garden State Equality, a New Jersey gay rights organization, and some teenagers who have stories to tell about being bullied because they are gay.

Bernstein and Paster said in an email that they were “thrilled” that CMA officials “will be able to hear the personal stories of these young individuals.” One of the messages gay rights advocates are attempting to send is that harsh anti-gay rhetoric by religious leaders encourages bullying and helps generate a climate of persecution against gays.

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91 Cookman

1. After various delays, builder Jack Green is resuming work on the restoration of the long-neglected house at 91 Cookman Avenue. Green said he received a building permit from the Township on Wednesday, which clears the way for the rehab. He bought the derelict property last summer for the purpose of restoring it to something resembling its original condition, and then reselling it. “I would hope to have it on the market the early part of next year,” Green told us on Wednesday. The house is classified as one of Ocean Grove’s “key structures,” meaning it has special architectural significance. Before Green acquired it, it had suffered such damage from weather and neglect that many feared it might have to be demolished. (For previous stories on this house, type “91 cookman” in the search field at the top right corner of this page.)

Kirk Cameron

2. On Friday at the Great Auditorium, Ocean Grove United is planning a quiet and peaceful protest of the appearance by anti-gay celebrity Kirk Cameron. Cameron’s scheduled appearance and OGU’s opposition have been the subject of controversy recently, particularly in certain Christian and gay media outlets. (Google his name and “Ocean Grove” to find them.) OGU began urging the Camp Meeting Association to withdraw its invitation to Cameron following a March 2 interview on CNN, during which he said homosexuals were “destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.” While refusing to disinvite Cameron, the CMA has said it does not expect him to disparage gays and lesbians during his appearances here. Cameron is scheduled to speak on Friday evening and again on Sunday morning, on the topic of traditional marriage.

3. Here are some street parking changes: Ocean Grove will soon be adding a new handicapped parking space on the north side of Abbott Avenue 93 feet east of the intersection of Abbott and New Jersey. At the same time, the handicapped space near the corner of Abbott and Lawrence Avenues will be eliminated. Also, a 35-foot loading zone will be added on the east side of Ocean Avenue beginning 60 feet south of the intersection of Ocean Avenue and westbound Ocean Pathway. The Township Committee is scheduled to approve these changes at its next meeting.

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(NOTE: This story was updated at 5 p.m. Monday to include new information.)

By Charles Layton

The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association issued a statement on Monday in which it stood by the planned appearance of anti-gay celebrity Kirk Cameron at the Great Auditorium, while also stating that it “does not support derogatory remarks about any groups or individuals.”

Kirk Cameron

The statement came after many weeks of intense criticism and debate over Cameron’s scheduled appearance, including a local flurry of letter-writing, emails and plans for a protest demonstration. The reaction was due to the former child actor’s remarks in a March 2 CNN interview, in which he called homosexuality “unnatural” and “destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.”

Cameron is scheduled for two speaking engagements in Ocean Grove in late July, marking the opening of “Camp Meeting Week.”

Here is the full text of the Camp Meeting’s statement:

“In response to concerns raised regarding Kirk Cameron’s scheduled appearances, over the last several weeks trustee representatives of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association met with various constituent groups culminating in a special meeting of the full Board of Trustees. The three-hour long meeting included a conversation with Mr. Cameron, during which he clarified his public comments. He assured the Board that his comments were not intended to be divisive or hateful and he reaffirmed his ministry’s commitment to demonstrate love to all people. The OGCMA does not support derogatory remarks about any groups or individuals. Mr. Cameron’s appearances in Ocean Grove are dedicated to strengthening marriages and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“The Board expressed its commitment to building bridges, encouraging dialogue, and improving relationships within the community. The mission of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is to provide opportunities for spiritual birth, growth, and renewal.”

The statement was issued under the name of Ralph del Campo, the Camp Meeting’s interim administrator.

Reached by phone later in the day, del Campo was asked what specific plans the Camp Meeting had for building bridges and encouraging constructive dialogue. “Well, the first thing,” he said, “is to continue to listen to the different constituent groups that exist in the community.” He said it was “too soon to develop specifics” as to how further dialogue might proceed.

Asked who these “constituent groups” are, he named Ocean Grove United but declined to name other groups or to say how many groups were consulted. “I’d rather not comment on the other groups,” he said. (Ocean Grove United had called on the Camp Meeting to cancel Cameron’s appearance and instead “bring an individual who fosters equality and diversity and whose definition of love is inclusive.”)

Asked whether Cameron might discuss the issue of homosexuality during his appearances here, del Campo said Cameron would present exactly the same seminar he presented at the Great Auditorium last year. He described that seminar as very successful and said “the issue of homosexuality was never brought up last year.”

Ocean Grove United said, in a press release, that it was disappointed at the Camp Meeting’s decision to feature Cameron as a speaker. “The Camp Meeting Association is of course free to promote whatever ideas and values it chooses,” the release said, “but it seems to us somewhat counterproductive to the fulfillment of its mission to endorse prejudice and hostility toward those of its neighbors who seek nothing more than to participate in building families, communities, and our nation as a whole.”

OGU said that although the controversy had created “unnecessary divisiveness” in Ocean Grove, “it has also led to some initial exchange of viewpoints and openness, and we look forward to further communication with the CMA to build bridges.”

Cameron, 41, is best known as an actor for his role on the 1980s television sitcom Growing Pains. He is part of an evangelical Christian ministry that emphasizes family issues.

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By Charles Layton

The planned appearance of a controversial anti-gay celebrity in Ocean Grove is starting to make news.

Today’s Asbury Park Press contains a story about the dispute.

In March of this year, the former child actor Kirk Cameron, an evangelical Christian, drew protests from the gay community for calling homosexuality “unnatural” and “destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.” The comments were in a nationally-televised interview on CNN.

Cameron is scheduled for two speaking engagements at the Great Auditorium this July, and the gay rights organization Ocean Grove United has asked the Camp Meeting Association to disinvite him.

“If someone had made a racist or anti-Semitic remark, would you want to be sponsoring that individual?” Harriet Bernstein, co-chair of OGU, told the APP.

Neptune Mayor Randy Bishop was quoted as saying he would be disappointed if Cameron brought his “hate speech” to Ocean Grove. “I’m sorry that he’s going to be here,” Bishop said. “Bringing a lot of emphasis to this just helps [Cameron] sell his books.”

Dale Whilden, president of the Camp Meeting, said the association’s trustees plan to meet this month to vote on whether they still want Cameron as a featured speaker. “We want to do our best to make a decision that will be respectful to all the people in the community,” Whilden told the APP.

He said Camp Meeting officials had met with opponents of Cameron’s visit and that they also plan to meet, in private, with those who support his visit before taking a vote.

Cameron is best known for his role on the 1980s television sitcom Growing Pains. He has also appeared in movies. He currently participates in a ministry that teaches creationism, Christian family values and other tenets of Christian fundamentalism.

Emails have been flying in Ocean Grove in recent weeks regarding Cameron’s appearance here, letters are being written by people on both sides of the issue, and some within the gay community have advocated a protest at the Great Auditorium if Cameron appears.

As things now stand, Cameron is scheduled to speak on Friday, July 27, on the topic “Love Worth Fighting For,” billed as a “marriage event.” He is scheduled to speak a second time on Sunday morning, July 29, marking the opening of “Camp Meeting Week.”

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