Story: A Night on the Boards

by Jeni Stevenson Richline

Note: These two articles written by the author were combined to give this brief look at what it is like to talk with people on the Wildwood Boardwalk. “A night” is a compilation of several evenings of actual experiences.

Wildwood boardwalk on a typical mid-summer night

“I’ve got the power.” The words to a funky black dance tune pump out of the speakers and drift into the night air. As I rise higher and higher into the sky the music fades into the hush and swirl of the cool summer breeze, and the bright white and neon lights become hazy and blurred. I lean over the imprisoning bar to look down below at the hundreds of little people walking in seeming silence.

A tear comes to my eye and I lean back on the seat. Reacting to my slight movement, the flimsy metal cart sways back and forth. Within a few minutes the cart lurches forward and I feel myself descending once again. They’re hurting so bad inside, and they don’t know you’re the answer, Lord. And, if they don’t learn about you they’ll spend eternity in Hell. Lord, why? It’s not fair. The tear threatens to fall, but I blink it back and join in with the laughter of my friends. We step out of the Ferris wheel into the waves of people moving in and out, back and forth across the boardwalk.

The next night I’m back on the boards, but it’s no longer fun and games. My partner quietly walks by my side. Out of the corner of our eyes, we scan the benches for a “victim.” Who will be the next person we approach with the wonderful message of salvation?

Using a slight hand motion I signal to my partner that I’d like to talk with an older couple sitting a few yards ahead. We walk up to them and I start with my usual introduction: “Hi, My name is Jeni and this is my friend Andrew. We’re from the Boardwalk Chapel a few blocks down that way, and every night we come out here to talk with people. Do you mind if we talk with you for a few seconds?”

I smile in polite respect and hope that this won’t be another rejection. So far we’ve been rejected two times.

The woman looks up from her reverie and answers, “We’re waiting for our grandchildren to come out of the arcade so…”

“So you have a few minutes then?” I respond.

Before she can give a yes or no, I say, “We’d just like to tell you about Jesus and what he’s done for us. But, before we do, can we ask you a question to see what you think?”

The woman looks over at her husband who is pretending to ignore the whole situation and seems embarrassed. She turns back to us and gently, sweetly says, “It’s very nice that you have a religion that makes you feel happy. Teenagers today need it. I’m so glad that you two are reasonable young people. But you don’t need to talk to us. We go to St. Ann’s every week and take good care of our grandchildren.”

Her little speech is over, and she turns her body away from us to continue watching the people walk by on the boards. I hold out a tract to her, “Here’s something for you. Thanks for your time.”

She doesn’t respond. She doesn’t even look back at me. I retract my extended hand and put the little booklet back in my pocket.

Andrew, my partner, doesn’t say anything to me as we walk away and blend with the moving crowd. After a few minutes we go over to the railing and look out towards the ocean. Andrew bows his head and prays for the nameless couple, “…And Lord, please open their eyes to the truth if they don’t know you….”

It hasn’t been a good night so far. Only two people have even accepted the tracts, and no one has wanted to talk with us. After walking along for about fifteen minutes, Andrew spots two young girls sitting on a wooden bench “scoping the guys.” From past experience we both know that they’ll be more likely to listen to us than the older couple.

I start the conversation with a similar introduction, “Hi, my name is Jeni and this is my friend Andrew. We’re from the Boardwalk Chapel down on that end of the boards. Every night we have a program from eight o’clock to nine o’clock, and then we come out and talk with people. Do you have a few minutes?”

The girls look at each other and shrug. The one with the puffy blond hair and bright pink lipstick looks up at me and says, “Sure, why not. Go ahead and have a seat.”

They scoot over and Andrew and I thankfully sit down.

Instead of jumping into theological questions, I ask them how long they’re vacationing in Wildwood. After they tell me a little about themselves, I tell them that I’ve lived in Wildwood for most of my life because my dad’s the director of the Chapel. I use this opportunity to ask them if they attend church and what they think about it.

Forty-five minutes later Andrew and I are once again standing over by the cold, damp metal railing. Both of us have that unexplainable euphoric feeling which comes when you’ve just told someone about Jesus. Nothing can compare with the knowledge that you have just served the King as his ambassador for the Truth.

Nothing can compare with the knowledge that you have just served the King as his ambassador for the Truth.

The two of us look straight ahead, out onto the sand and ocean, as we talk about the conversation we had with Lisa and Kathy. They’re from the Philadelphia area, go to a Catholic church “when they can,” and seem to be pretty nice girls. Once in while their attention would drift when a group of guys walked past our bench or when a tram car rolled by with its prerecorded and repetitive “WATCH THE TRAMCAR, PLEASE.” But most of the time they listened attentively when Andrew told them about Jesus and why he died on the cross. They also wanted to know how we could be sure we would go to heaven. Other more difficult questions they asked were, “How do you know the Bible is really true?” “Can you prove God exists?” and “Everybody can believe what they want to, Right?”

We tried to use as many Bible verses as we could to answer their questions. Out of all the verses I’ve ever used in a conversation I always seem to come back to John 14:6: “Jesus said to him, `I am the way, and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through me.'” If those girls remember anything, I hope they remember that verse.

It’s about 11:30 p.m. and we’re getting tired. But, as usual, when the two of us are partners we keep going until the curfew time of midnight. Before we call it quits we talk to a young couple who accept the tracts and listen to us politely until the rest of their family comes over to the bench. The conversation dissolves immediately.

Lights are flashing and a mixture of music from the stores, amusement rides and cars blends into a general air of confusion and excitement. But the noises are familiar to me and I drown them out with my thoughts on our night of witnessing. I think about Lisa and Kathy. They actually listened to us and asked questions. They seriously thought about what we said and responded with thoughtful comments or challenges to our faith. It was so obvious that they were open and willing to think about a viewpoint other than their own.

Most of the teenagers we approach are similar to Lisa and Kathy. They’re skeptical, questioning and ready to talk about what matters most to them. Once we get past the surface issues of dating or parents, they’re ready and willing to discuss life and death, Heaven and Hell, Jesus Christ and Satan. They may fool a lot of people with their carefree attitudes and reckless behavior, but they really do think about more serious topics when they’re given the opportunity.

I love to talk with older people, though some of my co-workers at the Chapel are intimidated by their staunch convictions. I just wish that they would still be willing to listen, think and question like the younger people. I’m not surprised that they’re not ready to listen to “children” who are trying to challenge their wisdom, but it would be nice if they gave us time to talk. If they know what they believe, they shouldn’t be afraid of a “couple of kids.”

The noise of the cars and the deep bass pounding from the dance clubs wake me up a little. It’s almost midnight. Andrew and I look at each other, smile, and start to run back to the house, knowing that the curfew will be enforced by Bob, one of our leaders.

I’ll probably never see Lisa and Kathy again. The older couple’s faces will fade in my memory. But no matter who I talk with this summer, I must always remind myself that I can’t change lives or convince a person that they need Christ. I don’t have the power. I am not responsible for saving even one out of the thousands of people who pass through the city of Wildwood every night. Only the work of the Holy Spirit is powerful to open the eyes of those in darkness.

I must always remind myself that I can’t change lives or convince a person that they need Christ. I don’t have the power…. Only the work of the Holy Spirit is powerful to open the eyes of those in darkness.

Jeni and another staff person received the following letter a year after they talked with young people on the Boardwalk. It has been edited for public presentation.

Dear Chris and Jeni,

You probably will not remember me but about a year ago you talked to my sister and I on the boardwalk one afternoon. Jeni talked to us most of the time about life in general and about Jesus Christ. Back then I didn’t really think about what we talked about; I actually thought it was kind of stupid. When I read the little pamphlet “Life’s Most Important Question…” I didn’t understand what it was saying. I just threw it aside and forgot about it.

A little later in the summer my friend Debbie went to a Young Life Camp at Lake Saranac. When she returned she seemed so different. My friend Jerrod and I thought she had changed so much that she wasn’t herself and we didn’t feel like we knew her. Later in the year I met her Christian friend Jessica who confirmed everything [that] had happened to Debbie… I didn’t really understand it very much. I kept asking questions and reading the Bible to find out more. Finally in February of 1994 [I committed my life to him]. I didn’t know much about Christ when I committed my life to Him, but the Lord has taught me so much since. Not even a week ago I went to Young Life at Lake Saranac and I have learned so much. I also saw so many people’s lives changed and it is awesome.

Today I found “Life’s Most Important Questions” and I saw the address and your name on it and got excited. I wanted to tell you about my new faith. Now when I read it, I understand all of it. It is so awesome. God is awesome. Even though you weren’t the direct influence on my decision, I had to write to you because I thought you might be excited for me. Maybe you could pray for me that God will teach me and keep me from falling. It would be so awesome if you could write something to me about your faith or when and why you committed yourself to Christ. Maybe you could teach me something from your past experiences.

I wish so much that I could talk to both of you right now, but I cannot visit Wildwood, NJ. Can you please write to me?

Let me answer a question that you asked. “If you were to die today and were to meet God, and He should ask you why He should let you into His heaven, what would you say.”

“I believe in your son Christ Jesus and that he was sent by you Lord to save us from eternal life.”

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” (Acts 16:31) “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in his name, shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) “For God is our God forever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end.” (Psalm 48:14)

“Let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God… Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (I John 4:7,11)