For the past two summers, Edwin Weidler has been holding Sunday worship services for groups of more than 100 people, but the most regular members of his congregation have been chipmunks and squirrels.
Weidler serves as park chaplain at Seashore State Park in Virginia Beach, where he conducts weekly ecumenical services, and does other less traditional work in the sandy, wooded parklands along the Atlantic.
He is one of several dozen ministers and seminary students who holds services and provides emergency counseling in 10 of Virginia's state parks, many of which attract large numbers of Washington area residents for summer and weekend camping trips.
Under guidelines established by the state of Virginia, Weidler, with the United Church of Christ, and other chaplains must adhere to a "ministry of presence."
"We're not allowed to evangelize in state parks," said Weidler, 27. "People go on vacations to the parks to get away from things and to be alone with their families. So I don't go running around the camp grounds with a Bible in my hands telling people to get saved."
Nevertheless, up to 125 campers in shorts and bathing suits regularly attend Weidler's Sunday morning worship services.
Campers find out about the services through word-of-mouth, signs posted at bathhouses and information sheets given to them at the Seashore park registration desk.
Typically, Weidler's service is a half-hour long and consists of upbeat songs chosen by the congregation and a 10Minute sermon "especially adapted to vacationers," Weidler said. Smaller gatherings usually sit on beaches or on the ground.
Between weekly services, Weidler can be found practicing his "low-profile ministry" at the beach talking to fishermen or delivering mail to campers in his bathing suit and -tShirt, on which is printed: "Tiger [his nickname] park chaplain."
"I'm there when they need me," said Weidler. "When there's a counseling emergency, like a death in a family, the park commissioner will let me know and I'll go to the family."
Weidler says he sometimes has found himself in unexpected, "extremely difficult" counseling situations, such as complaints of wife beating. "A wife beater doesn't stop when he's on vacation," he said.
"Since they're usually only going to be at the park a week, [campers] seem to feel freer to unload some of their problems here," Weidler said. "Some of them unload a lot of guilt about things like dying relatives, and family problems.
"They sometimes tell me things they're reluctant to discuss with their own pastors. Maybe it's because they know they'll probably never see me again."
Once a woman came to him crying, Weidler said, "and I was sort of crying too. She had every kind of thing happen to her that could happen and was going to commit suicide. She'd been through two or three marriages and was even about to be excommunicated from her church and was feeling rejected by God.
"I told her stories about the lost sheep and the prostitute who was going to be stoned," said Weidler. "It seemed to help her."
Weidler, a third year student at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, hopes to get his own church next year but says he will greatly miss the campers.
"It's so rewarding to see the faces of the people I've talked to during the week on the beach and in the park at my service on Sunday. One woman told me she pleaded with the park gatekeeper to let her register later so she wouldn't be late for the service."
The Rev. Treadwell Davison, who served as a part-time Episcopal chaplain at Westmoreland State Park near Colonial Beach for 15 years before his retirement several years ago, said he misses the campers.
"They were mostly people you'd never met before and you'd never see again," said Davison, "like ships passing in the night. They were mightly nice people, like typical campers, well-behaved and very cooperative."
Davison remembers that the worship services were beautiful because of the outdoor setting but that they were uneventful except when it rained or when animals wandered through. "Then there'd be quite a stir, but the boys liked it," he said.
The parks chaplaincy program was organized as an experiment more than 15 years ago by the Virginia Council of Churches, and has since been highly successful, according to Mary Revere, of the council.
"Campers appreciate the ministry and attend the services each time they return to the camps," she said. "We know, because they tell the chaplains."