Sunday, September 7, 2014

Chapel-by-the-Lake

After years of rumors, official announcements, and protests, the nearly fifty year old Chapel-by-the-Lake in West Palm Beach finally fell. Bulldozers and cranes leveled the beloved amphitheater to a plot of dirt. I knew the time was coming. Maybe I even mentally prepared. But to finally stand before it is something else. The reality that this significant part of your life is now but a memory can be breathtaking.  And so it was when I stood in the remaining south parking lot last Tuesday.
The demolition began on August 28th, the day before my long weekend in Ohio. I was very distracted and involved.  That Thursday I worked a long, eventful day, complete with a new student intern.  I left the packing for the trip to that night, far from unusual.  So I was unable to drive down at that time for a fresh look at what you might call Ground Zero. But the pictures were posted in a timely fashion on Facebook.
Those plastic (fiberglass?) blue seats, now a rubbish pile. The stage of stone, where a prow once stood. Thousands of sermons and praise concerts. The baptismal underneath, in which I followed up a decision to follow Christ. Now dust. Like everything, eventually. I knew it was coming. I just hoped I wouldn't have lived to see it.

The memories are plentiful. The earliest involve Sunday nights in the mid-70s, after the regular services.  A screen was placed on the stage and those scary "rapture" movies were played. I remember another about alcoholism. Later, all the "Chapel-by-the-Lake Crusade" programs, featuring gospel ensemble "Truth", Christian singer Dino, and even Lisa Whelchel ("Blair" from The Facts of Life), who was much shorter in person. I remember volunteering on her night, manning a Gatorade bucket to pass out water to sweaty congregants. One Saturday afternoon while I was a junior at Palm Beach Atlantic College (now University), some friends and I rode out a storm in the baptismal robe changing room, talking about post college dreams. I sang on that stage during choir performances, once as part of a quartet.  I also assisted with Christ Fellowship's annual Super Bowl party for the homeless just a few years ago.

What a unique venue, so strategically located, left sadly underused and outright neglected in recent years.  Opportunities to minister to so many in the ever growing downtown area. The well heeled and the downtrodden. And such a beautiful site. A song many have been singing for awhile. When the First Baptist Church sold the land to pay off longstanding debts, the sad announcement was made that a twenty-plus story condominium would be built on the hallowed ground.

There is so much to say, so many questions and barbs I could aim at my old church. But I won't.  Let me just say that while the argument that the tax revenue and jobs that will result from this development is sound, I can't imagine that those who planned and built the Chapel-by-the-Lake for the purpose of worship and spreading the Gospel to the city would see the justification. Maybe those who are still around are just shaking their heads in sad acknowledgement.

The CBL would also serve as a refuge, a quiet place to which I could escape the noise. I spent many hours sitting and praying there. I hashed out a few major life decisions as I walked the grounds over those nameplates of Great Christians Past. There was an important phone call to a long lost relative made. Sometimes, I'd just sit on the seawall to gaze over at Palm Beach.  I brought dates there. I had picnics with my wife to be. I even fell in the Intracoastal one chilly morning when I slipped off that seawall.

If those stones could've in fact cried out they would've certainly spoke of after dark illicit activities committed by randy college students and whoever else wandered over. You'd see the evidence: an occasional empty bottle or cigarette butt, though most of whatever forbidden moments unfolded were lost to time. I can only imagine (I have no sordid tales to tell).  In later years, church security would politely escort you off the property after sundown.  But by then I was only there to gaze at the moon, its dance of light over the chop of the lake.

But the Chapel would also, in great New Testament personification, rejoice in all of the professions of faith, the healing. The passersby on Flagler Drive who interrupted their jogs or bike rides to heard the Word.

It's, as they say, "gone but not forgotten". I hope everyone whose lives were touched by the Chapel-by-the-Lake will think about those key moments when they gaze upon yet another South Florida monstrosity. I actually would've preferred that they had "put up a parking lot".

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1 comment:

Stephen Ley said...

Wonderful tribute! My history with CBTL isn't as extensive as yours, but I have good memories of some of the events listed. I also remember the ruckus caused by the appearance of a certain prominent figure in the Religious Right.