Wade Chestnut Chapel was the center of Camp Oceanside, established in 1953, as a camp for black youth during segregation. The Oceanside Episcopal Center is situated in the historic Ocean City Community, which dates back to 1949 (OceanCityNC.com).
Once upon a time there were two Episcopal Churches. One church was the body known on the national level: affluent, genteel and white. The other church was not as well known, even among Episcopalians. It was composed mostly of the Black intelligentsia and professional class. The churches existed alongside each other, usually only linked through the diocesan Bishop (unless there was a Suffragan Bishop for Colored work appointed).
In the south, these two Episcopal churches mimicked the social order. In North Carolina, the prospect of owning beach property was out of reach for most Blacks. Even those who could afford to buy the land were forbidden from purchasing property in White communities.
In 1949, a portion of Topsail Island that had been used as a firing range was incorporated as ocean front property permitted for sale to Black owners. The first tracts of land in Ocean City were purchased by the Chestnut family, members of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC. True to their Episcopal heritage, the Chestnuts were largely responsible for the establishing of a chapel where every resident of Ocean City, regardless of denomination was considered a member. The chapel eventually became the center of Camp Oceanside, a camp established in 1953 for black youth.
The Episcopal Church, like the United States, has seen a great deal of change since the middle of the last century. But there is still a divide, in our workplaces, in our communities, in our hearts.
I still find myself being asked questions like, "Do Black people think/like/believe that?" as if I could possibly speak for all the ethnicities, nationalities, and ages of Black people. I am also stymied by the question of, "Is St. Margaret's a Black church?" While my answer is "St. Margaret's was not established as church for Black people, but we welcome all people," the question does give me pause. The question makes clear that there are still two Americas, especially where church is concerned. And that truth makes me sad.
This weekend, I've been invited to be a guest priest at Historic Wade Chestnut Chapel. It is a wonderful privilege to be asked, and I am grateful to the Vestry and trustees of the Ocean Side Episcopal Center.
The community is changing, demographically as the founding generation dies and properties are sold. The Chapel, however, maintains its stance that every resident of the community is a member, regardless of denomination, or in these days, ethnicity. Honoring the past while looking to the future is a tricky task at best, but the people of Ocean City are committed to doing so. Their dedication gives me hope that one day there will be one Episcopal Church.