By Hannah Wallace
Siesta Beach has always inspired spiritual descriptions — “serene,” “glorious,” “transcendent.”
Now, that divine glory can be channeled through weekly church services by the heavenly shores, hosted at Patriots Pier by the Siesta Key Chapel and its senior pastor, Ruth Smalt.
“I deeply appreciate the peace and renewal that come from such a glorious setting,” said Smalt. “People say to me, ‘I never knew that we could worship God with our toes in the sand.’”
Beginning Sundays at 9 a.m. during tourist season (8:30 in warmer months), the half-hour “Chapel on the Beach” services feature songs with guitar accompaniment, scripture readings, and a brief homily. Smalt tries to choose familiar Christian music and hymns and often caters her lessons and her language to be inclusive of attendees on any given Sunday, regardless of their backgrounds or denominations. (Siesta Key Chapel is officially Presbyterian.)
“It will feel familiar to churchgoers and accessible to those who aren’t,” she said.
Planning for beach services first began late in 2020, not long after Smalt had been recruited to Siesta Key Chapel from her former church on Nantucket. While Chapel leadership had long been considering beachfront services, COVID-19 gave them a practical push to find alternatives to indoor gatherings. And Smalt brought her experience — and her calling — as an “island pastor.”
“I grew up on a peninsula [in New York], served on the island on Manhattan, and had my first full-time call on the island of Nantucket,” she explained, adding that she’d also helped to create a beach ministry during her time in Massachusetts. “[Siesta Key] turned out to be a wonderful fit. It all came together in a beautiful way, guided by the Holy Spirit.”
Chapel leadership spent more than a year working on county permitting and parking solutions, trying to find the right location. Eventually Mike Cosentino, who owns Patriots Pier (aka Sunset Point) near the end of Avenida Messina, offered his location. Then they just had to figure out, as Smalt put it, “Who were we called to reach out to?”
They experimented with sunset services, then worshiping on the beach on various mornings, at different times and in different seasons. They finally settled on monthly services on Sunday mornings.
“We started out with whoever might be walking by. It was literally a guitar and a couple of us singing,” Smalt said. “It’s not about numbers, but you want to have that sense of community.”
Soon enough attendance grew, and so did provisions. The first attendees just stood the whole time; then they began bringing their own towels and beach chairs. Then an anonymous donor funded the purchase of 100 LL Bean camp chairs. Leadership also organized the Frog Hop shuttle to bring worshipers — as well as chairs and sound equipment — from the Chapel parking lot to the beach and back.
To overcome the elements — “Wind is always part of the adventure,” said Smalt — amplification is necessary. But Smalt stays considerate of other beachgoers nearby.
“We invested in two small speakers and a couple of mics. They’re not blasting across the beach,” she said. “The people that gather will be able to hear the prayers and songs, and hear a homily. But we’re not taking over. [The sound system] is just for the size of folks that gather.”
By the start of 2023, the Chapel on the Beach services were so popular that they moved to weekly. When Chapel leadership suggested cutting back for the summer months, attendees pleaded that they continue.
“People were like, ‘No way, this is our church,’” said Smalt.
Attracting a completely different set of worshipers on the beach than she sees at the chapel, Smalt recognizes that the beach services aren’t just a temporary necessity during the pandemic or a frilly luxury to show off Siesta; they’re a matter of accessibility.
“Mostly people come to church because someone invites them,” she said, while beach worship allows passersby to ease their way in from a distance. “There are a lot of folks who just aren’t going to be comfortable in a physical church for all kinds of reasons. This brings the opportunity to joyously worship God to a different audience.”
Smalt hopes soon to invest in a roll-up beach mat that can accommodate mobility aids and service-goers who might struggle to walk in the soft sand.
In the meantime, the services will continue on a weekly basis to accommodate lifelong worshipers as well as the mildly curious, Siesta residents as well as vacationers just in town for the weekend — and anyone else who happens to be on the shore on any given Sunday morning.
“We’ll be on the beach, with a guitar and some prayers and some song, for those folks who are walking by and feel the pull,” said Smalt.