SYRACUSE — According to the Gospel of Luke, “Jesus got into one of the boats … put out a little from the shore … and taught the people from the boat.”
On the morning of Sunday, May 26, the Rev. Harlan Steffen did the same.
And his first words were a succinct and profound affirmation of what he and the Lake Wawasee boat-in have experienced for half a century: “God is good.”
The boat-in, sponsored by the Syracuse-Wawasee Area Ministerial Association, launched its 50th season under a horizon-to-horizon canopy of storm clouds.
An early morning downpour and lightning dampened attendance, but the rain held off throughout the 8:30 a.m. service. More than 200 attendees lined the shore of Oakwood Resort in Syracuse and more than 40 boats dropped anchor around the S.S. Lillypad, from which the music and message emanated over the loudspeaker.
Early risers queued up at 7:30 a.m. behind The Frog Tavern to board the Lillypad, a modified houseboat, for the 15-minute ride to the open waters across from the resort. About 60 guests filed onto the boat, partook of the complementary pastries, coffee and orange juice, and settled into their chairs on the open-air upper deck.
Soft Christian instrumental music piped through the speaker system as the Lillypad was secured to two permanent buoys. For the next half hour boaters slowly puttered into place in nearby waters. Then those who got a late start hurriedly skittered across the mildly rippling waves to get to the church on time.
Brad Cox, co-pastor of Wawasee Lakeside Chapel, scanned the flotilla for regulars. “We have people who always park their boats in the same place,” the nautical equivalent of sitting in the same church pew every week.
“On holiday weekends when the weather is good, we get up to 125 to 130 boats and 300 to 400 people on shore,” he said.
Renowned Gospel singer Janet Norris provided the worship music, singing hymns like “How Great Thou Art” and “God is So Good” in a resonant vocal style reminiscent of the spirituals sung in the antebellum South.
The service, usually completed within half an hour, ran a little long. There was a lot to say.
Steffen, one of the boat-in’s founders, chronicled the faithful hand of God throughout the past 50 years. The boat-in, the area’s largest, began in 1969 at a local lakeside coffeehouse as a youth ministry venture by a quartet of 30-something Syracuse pastors.
“Someone came by in a boat and suggested we have the service on the lake,” said Steffen. “We had 18 people on shore and six to eight boats. We thought that was pretty good and it inspired us to say, ‘Let’s do that again.’”
He chuckled as he recounted, “Our original guitarist only knew three songs and he sang them all summer.”
On rainy days the group assembled on the long porch of the old Oakwood Hotel. When Oakwood closed, “we got a letter from an attorney telling us we had to shut down because of liability,” necessitating an offshore alternative.
“I went home and prayed,” said Steffen, “and the Lillypad came to my mind. But I asked, ‘How can we afford it?’ I talked to the owners and they said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it.’” He also gave kudos to Dr. Rex Parent, the resort’s owner.
At the end of the service, 50 blue, yellow and white biodegradable balloons emblazoned with “God is good” were released from the Lillypad’s bow.
Some on shore lingered in friendly cliques as the boats filed past the pier, dropping their offerings into a fishnet as their lake-faring canines received dog biscuits. The donations are used by SWAMA to support local ministries.
“God’s love endures forever,” Steffen concluded. “It is absolutely wonderful that he never gives up on us.”