On a blistering July 4 morning, hundreds of people jammed Rehoboth Beach for a Freedom Rally celebration featuring music, veterans and prayer.
A portion of the beach at Rehoboth Avenue had been sectioned off, but the crowd quickly overwhelmed the area as people lined the dune-crossing and the Boardwalk in front of a small stage.
“We were just hoping for a peaceful service,” said event organizer Christian Hudson. But the event far exceeded his expectations.
Hudson organized the rally after the Rev. Robert Dekker, senior pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church, was denied a permit to hold eight Sunday services at the Bandstand.
“For a normal service, we’d have 25 or 30 people," Hudson said. "It’s just great to see people come out and support your civil rights. What is more personal than your right to worship and believe according to your own rights of conscience?”
The event was peaceful; Rehoboth Police Chief Keith Banks, who was on the scene, said he received no complaints in person and the dispatch center received no complaints. Event organizers estimated 1,500 people attended the rally.
"Freedom is to be cherished," Dekker told the crowd. "Not defiant but determined. True freedom is not by revolution but by revelation, not by demonstration but by redemption."
Dekker offered sermon called “Drawing a Line in the Sand,” which touched on freedom through a Bible story.
“One thing that is happening is we are exercising the liberties that happened 237 years ago,” Dekker said.
Dekker told the story of a woman caught in adultery and condemned to be stoned. When asked what he would do, Jesus drew a line in the sand and asked for those who have not sinned to cast the first stone. The woman celebrated her freedom and was told by Jesus to sin no more.
Dekker used this story to say that freedom must not be taken lightly, and freedom means there is no more condemnation.
World War II veteran Art Lane spoke of his experiences in France during the war. Lane was introduced by Frenchman and New Covenant member Alan Bertaux, who choked up remembering his home country during the occupation of the Nazis and the liberation of France by the Allies.
Rehoboth officials denied a permit request to hold services on the Bandstand, saying the decision was based on the separation of church and state. Still, in addition to Dekker's sermon and prayers by the Rev. John Betts of Abundant Life Church in Georgetown, one of the loudest cheers of the day came when an airplane flying a banner saying “Jesus Saves” flew by.
Beachgoers in the crowd largely went about their business. Newark residents Bob and Suzay Cross said while they were not opposed to the rally, they would have preferred to see “less religion and more patriotism.”
Bob Cross said seeing so much religion in a public event was discomforting for people who just wanted to come down to the beach and relax.
“If you’re Muslim, Jewish or atheist you’re forced to hear this, and that’s not American,” Suzay Cross said. “As long as they focus on patriotism and not religion, it’s not too bad.”
Hudson said he had been complimented on the event by people of other religions for the rally’s message and tone.
“We thought it was a concert,” said beachgoer Heather Delaney. A Washington D.C.-area resident on the beach with her husband, Ryan, and 15-month-old son, Nathan, Delaney said, “I’m not religious, but I think it’s cool. I think it’s more patriotic than religious.”
The rally drew people from across the country; John Putnam and John Greenlaw flew into town from Joplin, Mo.
“We love freedom,” Putnam said. “My great uncle was the battle commander at Bunker Hill. I have a long heritage. We both have a connection with Pastor Dekker from the standpoint of America’s freedom and freedom in Jesus Christ.”
Greenlaw’s home was one of 8,000 destroyed by the Joplin tornado of 2011 and is a Vietnam veteran. He said the highlight for him was Bertaux’s speech.
“This is overwhelming,” Dekker said. “Overwhelming my expectations. There’s definitely an interest in these kinds of things in society. They’re happy we’re doing something good.”