DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL MONUMENT, Calif. — The spectacular sand dunes here at Stovepipe Wells provide Richard Beatty with a most unusual pulpit.
Beatty, 51, is a student minister for A Christian Ministry in the National Parks, a chaplaincy corps that has operated in national parks for four decades.
Since 1952, more than 12,000 student ministers have conducted religious services for millions of visitors to the national parks and thousands of National Park Service employees. Beatty is one of about 300 preachers expected to serve this year.
The students receive no pay for their ministry work. Most find jobs in park concessions which help pay for their room, board and transportation to and from their assigned parks.
Church services are held in park auditoriums and outdoors in such settings as beneath the giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park, on the edge of the South Rim overlooking the Grand Canyon and by the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells, a scenic Death Valley spot.
"We're missionaries, volunteers doing the work of God in our free hours after working as bellhops, waiters, waitresses, maids, hotel desk clerks and curio shop employees for concessionaires in the national parks," explained Beatty, who is a desk clerk at the Stovepipe Wells Lodge when he isn't preaching.
The founder of the parks ministry is Warren W. Ost, who was a Princeton Theological Seminary student working a summer job as a bellhop at Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn in 1950 when he and another seminarian, Donald Bower, came up with the idea of conducting religious services at Yellowstone.
The next year, Ost was joined by three others to run a small ministry program in the park.
By 1952, Ost had become an ordained United Presbyterian minister. He was able to persuade the National Council of Churches and the National Park Service to endorse a chaplaincy program in the parks. That year, 17 student ministers were assigned to Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Sequoia and Yosemite.
Now there are student ministers in 65 national parks from Alaska to the Virgin Islands, according to Ost. Yellowstone alone had 45 student ministers last summer. Some parks have the program only in the summer or in the winter, while others offer it year-round. The Park Service provides no funding.
"Geographically it's the largest parish in the United States," Ost, 65, who still serves as national director of the New York-based ministry program, said during a recent visit to Death Valley.
Since the program's inception, student ministers from 110 seminaries representing 45 Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church have participated. Many of the volunteer preachers, including Beatty, however, have not been seminary students.
Those accepted for the chaplaincy attend orientation sessions before being placed in a park. They are carefully supervised by a local park ministry committee as well as by Ost and his staff.
Beatty conducts interdenominational services on Sunday mornings and evenings and Bible study classes on Wednesday evenings.
His Sunday services last less than an hour and consist of "a 15-minute message, singing hymns, a sharing time where people tell what's going on in their lives and a time for prayer," he explained.
His sermons have touched on "the beauty and uniqueness of Death Valley (as) one of God's creations," positive messages of encouragement and various topical subjects, he said.
As a student minister, Beatty cannot baptize, give Communion or perform weddings. "But I have conducted memorial services for an employee at Denali National Park who was killed in an accident and for another person who died while visiting a park," said Beatty.
He said he gave up a lucrative career as a manager for trade associations--including being a lobbyist for the Los Angeles Board of Realtors in the 1970s--to serve in the parks ministry. To prepare for the program, he studied for several months at a Bible school in Portland, Ore.
Since joining the chaplaincy program in 1989, Beatty, who is a Baptist, has had ministries in Yellowstone, Mt. Hood and Denali national parks. He has been assigned to Death Valley since last November.