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Rev Dr. George Hancock-Stefan

If you live in Atlantic Highlands, you are likely aware that Third Avenue has gone through some dramatic changes. The Third Avenue of last year is no longer the Third Avenue of today, because the ancient trees have been cut down. I call them ancient because some of those trees have been here almost as long as Atlantic Highlands has been a town. They have marked Atlantic Highlands as a place where trees are treasured. For some people, the big trees of Atlantic Highlands were a defining aspect of our town.

After listening to church members and neighbors talk about the trees in front of the church, I went to look at pictures of the church when it started in 1893. It did not have the trees then, but they were planted soon after those first pictures were taken. The year that Central Baptist was built, Third Avenue became known as the Avenue of Churches. The United Methodist Church was originally between Mount and Ocean Boulevard, but it relocated to Third and Garfield after the building caught on fire. The other church on Third Avenue was the First Presbyterian Church, which was sold last year. While it will retain the facade of a church building, it will be transformed into apartments.

Biblical stories have their own markings. While the people of Israel did not plant trees to memorialize major events, they often created stone monuments. There is a common note after these stories. For example, in Joshua 4:9, Joshua set up a monument of twelve stones. The Scripture informs us, “and they are there to this day.” Sometimes this expression was transferred to other biblical events. In the early seventies, I spent a summer in Israel. After I returned home to Eastern Europe, I was talking about the Dead Sea when a person asked if I had seen the statue of Lot’s wife. I mentioned that the statue is no longer there, and he responded that I must not believe in the Bible anymore because it tells us that Lot’s wife looked back and she became a pillar of salt. 

My wife and I moved to this town 30 years ago with our daughters. When we arrived, there was a tree between the parsonage and the church. It was not a healthy tree (in contrast to the healthy trees on Third Avenue), but it became the favorite tree of my oldest daughter. She used to read by that tree and play most of her games around it. However, the tree had to come down. The whole family cried that day and my daughter was given a small branch to keep. The roots were dug up, but a willowy sapling grew there within a year. Twenty-five years later, that sapling is a mighty tree that will soon reach the height of the church. The next family that comes to the Central Baptist Church parsonage will not have trees on Third Avenue, but they will have that mighty tree that has grown between the parsonage and the church.

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