The Tabernacle proved no match for what the Bible would have called a “rushing mighty wind.”
Powering a line of storms that triggered tornado warnings in South Jersey early Monday, the gale moved in on the Victory in Christ Christian Center in Westville, Gloucester County, and made the devil’s work of the Holy Week centerpiece: a 75-by-155-foot replica of the ancient sanctuary that was built by the Israelites in the wilderness as a dwelling for Yahweh and that housed the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.
Rain and wind flattened most of it on the church grounds on Delsea Drive. The exhibit, which was supposed to remain open through Easter, has been canceled.
The Tabernacle Experience, which travels the country, had survived other bouts of severe weather, including Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 and Tropical Storm Beryl in 2012, said exhibit coordinator Joe Koenig of Camden, S.C. Around 3 a.m. Monday, he said, “we had a close encounter with something.”
That “something” leveled trees, downed wires, and ripped off part of a roof at an apartment building in Camden. A tornado with winds of 120 mph touched down in Sussex County, Del., according to the National Weather Service. At the exhibit, poles were split and bent, and some items cracked during the storm.
The Tabernacle replica is based on specifications contained mostly in the Book of Exodus. The Israelites constructed the mobile sanctuary after they were freed from slavery in Egypt and Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the commandments. The Tabernacle traveled with them as they roamed the wilderness for 40 years before they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land. It remained the central place of worship until Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem.
The exhibit is framed by a curtain enclosing a large rectangular courtyard. Inside are nine stations containing reproductions including an altar where visitors can symbolically submit burnt offerings, a laver, or basin, for washing, and a tent housing a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, within which the commandments were kept.
The Tabernacle Experience was created in 1998 by Jeanne Whittaker, whose husband, Craig, is senior pastor of Capo Beach Church in Dana Point, Calif. She drew her inspiration from a trip to Israel two years before, during which she visited Shiloh, where the Tabernacle once stood.
“I just felt there was something on the horizon for me as far as ministry,” Whittaker said in an interview. “Deep inside, I felt the Lord was speaking to me to build the Tabernacle.”
Four weeks before she was scheduled to attend a women’s retreat, Whittaker created a makeshift replica for the event using a bird bath for the laver, a skateboard ramp for the altar, and angel figurines from Walmart. She set it up on a “rundown” tennis court.
Reaction was enthusiastic, Whittaker said, recalling one of the retreat leaders “falling into my arms,” overwhelmed by the experience. She assembled a volunteer team to create a traveling exhibit, taking it on the road in 2000. Since then, about 300,000 people have visited the exhibit, the value of which she places at about $40,000.
The Tabernacle Experience toured mostly on the West Coast until 2010, when the First Presbyterian Church of Florence, S.C, created a version to travel the East Coast. The latter, which had a stop in Camden County in 2013, arrived in Westville on Wednesday on a truck from South Carolina.
The Victory in Christ church paid a $7,500 fee, which covers expenses including travel and gas, Koenig said. Exhibit organizers donate 10 percent of the fee back to the host church.
A team of four, including Koenig, traveled with the Tabernacle and were joined by at least 60 church volunteers to erect it late last week. It opened for a preview Friday evening, with workers still putting on finishing touches through rainy weather. Guests visited the free exhibit on Saturday and Sunday, but storms forced the cancellation late Monday. Koenig did not yet have a monetary estimate of damage to the exhibit.