From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Commentary: Gulfside Assembly shines as church treasure

From "NewsDesk" <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Wed, 29 Jan 2003 15:12:27 -0600

Jan. 29, 2003 News media contact: Linda Green7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn. 

NOTE: Photographs are available with this commentary.

A UMNS Commentary
By Brenda Wilkinson*

As a staff writer of the United Methodist Church's mission agency and the
author of young adult resources, I first visited Gulfside Assembly in
Waveland, Miss., to participate in a retreat for teen-agers. That initial
trip, made during the 1980s, would be the beginning of an ongoing
relationship and devotion to Gulfside and its mission. 

Not only I was struck with awe by the beauty and tranquility of the land that
overlooks the Mississippi Sound, but I was profoundly moved to learn of the
assembly's historical significance to the African-American community and the

As a native of the South who came of age during the pre-civil rights period,
much of what I have written for young people covers that time. I thought I
knew the South inside out, but I discovered something new upon visiting
Gulfside United Methodist Assembly. It is a little-known historical fact that
blacks purchased more than 600 acres of beachfront property in Mississippi
during the era of segregation. And that it continued to exist, I found
astounding! I set out to learn more about this treasure of the church.	 

A multicultural conference, retreat and training center, "Gulfside is rich in
traditions of culture, history and environment," according to its promotional
material. Native Americans are believed to have first occupied the region as
early as the 1700s. The grounds have not been searched to ascertain this, but
archeologists believe the site was important to pre- and post-Columbian
tribes because of its high elevation and proximity to the Sound and Grand
Bayou. The area's rich history continued with its linkage to 20th century
African Americans, who purchased and began developing the assembly grounds in

Gulfside's genesis occurred in the former segregated Central Jurisdiction of
the old Methodist Church. Bishop Robert E. Jones, the first black general
superintendent of the Methodist Church, bought the property after realizing
that African-American church leaders needed a place for assembly, which they
did not have in the South. Over the years, the assembly grew to become not
only a place of official church gatherings but also a center of education,
camp settings and more. 

The unending commitment of Jones, other black church members of his
generation, and those who followed helped Gulfside survive years of struggle,
marked by ongoing threats of racial terrorism as well as financial hardships.
Documentation exists of cross burnings, questionable fires, lack of extension
of local services and endless financial burdens. Records state that leaders
collected pennies, courted philanthropists, and sold much of the original
acreage in order for Gulfside to survive.

The formation of the United Methodist Church in 1968 brought the integration
of church and public facilities. Subsequently, Gulfside, like many
historically black institutions, suffered loss of patronage. The isolated
though beautiful setting had difficulty competing with more easily accessible
and better-equipped facilities that became available to black people. History
has since taught us the folly of shortsightedness through the closure of many
historically black institutions. Sadly, those who had previously relied
solely upon Gulfside's services gave little thought to its abandonment at the

As attendance at Gulfside declined, Hurricane Camille exacerbated the
situation in 1969, destroying 26 buildings. Talk of selling the site and
distributing the funds among the then 12 Methodist historically black
colleges surfaced, but this conversation was put to rest by Bishop Max Stone
of Mississippi, along with black church leaders, who had the foresight to
know the value of the land and the significance of maintaining visible
evidence of contributions of black Methodists to the church. They recognized
that Gulfside would be a place that future generations could look to with
Today, this "Mecca on the Gulf," as some call it, stands in testimony of what
has been accomplished through the faith and mission efforts of a few
Christians - and of how far we have come as a denomination through the
ongoing work of individuals of all backgrounds. 

Proudly serving as a place of hospitality for groups of 20 or more, and
welcoming an average of 5,000 individuals annually from across the United
States and abroad, Gulfside is helping strengthen church and community life.
It is open throughout the year and is used by a variety of groups, including
local churches, units of boards and agencies of churches, university
personnel, government staff and more. Family reunions, banquets, picnics and
weddings are also held there.  

Gulfside sponsors leadership development training, which has included summer
day camp for children and Advent events and college tours for young adults.
Community outreach services, providing temporary shelter for the homeless and
women and children in crisis, have also been extended at this welcoming place
for people of all races, cultures and religions.

One of only three sites (Tougaloo College and United Methodist-related Rust
College being the other two) in Mississippi that served as meeting places for
blacks during the civil rights movement, Gulfside has been designated an
historical site by the United Methodist Church and the state of Mississippi.
It has become a haven for Methodists and other church and civic groups
seeking a place for renewal, relaxation and study. 

In an effort to further preserve and expand what could be called a national
treasure, Gulfside has launched a 10-year, $17 million capital campaign, with
the theme "Moving Forward." Assembly trustees have committed prayerfully to
the financial success of this campaign, which they hope the entire church
will support. Gulfside is an Advance Special of the United Methodist Board of
Global Ministries and can be supported through "Gulfside Assembly, Waveland,"
No. 761337-2, or "Gulfside Assembly, Capital, Waveland," No. 760235-6.

One of the assembly's goals is to provide programs that bridge the gap
between people of many cultures, languages and traditions in a modern
atmosphere of learning and living. Having a trained staff and updating and
expanding the existing structure and grounds are essential to achieving these

Gulfside's long-range vision calls for becoming debt-free and
self-supporting; restoring and bringing all existing buildings and property
up to standard; developing senior housing (permanent and assisted living);
establishing a Head Start program and a writers' colony; developing a center
for archives and history on the development of the black church; hosting
internships; and being a center of nurture and renewal for activities of
missionaries and long-term supporters of United Methodist mission work. Phase
one of the project, a new chapel, is under way, and  $2 million in gifts and
pledges for new construction, refurbishment and renovation have been raised
thus far.

As an African American and United Methodist, I strongly believe that in
rising to the challenge of restoring and expanding Gulfside, we honor the
efforts of our foreparents who started this great mission work. What they
kept alive through collection of their pennies, we are obliged to support
with our dollars and service. 

We owe it to the children and young adults who thrive in enrichment programs
provided at Gulfside. We owe it to older adults of the church who continue to
find it a place where their services can be used and where they might one day
seek assistance living. We also owe it to the increasing number of victims
who find sanctuary at Gulfside in a time of increasing need among the poor. 

Finally, we owe it to ourselves, in order to carry out one of our greatest
challenges as Christians, which is to serve. 

# # #

*Wilkinson is author of The Civil Rights Movement: An Illustrated History and
is a staff writer for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in New

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily
represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

United Methodist News Service
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