On holy ground: Friends remember Gulfside
By Woody Woodrick
WAVELAND — A refuge. A place of inspiration. A place for fellowship. Holy ground.
All those descriptions were applied to Gulfside United Methodist Assembly when an estimated 150 people gathered Jan. 7 for a service of remembrance for the facility that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
“When the Mississippi tsunami came in on Aug. 29, this place was transformed in a way that has broken our hearts,” Bishop Hope Morgan Ward said in her opening remarks. “Yet we gather today to give thanks for all the ways that the experiences we have shared at Gulfside live among us and redound over and over to the glory of God.”
Gulfside sits across U.S. 90 from the Gulf of Mexico. After Katrina roared ashore, not a single building was left standing.
The event drew participants from around the denomination. They came from Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Illinois, California and New York. They came from Oxford, Tupelo, Holly Springs and Jackson. They included bishops and lay work teams.
The service was planned as the first stop of the 2006 Journey Toward the Light tour sponsored by the Mississippi Conference Commission on Religion and Race. For many years, Gulfside was the only place along the Gulf Coast where African-Americans could spend the night while traveling, hold large worship services or other meetings.
“It is truly devastating – even though I’ve seen pictures – to come to Gulfside and not see the buildings I have seen all across the years,” said Juanita Franklin of Foxworth, who was among those who shared what the camp and retreat facility had meant to them.
“It seems like to me just about all the pines are gone,” Franklin said. “But when we used to have annual conference down here, in the mornings the musicians would go to the chapel and play the chimes that were on the organ. They would ring through the tall pine trees, and you felt surely, surely I’m in the presence of God.”
Chelsea Harvey, a student at Gulfport High, told how she has met many friends at Gulfside. She and her grandmother visited the site soon after the storm and were dismayed by the damage. “I want Gulfside to come back,” she said. “I want my children to be able to attend Gulfside as I have and learn the history and have as much fun as I did here.”
The Board of Trustees hopes to make that dream a reality. Mollie Stewart, board chair, told the gathering that the board has voted to rebuild and that funds received from insurance settlements on the property have been used to make Gulfside debt free.
Executive Director Marian Martin, who now lives in Atlanta, was pleased with the large turnout. “When I saw everybody, I was so overwhelmed. Perhaps the next time you come back you will see more signs of life,” she said.
Virginia Adolph of Gulfport shared more good news. A social worker in the Department of Health, she told how an Oshkosh, Wis., businessman had been directed to her about building homes for storm victims. She told him about Gulfside and Seashore Assembly in Biloxi. He has agreed to build a home at Gulfside for the executive director.
The Rev. Alonzo Campbell, a United Methodist pastor from Louisiana, recalled how Gulfside was often the place where young pastors heard the call to ministry.
“Before Hurricane Camille (in 1969), there was a chapel (near the front (of the property),” Campbell said. “At that chapel, many pastors in the Louisiana Conference were called by God. People would be excited walking down that road. Who is God going to call to preach tonight? Almost always there was at least one individual whom God called to preach as a result of that service.”
Also during the weekend, several United Methodist bishops spent time working on a home damaged by the storm. The team of six bishops, some family members and episcopal staffers installed insulation and hung sheet rock in a D’Iberville home. Among those helping out were Jackson native Bishop Mary Ann Swenson and her husband Jeff Swenson of the Los Angeles Area; Bishop Jeremiah Park of the New York Area; Bishop Michael Watson, South Georgia Area; Rebecca Schol, Kristin Schol and Bishop John Schol, Washington, D.C. Area.; and retired Bishop Roy Sano of Washington, D.C.
Bishops Swenson, Park and Sano also took part in the Gulfside service.