Roots run deep for Gulfside Assembly alumni, patrons

9/7/2006

By Linda Green
United Methodist News Service

WAVELAND — The sea and wind swept away the 64 acres and 14 buildings that once comprised Gulfside Assembly. Only one mighty oak tree that framed the entrance to the historic African American conference center still stands. 

Wilma Dunbar, Gulfside’s business manager, says the tree is a reminder that roots run deep, and the roots of Gulfside run so deep that she and African-American church leaders from across the country are confident that the concrete slabs that remain on the grounds will once again host people seeking a place of refuge. 

“Gulfside got blown away by Hurricane Katrina. It is painful,” said Dunbar, who became the business manager in 2001. “I loved the mission that Gulfside was on, making people whole through reconciliation and healing. It reached out to all people of all colors and all religions.  

“No matter how well you plan, the force of nature is something that no one can contain,” she added. “When it moves, it is only by God’s mercy and God’s will as to what ends up there. But, we have a strong faith and belief that God put Gulfside here in the first place and by his grace, it will be back, bigger and stronger than it was before.”

Prior to being demolished by Katrina, more than 5,000 people of all ages and backgrounds annually came to the assembly for spiritual retreats, training of clergy and lay leaders, meetings, workshops and family reunions. Only two weeks prior to the Aug. 29, 2005 storm, the facility dedicated a new building. 

Before the waters flowed from Katrina, Gulfside had six hours of high winds, which caused the first wave of damage.  

A year after Katrina’s destructive winds and water, some debris still hangs from the remaining trees and also remains around the grounds. Piles of concrete are all that is left of building and homes that once surrounded the assembly. With no signage remaining and without prior knowledge of the grounds, it would be impossible to identify which buildings stood where.  

The Mississippi United Methodist Katrina Response and Amish Relief have set up shop on the grounds to host work teams who come to assist in the rebuilding of Waveland and surrounding communities. But, not much work occurs on the assembly grounds.  

Dunbar urges teams of all kinds to come to Gulfside and work on the grounds. “Before any rebuilding is done, cleanup has to take place,” she said. 

Staff members work on  cemetery

A team of African-American denominational staff members journeyed to Gulfside July 23-25 to remove brush, bramble, sticks and weeds from a historic cemetery that was once a centerpiece of the assembly grounds.  

The group planted flowers and erected a new trellis to flank the graves of Bishop Robert E. Jones, his wife Elizabeth and Bishop Robert Brooks, three people who were instrumental in creating the retreat facility.  

Bishop Robert E. Jones, the first general superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal Church, founded Gulfside in 1923 as a residential school for African-American boys living in rural areas of the country.  

The center became a popular vacation and meeting spot during a time of racial segregation in the South. When the United Methodist Church integrated in the late 1960s, the retreat center declined in usage but still hosted meetings and conferences. In recent years, it regained ground. 

“Gulfside is a place of refuge, a place of history and will always be involved in ministry to women, children and youth and for those who are in need,” Dunbar said.

She, as others, envisions Gulfside returning as a place for camps, retreats, education, love, healing and grace. “You will always be accepted here. You will always find a place where people will open their arms and receive you. The people who come here are people of faith,” she said. 

The assembly’s board of directors is continuing to develop long and short range plans for rebuilding. The facility was insured and Dunbar said plans call for buildings to dovetail with programs. 

“People have faith and believe in the mission of Gulfside,” she said. People are donating money for rebuilding, and it shows the love, care and regard that African Americans and others have for the institution. 

Ms. G lost two homes

Genevieve Gordon, 70, first arrived at Gulfside as a little girl. As she wonders around the grounds and talks to those who listen, one can see the love and admiration “Ms. G,” as she is affectionately known, has for Gulfside while the tears flow from her eyes.

She reflects on the assembly’s illustrious past and recalls how her father became a minister under the tutelage of Bishop Jones. 

“Only two of five children got the bug for Gulfside. I kept hanging around.” 

Gordon lost two homes as a result of Hurricane Katrina: her home in the Waveland community and Gulfside. Volunteers in Mission teams and other groups helped her restore her home, and she wonders when people will arrive to help restore Gulfside.

Gordon, a member of St. Rock United Methodist Church in Waveland, said she sometimes still stares in disbelief at the results of Katrina. Once the waters receded, she participated in a scavenger hunt to find relics and mementos and tools. 

Remembering what was and seeing what is now, she said, “We need to hurry and get Gulfside back. It just does not look normal here.”  

Gordon said she misses the camaraderie that Gulfside afforded through interacting with the people. “I want the synergy to return.” 

“I did not know what to think when I saw all of these African Americans get out of the vans to begin work at Gulfside,” she said when United Methodist staff members arrived.  “I could only wave. It was refreshing to see that because I had not seen a group of African Americans in a long time.” 

Seeing them reinforced for me “that they have not forgotten about us. This place was extremely beautiful. It was a source of pride. It was ours.” 

She wants “the United Methodist Church to get up and come in here and let us get this place back together.”  

This will not be the first time that Gulfside has been rebuilt. In 1969, the camp sustained massive damage following Hurricane Camille, leaving many to ponder the camp’s fate at that time. Hard work and dedication brought the facility back.

Aiding Gulfside

Gulfside receives funding in part through the Advance for Christ and His Church. Donations can be designated for “Gulfside Assembly Program,” Advance Special No. 761337-2, or “Gulfside Assembly Capital Fund,” Advance Special No. 760235-1, placed in church offering plates or sent directly to Gulfside, 950 South Beach Blvd., Waveland, MS 39576.