Setting the Lord's table


Craftsmen build GC furniture from Gulfside trees


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor


Juanita Franklin remembers hearing the sound of chapel chimes carried on ocean breezes echoing among the tall trees at Gulfside Assembly in Waveland. It’s a special memory of a special place,  and she’ll likely never hear it again. Gulfside, whose entrance was across the street from the Gulf of Mexico, was literally wiped off the map in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.


However, something of the spirit that moved through those trees will be kept alive at General Conference 2008. The communion table, altar rail, baptismal font, lectern and a table for the conference are being made from trees from Gulfside.


“I thought it was the most marvelous thing I had heard when I heard it from (Bishop Hope Morgan Ward),” said Franklin, 75, who lives in Foxboro. “Having been there during the time of the tall and beautiful trees, it’s sort of like having a great-grandchild. Having all the old memories of days when the chapel was there, and when you got up in the morning they played the chimes and it reverberated through the trees, it’s a marvelous thought.”


Clay Smith, executive director of the Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, Tenn., led a group of craftsmen who built the furniture.


The idea developed at a meeting of the Commission on the General Conference. Mollie Stewart, coordinator of local church ministries for Hinton, serves on the commission. When a logo was selected, a treetop was incorporated. Stewart said Marcia McFee, one of the worship designers for the General Conference, mentioned some way of remembering Katrina. Stewart, who chairs the Gulfside Board of Directors, suggested using the trees from Gulfside. 


“Someone said it would be wonderful if we knew someone to make a table,” Stewart said. “I said I knew a woodworker. Clay said he was more than delighted.”


“It felt like a natural thing to be doing,” Smith said. “I had been to Gulfside on numerous occasions. I appreciated the long history Gulfside had and its ministry with African-American Methodists through the generations and the new things they were beginning to do. It all came to a stop because of Katrina.”


For decades, especially during the civil rights era, Gulfside served as a beacon for African-Americans. It often was the only place in the Deep South groups of African-Americans could gather for conferences and retreats or even just spend the night. When Katrina roared into Waveland on Aug. 29, 2005, all that history was lost, including a brand new building open just a few weeks.


One of the first challenges the project faced was figuring out how to get the wood from Gulfside to Hayesville, Tenn.


Smith said he went to Gulfside in October and selected a big red cedar and three red oak trees that were still alive for the project. The Rev. Jerry Mitchell, who serves on the boards of directors of Hinton and Gulfside, contacted retired pastor the Rev. Lloyd Calcote of Summit about cutting the trees into boards. Calcote owns a portable saw mill and agreed to cut the logs. That was done in October.


When the logs were cut into boards, Smith loaded them into a rented truck and hauled them to Tennessee. A small lumber company, agreed to dry the boards in its kiln. They were placed in the kiln just before Christmas and removed in January. The boards were stored in a heated building so they could continue to dry.


“I started working on it in mid-January.” Smith said. “John Freeman, who used to teach at Candler School of Theology, was interested in working on it. John and I worked out a design for the furniture. We also had some help from some people from a local church in Hayesville. We’ve had about six people all together working on it, including four current or former United Methodist pastors.


“We’ve been meeting one or two days per week building these pieces. The baptismal font will incorporate a bowl made by a local potter. We showed him the size we needed and he turned the bowl for us.”


The tabletop, 6 feet in diameter, is made of cedar and part of the tree’s trunk (right) serves as the base. The other items are made of red oak.


“It’s been challenging,” Smith said. “Cedar is easy to work with. It’s easy to shape, but also easy to scratch and mar. As long as you protect it, it’s OK.


“The red oak, when dried in the kiln, kind of crinkled up like a potato chip. We spent a great deal of time getting the pieces flat and square.”


The pieces will have a natural look. Smith said in his discussions with McFee, they agreed to let the shape of the boards dictate the shape of the pieces.  “We tried to let the wood speak to us in getting some sense of what the pieces ought to look like,” Smith said. “It’s been very satisfying to have a hand in helping prepare for worship at General Conference.”


All of those involved in the project said they believe the furniture will draw attention to Gulfside, its history and its rebirth.


“When folks are sitting at General Conference, Gulfside will be present and the Mississippi Conference will be present,” said Stewart. “People will be seeing that the materials are from the Gulf Coast.


“The remains of Katrina can be pieces of hope. The trees may not be living, but they will be there and serving generations to come.”


“It brings some recognition to a ministry and center that really for the most part has not been on anybody’s radar screen,” Smith said. “People in South Mississippi are aware of it, but United Methodists across the country have never heard of Gulfside.


“Gulfside has this wonderful past, a sometimes very painful past. I’ve had some African-American friends, clergy and lay people, tell me that when they were young, the only place to go for conferences or training was Gulfside.”


Franklin said she hopes some of that history is shared at the conference. “I hope they don’t just have it sitting there and don’t make them know it comes from something near and dear to the hearts of many people,” she said.


Plans call for the furniture to be returned to Mississippi after General Conference.


Stewart said plans for rebuilding Gulfside are moving along. Architects and contractors have been chosen for a new ministry center and housing. Preliminary approval of the plans has been granted by the City of Waveland.