Gulfside trees take center stage at world assembly


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

Gulfside Assembly will be represented each time some steps to the lectern, takes communion or kneels at the altar during the 2008 General Conference.

That's because five pieces of furniture being used April 23-May 2 on the stage at the Fort Worth (Texas) Convention Center were made from wood gleaned from Gulfside in Waveland. Gulfside, a historic retreat center, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Clay Smith, executive director of the Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, N.C., 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.

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 North Carolina.

"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 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."