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 church.
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 1923.
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 time.
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 Mack Stokes 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 pride.
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 goals.
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 York.
By Brenda Wilkinson