Gulfside Assembly re-imagining future of historic site

The view of Gulfside Assembly from the coastal highway is a bit forlorn. Tall weeds sway in the warm breeze from the Gulf of Mexico. A green historic sign stands sentinel at the entrance, a witness that this is sacred space, a historic United Methodist touchstone.

To those who never knew Gulfside Assembly in its glory days, it is a pretty piece of land that looks like it was once something important.

It was.

Gulfside was a place of respite for African-American Methodists during a time when blacks were not welcome in many places in the South. It was an important meeting and vacation spot during racial segregation. 

The Gulfside board of directors, which includes Mississippi Bishop James E. Swanson Jr., are rethinking the assembly’s purpose since Hurricane Katrina demolished every building on the 60 acres.

During its heyday, Gulfside was a “wonderful Chautauqua experience” for African-Americans, said Swanson, who dreams of a new role for the assembly.

In today’s society, overt racism is no longer prevalent – now it is more covert, Swanson said.

“We are still struggling with racism, with being an inclusive society,” Swanson said. “Could Gulfside be a place to come to talk about those issues?”

The Rev. Elijah Stansell, chair of the Gulfside Assembly board, said this is a time of prayerful discerning for the future.

“When an entity has lost everything that it ever owned, it is not a quick fix, it’s a long course back,” said Stansell.

Concrete forms stand ready to complete an outdoor prayer pavilion at historic Gulfside Assembly in Waveland, Miss. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.
Concrete forms stand ready to complete an outdoor prayer pavilion at historic Gulfside Assembly in Waveland, Miss. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Rich history

Bishop Robert E. Jones founded Gulfside Assembly in 1923 as a residential school for African-American boys living in rural areas of the country. It was one of the only places African-Americans could get overnight lodging.

The site served the Central Jurisdiction, a separate jurisdiction created for African Americans as a compromise when the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Methodist Protestant Church merged. The non-geographical, segregated jurisdiction for African-American Methodists existed until 1968, when it was dismantled with the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

Katrina hit just 16 days after Gulfside Assembly had celebrated opening the Norris Center, a $3 million lodging and meeting center named for Bishop Alfred L. Norris. The assembly was also full of other buildings and cottages.

There are signs of recovery. Around a curve in the white sandy road stands a beautiful new open-air chapel named for Bishop Leontine T. C. Kelly, the first African-American woman to become bishop. Concrete forms stand ready to complete an outdoor prayer pavilion.

Mollie Stewart, 76, has been president of Gulfside Assembly during its good and bad days. She knows people drive by and don’t see much progress but Stewart knows listening for God’s direction sometimes takes a while.

“I don’t think the Lord put Gulfside here for 90 some years just to blow it off the scene,” she said.

Though the land and buildings were insured, Gulfside did not recoup all the insurance. The money that was received was used to clear up the debt from the Norris Center and other debts, Stewart said.

“We were fully covered but we did not get all the insurance because it was the ‘wind against the water’ and the ‘water against the wind’ (argument). The majority of the people on the coast face the same thing,” Stewart said.

Now insurance requirements make building any structures on the coast a lot more expensive – including the need to go up 23 feet for the first floor.

“The requirements of what it takes to construct a structure sitting on the coast is almost unbelievable,” said Stansell, who is treasurer for the Texas Conference.

Stewart spends a lot of time talking to congregations and organizations to keep the memory of Gulfside firmly in folk’s minds.

The Black Clergywomen of The United Methodist Church at their recent meeting pledged $2,000 in memory of Bishop Kelly.

A dedication ceremony is scheduled for Feb. 27 for the Bishop Leontine Kelly Chapel, Swanson said.

A lily blooms in an empty field at Gulfside Assembly in Waveland, Miss. The retreat center, which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, once served black Methodists from the church’s Central Jurisdiction during the segregation era. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.
A lily blooms in an empty field at Gulfside Assembly in Waveland, Miss. The retreat center, which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, once served black Methodists from the church’s Central Jurisdiction during the segregation era. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Slow climb back

Stansell said the board is in negotiations with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries to have a missionary assigned to Gulfside. They are seeking partnerships in Waveland to re-establish relationships in the city, he added.

Gulfside is one of agencies under the auspices of the Southeastern Jurisdiction and is located inside the Mississippi Conference. Until 2012, Gulfside was receiving funding from the jurisdiction, said Anne Travis, secretary of the jurisdiction.

“In 2008, we voted to reduce our funding to agencies and ministries by 25 percent until we were at zero,” she said. The jurisdiction oversees Hinton Rural Life Center and Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center in addition to Gulfside.

“Their direction is up to their board of directors. Gulfside has tremendous historical meaning particularly for African-American congregations since it was started during the Central Jurisdiction. It is emotionally significant,” Travis said.

Future plans

“In a rebuilding process we have not yet determined when we will launch a capital building campaign because we are not at this time at a place where we believe building is our number one priority. We are trying to be sure where God is calling us to do ministry,” Stansell said.

Stansell is confident people will support Gulfside when the time comes.

“When people know they are changing lives and shaping futures, their passion is grabbed and they will be extravagant in their generosity,” Stansell said.

Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter in Nashville. Contact her at [email protected] or 615-742-5470.

Like what you're reading?  United Methodist Communications is celebrating 80 years of ministry! Your support ensures the latest denominational news, dynamic stories and informative articles will continue to connect our global community.  Make a tax-deductible donation at

Sign up for our newsletter!

The Rev. Tom Berlin (left) presents a copy of his book, “Courage,” to Massachusetts National Guard Chaplain Chad McCabe in the chapel at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. McCabe, whose unit was assigned to help provide security at the U.S. Capitol after the January riot, contacted Wesley Seminary asking for Bibles, novels and board games for troops stationed there. Photo by Lisa Helfert for Wesley Theological Seminary. Copyright 2021. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Church responds to chaplain's call to help soldiers

A National Guard chaplain got Bibles, games and 150 copies of a new book about courage when he turned to Wesley Theological Seminary for help keeping soldiers occupied in Washington in the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection.
Mission and Ministry
Floodwater from Cyclone Eloise covers much of the ground in Buzi, Mozambique. Four cyclones have hit the country in less than two years. Photo by Eurico Gustavo, UM News.

Amid political unrest, cyclones plague Mozambique

As families struggle to survive, UMCOR joins Mozambique churches in responding to food, shelter and other humanitarian needs.
The Rev. William B. Lawrence.  Photo by H. Jackson/Southern Methodist University.

What would Jesus tell the US Capitol rioters?

The Rev. William B. Lawrence examines the claims of Scriptural authority by violent protesters who stormed the U.S. Capitol.