By Jessica Brodie
JOHNS ISLAND—A United Methodist ministry that has shepherded the weak and vulnerable for decades is now itself in grave danger of closing.
But, said its longtime executive director Linda Gadson, “I am trusting and believing that God will bring us out. The God we know has never failed us before.”
Rural Mission, which started in 1969 to help the rural poor of the Sea Islands with housing, education, medical and other basic needs, has been in a transitional period for a few years. The need is there—requests for assistance more than doubled since mid-2008, more than a quarter of the island population lives below the poverty level, and one in every five rural low-income homes is severely substandard. But for many years, given the community’s large migrant farming needs, a huge part of Rural Mission’s focus was on improving the lives of migrant families and their children, working with East Coast Migrant Head Start Project to provide quality early childhood education.
In 2011, East Coast Migrant began leasing space to run its migrant Head Start program on Rural Mission’s campus, a nice financial boost for Rural Mission that enabled it to focus solely on repairing homes and providing emergency assistance.
All was well for a few years, but the migrant farming population continued to diminish as Johns Island’s agricultural climate changed, and by 2015, East Coast Migrant closed the school at Rural Mission and stopped leasing space, which put a big strain on Rural Mission’s finances.
“We lost our main source of income,” Gadson said.
Still, things were manageable—until the “Thousand-Year Flood” of Charleston, followed by a devastating snowstorm.
“Helping helpless people stay warm and fed virtually destroyed what was left of our reserves,” Gadson said.
After operating on a shoestring for the last couple of years, Rural Mission is now at a breaking point. Finances dipped so low they failed to meet payroll for three biweekly pay periods. They are calling on supporters to help with donations, organizations to help with grants—and for God to answer desperate prayers. Gadson said they need about $100,000 to keep operating, not to mention owing about $350,000 in debt, including $225,000 on their mortgage.
“We’re praying hard,” said Anderson Mack Jr., Rural Mission’s director of special projects and housing workcamp.
Even as their financial crisis looms, they continue their work to help people. Coordinated by Mack, volunteers just completed a handicap-accessible ramp at one woman’s home, and they are focusing now on repairing her floors and roof, as water has been pouring in every time it rains.
One of their long-term projects is at the home of Bertha Aiken, whose badly damaged house was worsened by the storms of 2015 and 2016. A Rural Mission team tore down half her house and put in a foundation last June, and volunteers are lined up this summer to finish her kitchen and bathroom, along with her leaking roof and sagging floor.
“It’s meant a lot to me,” Aiken said. “I couldn’t do it on my own.”
Mack’s short-term goal is to hold out at Rural Mission until August, even if he has to go without a paycheck, so they can accommodate the number of work teams heading to Rural Mission from out-of-state this summer.
Other staffers are trying to follow suit. Christine Williams, finance director, said this has been the worst year Rural Mission has seen since she’s been there. She’s the sole breadwinner for her family, but she too will try to stay on as long as possible.
Nancy Butler, administrative assistant, said much the same.
“I’ve been here 20-plus years,” Butler said. “I’ll do whatever I can till I can’t no more.”
Trying to hold on
Gadson knows there’s one thing they can do if they must—but it’s the last thing she and others want: sell their five acres of waterfront property to the hungry Johns Island developers who have been eagerly salivating over the prospect for years.
But the thought of letting go of all their history, as well as the space that has made Rural Mission so special for countless volunteers over the decades, is like a nightmare. Rural Mission not only hosts work teams, but also a weekly Rural Mission Prayer Warriors group that has met there for 30 years to cover Rural Mission and the people it serves in prayer. Gadson said at least six people have become United Methodist pastors because of their time at Rural Mission, including her daughter, the Rev. Telley Gadson, and it has spawned missionaries who serve across the country and the world. Its volunteer workers are now in their second generation, with many who came to help as children now bringing their own children to volunteer alongside them.
It’s not just holy ground, Gadson said, but also a piece of African-American history, and if they sold, she said, “It would just become part of a development.”
Gadson believes God intends something more for Rural Mission—a place where His work can continue.
Standing on the Word
Her fellow Rural Mission Prayer Warriors agree.
“Rural Mission has affected areas all over Charleston County with prayers, food, electric bills, mortgage, clothes,” said Pastor Joyce Gordon. “I’m a firm believer God’s not going to give us something He’ll take away.”
Evangelist Brown agrees, noting they will continue to hold fast and be the people God wants them to be even in the midst of uncertainty.
“Like a tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved,” Brown said. “We’ve got to look beyond, look to the hills. We’ve got to continue to stand on the Word. This is all we’ve got, and our biggest mission is to love one another.”
Elder Blanton Johnson said they are not afraid Rural Mission is going to fail or close because God is the foundation.
“When I say ‘I can do no more,’ He brings someone else in,” Johnson said.
Gadson is in full agreement.
“We are a faith-based mission, and we must never forgot that,” she said.
For more on Rural Mission and its 50 years of ministry to help the rural poor: http://ruralmission.org.