By Jessica Brodie
One South Carolinian is using her gifts to help a century-old United Methodist retreat in Waveland, Mississippi, survive, thrive and continue to meet the ever-shifting needs of the low-income community around it.
Althea Belton, whose home church is Mount Zion United Methodist Church, Bishopville, is appointed to Gulfside Assembly as a commissioned missionary of the UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries.
A year ago, in January 2022, Belton began work at Gulfside as one of two staffers there, serving as coordinator of local missional engagement. In this role, she focuses on educating and engaging people and communities to help the underserved, low-income areas of Waveland.
It’s not too different in the grand scheme from the work she used to do for the South Carolina Conference of the UMC, serving as a disaster recovery case manager, even though when she first heard about the GBGM missionary opportunity nity, she did not see the connection. But after South Carolina Connectional Ministries Director the Rev. Millie Nelson Smith told her about the missionary opening, Belton said, “I prayed, and then I answered the call.”
Soon, Belton realized, “I’ve been doing this work for years now, but God called me to something higher, to expand and to teach me a whole lot.”
Today, she’s so glad she answered God’s call to serve at Gulfside.
“When I got here, woo! There’s so much we need and want to do, but I couldn’t look at it from a natural eye,” Belton said. “I had to have faith.”
Gulfside was founded in 1923 by Bishop Robert Elijah Jones to provide spiritual, educational and recreational facilities to African-American people who were denied access elsewhere because of segregation. Over the years, it served as a school, a library and a hub for the civil rights movement. Part of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the UMC, today Gulfside is a faith-based community organization with a goal to expand participation in mission, foster spiritual growth, develop leaders, advance the health and well-being of families and communities and empower women, children and youth.
In 2005, Gulfside experienced a major blow because of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed all its buildings. Today, it operates out of a former church building. In spite of the loss of their buildings, they do much work for the community and beyond.
For example, they are intensely involved with leadership development for high school seniors and college-age students, helping them become connected with programs like Harambee, do college tours and learn about financial aid and resources to help them achieve their long-term goals. Gulfside is also doing educational training for pastors and church leaders, holding Safe Sanctuary training for clergy and others in the area, providing school uniform vouchers for local students, hosting a Labyrinth Walk, partnering with Discipleship Ministries on a series called “It Takes a Village Church to Raise a Child Parent” and participating in a Gulfside Community Organization comprising community leaders, nonprofits and other organizations. That group’s mission is to be an inclusive community of leaders who are intentional in striving to share information and service bringing empowerment, hope and healing to the Hancock County community.
Belton also is actively working with faith-based organizations in developing a “Focus on the Family” initiative, offering services, companionship, encouragement, empowerment, trainings and love to area families.
Since she came to Gulfside, Belton has started two new efforts there. One, a life-skills training program, will start this spring and will partner with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hancock County there to help middle- and high-school students understand basic life skills. Financial planning, conflict resolution, family relationship-building, cyber security and more are covered in the program, offered afterschool at their location and all day in the summers.
The other, a community garden, will also start this spring and hopes to provide fresh produce to area residents, donating leftovers to a local food bank.
“This is a food desert here,” Belton explained. “But now, anyone will be able to come, there’s no fence, and get cucumbers or whatever they need.”
A nearby Catholic school helped them build two storage sheds to store their garden equipment, seeds, fertilizer and more, and after winter break, students will help them build raised garden beds. Kids in the Boys and Girls Club will plant the seedlings, and in the spring, all will transfer the seedlings to the garden beds, where the plants will eventually become much-needed produce for nearby residents, including a number of senior citizens.
This year, 2023, Gulfside will celebrate its centennial, doing a number of programs and initiatives to honor the gifts it has offered since it was started in 1923.
Anyone interested in helping Gulfside and Belton’s efforts there can do so using Advance #3022669 via https://umcmission.org/missionary-bio/3022669. She can also be reached for more information by email at [email protected].