By Jessica Brodie
Rural Mission’s longtime director Linda Dingle Gadson was one of the first of four African-American females to graduate from the College of Charleston, and she has spent the last five decades in service to the rural poor.
And now, less than a month after her beloved Rural Mission has closed its doors, citing a “time of transition,” Gadson is holding tight to faith, counting her blessings—and figuring out how she and others can continue to support the people of the Sea Islands.
On Feb. 28, the 50-year-old Rural Mission announced the ministry would be entering an “indefinite time of closed operations” as leaders determine the best way to address a sustainable future. Gadson has been at the helm of Rural Mission since 1972, most of the ministry’s existence.
“It’s not going to be the same Rural Mission,” Gadson said, noting she’s been in dialogue with various leaders about a “new way” of mission to the Sea Islands.
But just because she doesn’t know exactly what that future will look like doesn’t matter, for God knows.
“Through it all, God has it, and that’s the way I see it,” Gadson said. “He’s got control of the whole thing, and I know whatever comes of it will be good.”
Lord willing, she plans to stay in the Lowcountry and continue her efforts to help people one situation at a time.
“I’m not going anywhere unless the Lord takes me out of this world, and as long as I’m living here surely I’m going to be looking after my babies, working with the work camp groups,” Gadson said.
The youngest of seven children, Gadson found her passion for service at the knee of her grandmother, Big Mama. Matriarch of the family, Big Mama raised three sets of grandchildren; Gadson was among the last group and the last one at home with her. She and her older sister stayed with Big Mama while their own mother, Mama Clay, caught a ride every day to Charleston to work at a hotel in their kitchen.
“Big Mama had a ‘daycare’ center before we knew what that was! All we knew was any woman going to work and don’t have anyone to keep their children, they could drop them off to Ms. Emily under the sycamore tree in her front yard. My sister and I had a good job: learning how to take care of children.”
Big Mama had only a third-grade education from Mr. Lockwood’s school, “But she had the wisdom of Solomon,” Gadson said, recounting how she and her sister grew up washing clothes and wiping snotty noses. The children would play, eat and have fun with Big Mama’s old time teachings, and parents would pick their children up when they got off work.
Big Mama instilled heavy values: Help each other. Be your brother’s keeper. Believe in the Bible, every word. As the last of seven, the lessons hit Gadson especially hard. Years later, as Big Mama got older and sicker, roles reversed and Gadson became her grandmother’s caregiver.
“That taught me even more,” she said.
Integration also profoundly shaped her. Gadson was one of a handful of black students to integrate her Lowcountry high school in Hollywood. It wasn’t easy—she remembers being the only non-white in her political science class, and the kids would put bubble gum on her chair. But she learned to navigate interracial lines early on, something that would serve her well as she transitioned to a life of charitable service.
After graduating from the College of Charleston, she stumbled into destiny. The Rev. Willis T. Goodwin, one of the founders of Rural Mission and her church’s pastor, asked her to help him organize a work camp. It was supposed to be temporary—Gadson planned to go to law school.
“But God had another plan for me,” she said.
Rural Mission caught her heart and wouldn’t let go. Indeed, it was the only official job she’s ever had after leaving the farms in the summertime.
Rural Mission started in 1969 to help the rural poor with housing, education, medical and other basic needs. 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.
Over the years, she’s been a bridge between the haves and have-nots. She’s worked with millionaires and migrants, with well-off retirees and the working poor, bringing people together to help the impoverished get a new lease on life one plank and one nail at a time.
“One thing I’ve learned over the years: we are all the same,” said Gadson, a lifelong member of Wesley United Methodist Church in Hollywood. “No matter how poor or rich, there are needs everywhere. We are God’s children.”
Out of the darkness
Gadson has seen some dark times in her life. Over the years, she has worked with drug addicts and people with emotional problems.
Her family, too, has struggled—with depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and obesity.
Gadson herself, from health issues and exhaustion, nearly died in 2006, requiring four heart bypasses and flatlining twice.
Even Rural Mission has seen hard times. Many times before now, she thought the organization was going to close.
But over and over, God has brought Rural Mission—and Gadson—out of the clutches of despair and into a brighter future. And the lessons she has learned, personally and professionally, allowed her a special perspective: she is able to have both sympathy and empathy for the people Rural Mission has helped.
Gadson feels God spared her life for a reason.
“He brought me back because it wasn’t over; I hadn’t reached where He needed me to be,” she said. “I made a vow that, whatever you want me to do, Lord, that’s where I am.”
A tough few years
Things have been difficult at Rural Mission for a few years, particularly since 2015.
For many years, East Coast Migrant Head Start Project leased space from Rural Mission to provide quality early childhood education for the large migrant farming population. But in 2015, as Johns Island’s agricultural climate changed and migrant workers began to leave, East Coast Migrant pulled out, and Rural Mission lost its main source of income.
Things were tough but manageable—until the “Thousand-Year Flood” of Charleston, followed by a devastating snowstorm that destroyed what was left of their reserves.
Despite major efforts from donors and other supporters to keep the ministry afloat, God had other plans for Rural Mission’s future, Gadson said.
“There is a strong commitment to the people of the Sea Islands and we are working toward a sustainable future of ongoing ministry with them,” Rural Mission board members released in a letter.
Rural Mission’s board said volunteer mission teams scheduled to help this summer cannot be hosted there at Rural Mission, though those who wish to continue ministry with the Sea Island people this summer may consider contracting independently with Anderson Mack Jr., a licensed contractor and the former Rural Mission director of special projects and housing work camp, for homes to work on.
Church groups need to secure their own liability insurance and understand that they are serving as an individual church group and not under the auspices of Rural Mission.
“We have hit pause,” Gadson explained, though she noted she personally will always be a “volunteer” for her master and king.
However, she noted, several local churches have been stepping up to host these volunteer laborers. Her home church, Wesley UMC, Hollywood, is hosting teams, as is Wesley Memorial UMC. Other churches are currently being recruited as team hosts. Mission teams can also contact the Rev. Patricia Gordon. The mayor, Jackie Heyward, is also offering her assistance and is working with Mack, Gadson said.
For all this support and more, she’s grateful. She’s also grateful for the hard work and longtime service of those who have worked with her day in and day out over the years: her longtime staff, many who have had to go without a paycheck at times to help the ministry stay afloat, and her longtime board of trustees members.
In the meantime, she— along with her two now-teenaged grandchildren Quati and Qynn—will keep doing her work for God and His people, directed always by prayer and the Holy Spirit.
To contact Mack about bringing a team to help this summer, call 843-670-0431
By Jessica Brodie