New start: Closed Rural Mission site to become UMC Sea Islands Camp and Retreat Center

By Jessica Brodie

JOHNS ISLAND—A struggling South Carolina United Methodist ministry site is getting a fresh start and a new purpose.

On May 31, ownership of the former Rural Mission property transferred to South Carolina United Methodist Camps and Retreat Ministries. Arthur Spriggs, Camps and Retreat director, said the property was deeded to them in exchange for the relief of debt. Rural Mission had a mortgage on the property and owed funds to a number of vendors, both of which Camps and Retreat paid off.

“No way we were going to be able to afford that property at fair market value,” Spriggs said, noting the Lowcountry property was not only extremely valuable but attracting much interest from local real estate developers.

But the desire was strong to keep the property in the United Methodist family. Rural Mission has a long history and a special place in the hearts of many South Carolina Methodists. Many pastors received their call to ministry while working there, and its five decades of service to the rural poor on Johns Island has drawn thousands of volunteers in ministry from across the nation.

Spriggs said the property will be called the Sea Islands Camp and Retreat Center.

“Our first priority right now is to get the property secured, then we’ll hold a community meeting, a charrette, which will be a dreaming session of what the property can be,” Spriggs said. “We’ll be inviting community stakeholders, leaders in the area, key folks from the board, the marina folks across water, etc. It will be a huge planning think-tank session, where we will literally ask the question, ‘What could this place possibly be?’”

Spriggs said the community meeting will likely happen this fall, ideally September.

“We really will take off from that meeting,” he said. “We’re hoping something really cool will come out of that.”

Also in the fall, Spriggs said the Camps and Retreat board plans to host a big thank-you celebration for Linda Gadson, former Rural Mission director, and the rest of the staff who used to work at Rural Mission. Gadson had served as director for 47 years, since 1972.

Rural Mission’s history

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 Rural Mission, and Gadson herself, has been a bridge between the haves and have-nots, working with millionaires and migrants, 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.

But 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, Rural Mission was forced to close Feb. 28.

Gadson said she feels tremendously grateful for the support and love people have shown Rural Mission over the years, from the annual conference to United Methodist Women to the people who just showed up when things were so tough they didn’t know how they’d make it through.

“I want whatever happens now to be successful,” Gadson said, noting she is happy the property is staying in the UMC family. “The most important thing for me is the property was not sold from the people. I pray the property will somehow still be available for local people, then when activities take place they are still a part of it—that they can have access even if not ownership, that the connecting link to past will still always be there.”

Gadson is now listening for God as to what He has planned for her next, and is especially praying for the Rural Mission Prayer Warriors, a group of senior citizens and others who gathered every Tuesday at Rural Mission to spend hours in deep prayer for the community, the church, the world and countless other concerns.

“I’m waiting for God to reveal what is next,” Gadson said. “I believe there is something God has planned.”

Big dreams

Spriggs said he is excited about the future possibilities of mission, spiritual growth and renewal and other things he is certain the Sea Islands site will provide long into the future.

While mission work such as construction projects is not in the camps and retreat wheelhouse, Spriggs said, he’d love to see the site continue to house mission groups from South Carolina and across the United States who would help the local people in the way Rural Mission did before.

“I envision there is no reason we can’t take current 30 beds (onsite) and continue to have a place for those folks who want to come stay on the property, between the kitchen, the dining hall, stuff like that,” Spriggs said. “We can host them, and they just will need to partner with a local church on the work, or partner with other entities and associations.”

But he’s also extremely excited about the camps and retreat possibilities the property will allow. He envisions being able to bring in small groups for team building exercises, such as obstacle courses and other group bonding experiences. He said the site is perfect for water activities, too, such as sea kayaking and other programs.

“That’s the key thing when we signed up for this—to do all we can to make it sustainable and give it our best shot,” Spriggs said. “That’s all we can hope for. We’re excited about that and that opportunity.”

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