Unity at work: Upstate Salkehatchie

Camp reaches across district, uncovers new diversity in race and spirit

By Jessica Connor

GREENVILLE – One Salkehatchie Summer Service camp is making strides to be interracial, interchurch and intercommunity, and participants say its efforts reflect the true meaning of Christianity and Salkehatchie.

Upstate Salkehatchie, which gathers July 9, will comprise more than 100 campers from across the state and support volunteers from churches throughout the Greenville District and into the Spartanburg District. Participants include black, white and Hispanic volunteers all working together to repair the homes of black, white and Hispanic people in varying communities in the upstate.

“The black and white mix so well that everybody’s gray,” said Waymon Talley, volunteer who attends St. Mark United Methodist Church, Taylors.

“There is no color,” agreed Chris Moffatt, camp construction director. “Everybody’s color-blind, and that’s what I love about it. That’s the way it should be.”

The camp, which is in its third year, is doing things a little different this time. While the camp was always a biracial partnership between two churches in the district, this year they are branching out into three different pods – mini-camps housed at three very different churches, where volunteers will stay and work on three homes in each of those communities (nine homes total). Volunteers of different races and churches will share breakfast, lunch and the bulk of the workday at their pod, then gather in the evening for a mass dinner and worship at Lee Road UMC, pastored by the Rev. Lloyd White, who serves as director of the camp with the Rev. Brian Gilmer, pastor of Lyman UMC.

One of the “pod churches,” St. Mark UMC, Taylors, is traditionally black; another, Esperanza United Methodist Church, is a Hispanic new church start in northwest Greenville that serves low-income immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Colombia and beyond; the third pod, Disciples and Francis Asbury UMCs in Greenville, will work on three houses in the downtown area.

“Our theme this year is three in one, and that tells the tale more than anything,” said Margie Wilkie, one of the camp leaders, pointing out not only the trinity reference in the theme but also the fact that the camp will literally comprise three unique pods in one. “That’s what Salkehatchie is – it’s community in the world, and this is a wonderful way to reach out how we’re supposed to reach out. We’re going to learn so much from these diverse churches, and I hope it will grow and be done again.”

Steve McGahee, assistant camp director and Esperanza pod leader, said he is really excited about this year’s camp. The two prior years of the camp have strived to be biracial, fusing the skills of Lee Road and St. Mark UMC volunteers, many of them youth.

“But to bring in the Hispanic community because of the racial diversity and the Spanish growth in population in South Carolina, I think it’s great –we can serve everyone and work with and learn from the different cultures,” McGahee said. “This is an idea that came out of working together as a community and trying to do what we could to involve as many people as possible.”

And it is truly district-wide, leaders say. Dozens of churches throughout the district are involved, not only hosting the volunteers but also helping to provide dinner and other support.

The Rev. Enrique Gordon, Esperanza pastor, said he loves how the different churches are intentionally partnering instead of staying in their own corners of the city.

“I see this as an opportunity for us to tear down the barriers that divide us so much in not understanding one another,” Gordon said. “It allows opportunity to reach across different sides of the aisle, and the churches are really working together.”

Reaching across that aisle is much of why construction director Moffatt is lending his expertise. Moffatt, who has volunteered with Salkehatchie since the late 1980s, said what is happening with Upstate Salkehatchie camp reflects the true Salkehatchie spirit. While some other Salkehatchie camps have interracial volunteers and leadership, many are unintentionally segregated, drawing from the same types of helpers year after year without reaching out and striving to bring in as many different kinds of people as possible.

“I think (what’s happening at this camp) is what the spirit of Salkehatchie is all about from the beginning,” Moffatt said. “It’s more about what’s in you and not what the color of your skin is.”

Site leader Eric Brinkley and his wife, Allison, have volunteered at many Salkehatchie camps, but he said usually, it’s mostly white people with one or two blacks, or mostly black people with an occasional white. He loves the interracial mix that has developed out of this camp.

“I like to see the kids working together. I have three girls on my site every year who are the prissiest little girls you’ve ever seen, but they do stuff guys don’t do,” Brinkley said. “We’re all the same color under our skin, and people just look past it, almost like there is no color. Instead of ‘that white boy with black hair’ or ‘that tall, skinny black girl,’ they quickly learn each other’s names.”

In a time when many churches are segregated by default, Brinkley said such diversity is especially welcome.

Gilmer, director of Upstate Salkehatchie who with White visioned this year’s camp, said the interracial element is accidental.

“We were not looking at color; it just happened – we were just focusing on natural relationships,” Gilmer said. “We saw people in need in these areas, and these churches joined together. The interracial part was a natural progression, happening by the grace of God.”

Gilmer said the tri-pod, interracial, interchurch composition had its roots more in logistics than anything.

Last year, the camps wanted to help various homes in Greenville County, but the homes were spread out all over the county, and Gilmer and the rest of the team spent a great deal of time traveling in vehicles and not enough time on sites working on people’s homes. This year they wanted to try something a little different, think outside the box, he said. They started talking with as many churches in the district as they could without regard for race, reaching out in partnership, and the rest just fell into place.

“It’s amazing to see it really flesh out, because a lot of it was out of our hands,” Gilmer said. “We cast a vision out there, and a lot of folks grabbed onto it.”

Casting that vision is much of what Gilmer and White hope to do next – get things started and then step back, allowing the other volunteers to take the vision and run with it. White called himself a catalyst and said he and Gilmer will not be in the camp leadership next year so the laity can really own Upstate Salkehatchie. This year’s camp leadership team primarily comprises laity from St. Mark, Lee Road, Esperanza, Disciples, Francis Asbury and Trinity UMCs.

“The camp needs to be identified with the area, and it needs to have a district feel and flair,” White said. “It doesn’t need to be tied to one or more director’s personalities.”

After all, that is what it’s all about – a group of people coming together, called to do service in the spirit of Christian servanthood, without regard for class, race, church or gender.

dquo;It’s a diverse group, but everybody loves everybody,” volunteer Talley said. “I recommend it to anybody in any walk of life: If they can get into it one time, I don’t think they’d ever stop.”

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