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Lake Junaluska: 100 years of Godly transformation

By Jessica Connor

LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C.—A hundred years ago, the majestic sweep of mountain valley didn’t boast acre upon acre of manicured landscaping and cheerful buildings. There were no hotels built yet, and the lake wasn’t even filled with water.

But missionaries gathered there inside the newly constructed Stuart Auditorium, the only building on the grounds of Lake Junaluska Assembly in the mountains of Western North Carolina. They came together to conference and worship, to fellowship and celebrate.

And this summer, 100 years after that inaugural gathering, people will come together again “ this time to celebrate the milestone birthday of a place that has transformed lives, touched souls and become a fixture in the hearts and minds of United Methodists across the Southeast.

God has left me here in the world so long I can truthfully say I ve watched the development of Lake Junaluska Assembly across almost 100 years,  said South Carolina s own Dr. Wright Spears, who celebrated his own 100th birthday last year and now lives at Lake Junaluska. I didn t become aware when I was a baby what was going on there, but I soon thereafter did. And I am so proud and thankful to God for the privilege of seeing this wonderful facility move through many, many trying situations, always coming out victorious, and we are just proud of its 100 years of service to God and to the world. 

Spears and others from South Carolina will join United Methodists from across the Southeast this summer as Lake Junaluska Assembly hosts a major Centennial Homecoming Celebration June 30-July 7 featuring concerts, historical reenactments, family Olympics activities, worship, fireworks, picnics and much more.

S.C. Bishop Jonathan Holston will preach July 7, doing Communion at 8:30 a.m. and worship at 10:45 a.m.

Holston called Lake Junaluska a majestic place. 

I began visiting Lake Junaluska in 1984 by attending Minister s Week during the summer. My mentor, the late Cornelius L. Henderson, advised me to never let anything interfere with attending events and enjoying the majestic scenery of Lake Junaluska,  Holston said, noting that he has since enjoyed many events and times of fellowship at the lake “ including his election as bishop last July.

Over the years, Lake Junaluska has seen twists and turns, ups and downs. The assembly got its start in 1908 inspired by the dream of James Atkins and George R. Stuart, who had visited similar Methodist conference centers like Chautauqua Lake, New York. Stuart brought a resolution before a missionary conference in Chattanooga, Tenn., to build a lakeside assembly in the South. They established a commission called the Southern Assembly, which soon purchased 1,200 acres in Western North Carolina and began construction on a dam, lake and auditorium.

It was a vision of having a place where Methodists could gather in the South,  said Jack Ewing, Lake Junaluska s executive director.

Many people of notoriety have spoken or stayed on the grounds of Lake Junaluska, including President Richard Nixon, Eleanor Roosevelt, President Jimmy Carter and Billy Graham. They also host the global Council of Bishops of the UMC every other year.

˜Of God

The first gathering was held June 25, 1913, to promote a focus on missions for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (today s United Methodist Church evolved from that denomination).

At that first meeting, they had missionary speakers, and they also raised a huge sum of money, $150,000, which is the equivalent in today s dollars of several million, Ewing said.

It s amazing what they did, considering the only structure on the grounds in 1913 was Stuart Auditorium,  Ewing said. From there it grew to be not just a place for Methodists to gather in the summertime, but to be a year-round conference and retreat center and the home of nearly 700 residents homes on the grounds. 

Called the Southern Assembly initially, the name soon changed to its present moniker, Lake Junaluska Assembly, in honor of Chief Junaluska, a Native American chief who lived in the Cherokee area and endured the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma with fellow Cherokees in 1838.

Construction went rather quickly. The Junaluska Inn, built where Lambuth Inn rests today, opened just four years later, in 1917, and a multipurpose Public Service Building with some hotel rooms, where the administration building stands now, opened just prior. Other buildings soon followed. Methodists flocked to the assembly for the fellowship and for the cooler mountain climate, which was especially welcome during blazing hot Southern summers.

But with the good would come the bad. Both the Junaluska Inn and the Public Service Building burned to the ground, in 1918 and 1919, respectively. William Preston Few, who was president of Trinity College and later Duke University, was a guest in the Junaluska Inn when it burned in 1918. Ewing said that even though the lake was ri
ght there, there was no way to pump water from the lake to the buildings, so people had to stand there and watch them burn.

But fortunately, there was no loss of life or injury from either fire.

The Rev. Bill Lowry, who retired from the Mississippi Annual Conference and wrote The Antechamber of Heaven: A History of Lake Junaluska Assembly,  called it miraculous  that two major structures burned to the ground, both of them occupied, and not a single person killed or injured in either fire, even though the larger of the two happened in the middle of the night.

Lowry, who researched the assembly for almost 10 years before he began to write his book, said evidence of those and other miracles runs throughout Lake Junaluska s history. Years later, in 1933, the assembly went bankrupt, which usually means they sell off their property to pay creditors. But Lake Junaluska even managed to survive that, which itself borders on a miracle, Lowry said.

I am more convinced than ever that Lake Junaluska Assembly is of God,  said Lowry, who now lives at the assembly himself and is thrilled to celebrate 100 years of Lake Junaluska this summer.

Today, Lake Junaluska Assembly has two major hotels, Lambuth Inn and Terrace Hotel, with 236 sleeping rooms combined, plus almost 200 additional rooms at the west end of campus in a combination of several smaller facilities. Stuart Auditorium still hosts a variety of events, plus now there is Jones Dining Hall, Harrell Center, Shackford Hall, Memorial Chapel and much more. Ewing said hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have visited Lake Junaluska over the years, many from South Carolina. The UMC s Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference is held there every four years, and every bishop in the UMC has been elected at Lake Junaluska since 1956.

The mission is to be a place of Christian hospitality where lives are transformed through renewal of soul, mind and body,  Ewing said. I like to say more United Methodists have experienced personal transformation on this holy ground, at Lake Junaluska, than any other place in United Methodism. 

Ambitious future plans

As Lake Junaluska Assembly looks to the future, it is embarking on an ambitious campus master plan that includes major renovation so a new generation of people will want to come there year after year.

We know we have to change; we can t keep doing things the way we ve always done it,  Ewing said.

Plans for future are to continue to identify ways to carry out transformative programing primarily through partnerships with groups such as the S.C. United Methodist Women. Lake Junaluska provides the space and hospitality, while the group provides the event.

They also plan a major overhaul of their hotels and meeting spaces.

We have to have facilities people want to come to,  Ewing said. The lake, mountains and climate are spectacular, but where they stay, their sleeping rooms, where they eat and where they meet have to be of the quality they would expect to experience in other venues. And Lake Junaluska has aged, at least its facilities. 

The overhaul includes completing renovation on the Terrace Hotel, already under way; renovating the Lambuth Inn, with a conference center built onto its north side; renovating Jones Dining Hall; replacing the Harrell Center; and fixing up the exterior/grounds, with a focus on lake.

I m proud of the plans they have under way,  Spears said. It s just a joy to see it unfold. 

The Rev. Brad Gray, who pastors St. Andrews Parish UMC, Charleston, did not have a lot of experience at Lake Junaluska growing up, but when he came to know it years later, as he was being formed as a pastor. Today, the young father enjoys Lake Junaluska as a place where he can connect with fellow clergy and appreciates how it has evolved as place where he can bring his family, too.

I have been really impressed with how it has been a destination and place for United Methodists to call home,  Gray said. Having friends from Alabama and Holston and the Georgias and both North Carolina conferences, it’s a mutual place we can all call home that is meaningful to all of us. 

His parishioners, too, consider Lake Junaluska theirs.  Though Charleston is a 4-5-hour drive to Lake Junaluska, many of his flock consider it their second home during the summertime.

When the heat becomes unbearable, they retreat up there, and they take pride that is their United Methodist home in North Carolina,  Gray said.

I am so happy to just be a part of the continuing history,  said South Carolina s Brenda Hook, noting the eternal values the assembly fosters. The last 100 years have influenced so many people for Christ. 

For more on the assembly s centennial plans, visit www.lakejunaluska.com/100 or call 800-222-4930.

Centennial Homecoming Celebration Week

All are invited to celebrate Lake Junaluska s 100th birthday during Centennial Homecoming Celebration Week, set for June 30-July 7:

¢ The Centennial Concert Series, featuring Balsam Range, the Lake Junaluska Singers and the Lake Junaluska Singers Alumni

¢ Historical Lake crossing re-enactments

¢ Tours of the Lake Junaluska train depot, historic homes and gardens

¢ Lake Junaluska Family Olympics

¢ Replication of the 1913 opening worship service photo in front of Stuart Auditorium

¢ Annual July 4 festivities, including parade, BBQ picnic with bluegrass band, evening performance and fireworks.

¢ Reunions

¢ Charity golf tournament

¢ More

Visit www.lakejunaluska.com/100 or call 800-222-4930 for more information.

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