By Jessica Brodie
JOHNS ISLAND—This Thanksgiving, one United Methodist mission in the Lowcountry is shouting hallelujah—for standing strong during the hurricane, for the people it continues to serve for the Lord and for the brand-new chapel it built courtesy of a healthy dose of divine inspiration.
Rural Mission is in the final construction stages of a full-scale chapel on its grounds, a project that longtime executive director Linda Gadson is calling the mission’s new anchor.
“The dream is for Rural Mission to have a facility here that’s a conference center and a place for spiritual renewal,” Gadson said. “This chapel will be the driving force for everything else we will do.”
That it was a plan not orchestrated by Rural Mission leadership but by a spiritual epiphany isn’t surprising Gadson in the least. Their original plan was for the chapel building to house Rural Mission’s new kitchen. But God had other plans for that space. And as with everything else at this holy ground in the Sea Islands, when God speaks, Rural Mission listens.
From a kitchen to a chapel
It all started back in August 2015, when a team of high schoolers from Covenant Church in North Carolina led by Bob Wynn began gutting an old waterfront storage shed at Rural Mission to turn it into a kitchen. Rural Mission has been in existence since 1969 to meet the needs of the rural people of the area, from housing and food to family services; more than a quarter of the island population lives below the poverty level. Rural Mission is a project of the United Methodist Women and an Advance Special Ministry, and it shares space with East Coast Migrant Head Start, which provides early education for the children of local migrant workers.
Because the mission’s existing kitchen was often used by Migrant Head Start, Rural Mission didn’t always have access to the kitchen when it needed it. So they decided last summer to construct a second kitchen in the shed for their teams and events.
But Rural Mission has also had an active nondenominational Prayer Warriors group that has met every Tuesday since 1986 to pray, yet they had never designated a holy space for the Prayer Warriors, and the group has always had to move from place to place.
When Wynn’s team began to tear out the old storage shed to create the kitchen, they uncovered a hidden cathedral ceiling—a sight that took their breath away and told Anderson Mack Jr., director of special projects and housing workcamp, that this space was meant for far more than just a kitchen.
“Anderson came and got me—‘You need to come over here, Ms. G! I think we have the answer for our prayer group!’” Gadson recalled, pointing at the ceiling and the perfect slants reaching up to the building’s highest height. “‘He said, ‘Look up there. Look again! Ms. G, you have a church ceiling. What you were praying about for so long is here—the prayer group can meet here, and this can be their chapel!’”
As soon as Gadson saw what Mack and Wynn had discovered, she knew they were right, and plans for the kitchen were shelved immediately. After all, who was she to argue with what God had clearly planned?
And when they learned that the people who had originally constructed the shed 30 years ago was a group of pastors from the Indiana Conference, Gadson knew God had been speaking all those years ago, helping these pastors prepare the way and plant the seed for what was now meant to evolve for Rural Mission.
“God had a hand definitively in this. It’s God-sent,” she said, laughing. “What can I say?”
Instead of converting the shed into a kitchen, Wynn’s team changed gears at Gadson’s request and got to work building a chapel.
“We were so incredibly blessed—two of our adult leaders had pretty extensive experience in construction and took an assessment and said yes, absolutely we could do that,” Wynn said. “It was an incredibly powerful, powerful week for our team.”
What made things even better, Wynn said, was that about a month prior, Southern Lumber Company had donated a whole load of top-quality pine paneling to Rural Mission after a customer said it was the wrong color.
“It was perfect,” said Wynn, who has been going to Rural Mission on teams since 1996 and who has led teams from Covenant there for about five years. “We were able to do tongue-and-groove pine interior siding from the floor to the ceiling, and by the time our team finished it was a gorgeous little chapel and we put in an exterior door and three exterior windows.”
After Wynn’s team went home, other teams soon followed, from as near as Chapin to as far as Indiana and Massachusetts. New windows went in at Christmastime, and in August when Wynn’s team returned, they expanded the chapel even more, tearing out what used to be Mack’s tool shed so the chapel could have the full space.
South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston dedicated the site in June.
Construction is in final stages now, and the chapel should be complete by Thanksgiving. Currently, they are seeking furnishings such as chairs, as well as a large cross and an acoustic system.
They are calling it the Chapel by the Sea at Rural Mission, and Gadson said “it’s going to be everything God wants it to be and more.”
A dream transformed
That “more” is significant, as it has become the new future for Rural Mission. As plans began to evolve for the chapel, Gadson realized what God had been nudging her to see for some time: that the holy place would be a key part of a larger new vision for Rural Mission as a spiritual renewal center. Work teams would still journey to Johns Island to work with the rural poor in the area, building homes and doing needed repairs, but they and church teams would also come for other reasons: retreat and renewal.
Gadson said that, over the years, migrant farming has diminished in Johns Island as more new developments have come to the community. They had been searching for God’s answer to their new future.
And they found it in an old storage shed now transformed into a chapel.
Rural Mission’s board, with chair Miriam C. Green at the helm, is visioning now for what those future plans will look like, but Gadson isn’t worried about what that will be.
“I’m excited about the future of Rural Mission, excited about the goals He has planned,” Gadson said. “That shed out there with all that junk is now transformed. God can take it and turn it into something when we pray.”
As Mack said, “This is a start of a bigger dream now.”
Wynn said it feels good for his student missioners to know their work is making a deep impact.
“For us to be able to go down there and realize that was going to be such a powerful part of the Rural Mission ministry just meant the world to our students,” Wynn said. “We feel our partners at Rural Mission are our family.”