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A Brief History of Salkehatchie Summer Service

by Arlene Andrews

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Arlene Andrews, PhD is a professor and the Director of the Institute for Families in Society at the University of South Carolina. Her research institutes include Child Abuse & Neglect and Family Policy. She's a regular participant in Salkehatchie camps and has written a book about Salkehatchie Summer Service.


Click on the PLAY button to hear an interview with Arlene Andrews

In 1975, when South Carolina United Methodists first started deliberating ideas for a summer youth mission, the people of the South were just beginning to practice racial integration. At that time, Rev. John Wesley Culp was serving a church in Hampton County, in the Low Country, where the Salkehatchie River winds slowly through the old plantations. There, he met Catholic nuns who were living among people who worked the fields and lived in shacks that had no running water. His church included white families who had lived with racial segregation for centuries. He understood middle class youth and family life. “Some of the worst poverty is in middle class America,” he observed, “The poverty of loneliness, lack of communication, emotional and spiritual poverty… These kids are dealing with divorce, estrangement, drugs. They need hope as much as the people who suffer material poverty.”

On Labor Day, 1978, John’s vision for Salkehatchie Summer Service was affirmed after he responded, as the Hampton volunteer fire department’s chaplain, to a house fire caused by faulty wiring that led to the death of three young children, ages 2, 1, and 3 weeks.... They buried the three little children together in a thin coffin. John’s passion was fueled by the awareness that with just a little know-how and minor materials, the house could have been safe, and the family would still be together.

John worked with United Methodist Conference committees to seek ways to inspire youth and adults to break their traditions and share the love of Christ across racial and material barriers in areas close to their own homes. In 1976 he led a youth mission to do cleaning and construction work at the Killingsworth Home for Women, a halfway house for ex-offenders in Columbia. The following year, 1977, he took a group of predominantly White youth into an African American community to do renovations for the Bluff Road UMC in Columbia. While successful, these type missions inadequately challenged the youth. The buildings they repaired were part of institutions, and although the youth came to know people served by the institutions, they could easily regard the experience as separate from their own lives. John realized that each youth had a home, and that to really stimulate their awareness, he needed to help the youth enter the homes of people whose lives, on the surface, looked different from their own but were substantially similar. The personal arena of the home would provide the setting for more intense interpersonal relations.

This post looks straight. Site leader Mona Kita, in blue, looks on

So, on June 17-24, 1978, the first Salkehatchie camp happened with a base at Gifford Elementary School in Hampton County. Forty male and female adults and youth came and entered the lives of four families. The participants, who paid $40 each, slept on mats and cots in the school and showered outside, using hoses with cold water. The mosquitoes were so thick, they had to spray pesticide. The camp directors had planned no recreation, so the exuberant youth made their own, which included sending John’s bedding up the school flagpole. The camp experience was not scripted. From the beginning, the approach was to bring out the unique strengths of the youth and to facilitate their discovery. They worked during the day and they shared reflections in the evening. They were absolutely exhausted and overwhelmed with joy. Almost every first-year participant returned the second year.

On Labor Day, 1978, John’s vision for Salkehatchie Summer Service was affirmed after he responded, as the Hampton volunteer fire department’s chaplain, to a house fire caused by faulty wiring that led to the death of three young children, ages 2, 1, and 3 weeks. Their home had been a little wooden house that sat in a field along a highway. Even today, affluent people pass these “shacks” with barely a glance as they travel in their air-conditioned cars to the beautiful beaches. John’s compassionate heart was wrenched by the grief of the parents, who were barely literate but filled with expressive love for their lost children. The family had no church and no means to provide a funeral, so John ministered to them and led the funeral service. They buried the three little children together in a thin coffin. John’s passion was fueled by the awareness that with just a little know-how and minor materials, the house could have been safe, and the family would still be together.

One of the youth begins nailing up the sheathing at the Moultry home

For the next three years, 1979, 1980, and 1981, Salkehatchie campers slept in the classrooms and porches of the rural St. Mary’s community center on cots contributed by the National Guard Armory. Claflin College donated 100 old mattresses from dorm rooms - they placed these on the floors and slept there. They swam in the swimming pool, which was the only pool within seven counties where Blacks could swim.

The love of Salkehatchie is contagious. By 1982, John’s camp moved to historic Penn Center in Beaufort County and a second camp, Santee, started in Calhoun County. Camp directors and site leaders went to established camps to learn the ways of Salkehatchie, then went forth to spread the practice, until by the summer of 2003 there were 36 camps with over 2500 participants serving over 200 families at their homes.

Salkehatchie has always been about discovering the incredible power of God’s grace while building bridges across barriers that separate people. Young and old… rich and poor… Black, White, Hispanic-Latino, Native American… believers and nonbelievers… indulged and forsaken… during Salkehatchie week the people gather and center their hearts, minds, and hands on the work of Christ. The solid foundation of Salkehatchie’s past promises to serve well far into the future as, together, we work for God’s kingdom.