From a boisterous Palm Sunday church service on Sandy Island to a haunting walk through the slave quarters of an old plantation, the South came alive to students who chose an alternative spring break.
Five Buena Vista University students and their chaperones traveled 1,400 miles in a gray van to learn more about Gullah culture, said Leon Williams, who two years ago became the school's first intercultural programs director.
Gullahs are a community of creole-speaking blacks who live in the island and coastal districts of South Carolina, Georgia and northeast Florida.
The idea took shape after Georgetown artist Zenobia Washington visited Buena Vista last year for a cultural services program spotlighting women of color.
Washington told Williams about the Southern Odyssey Tour offered to help non-Southerners gain a better understanding of the region.
"An average tourist wouldn't have access to this type of tour. You wouldn't meet the Gullah people and have them embrace you and bring you into their church service," White said.
On Palm Sunday, the Iowa students boarded Joe Tucker's pontoon boat for the short ride across the Waccamaw River to Sandy Island. The 1 1/2-hour service at New Bethel Baptist Church was loud and spirited, filled with music, clapping and foot-tapping. The outsiders stayed quiet but absorbed every word and sound.
"I'm not really religious myself, but that church service was great to experience," said Buena Vista sophomore Jeremy Ward.
Junior Jackie Lonning, who visited Puerto Rico last spring as part of the college's program, said the history in Georgetown County amazed her.
The group spent the next day touring Mansfield Plantation, a former rice plantation. Retired Georgetown educator and local history expert David Drayton led the group through the slave quarters, kitchen and main house.
"It's more than you learn in the books," Lonning said. "It's like the truth from the other side."
Drayton's stories made a deep mark on philosophy and religion professor Peter Steinfeld, who accompanied the students.
"Just hearing his stories about the antebellum South, post-Reconstruction and his being a principal at a public high school during the process of desegregation," Steinfeld said. "It's like walking with a book."
The tour approach provided the right amount of balance among service, history lessons and meeting people, said Williams, who brought along his wife, Rochelle, and 4-year-old daughter, Sierra.
The group completed landscaping projects at Poplar Place, Five Rivers' affordable housing subdivision in Pawleys Island, and talked to students at Georgetown High. The students also visited Charleston, Belle Baruch Education Center and several other Georgetown historic sites.
"It puts the service in context," Steinfeld said.
Buena Vista, which has about 1,400 students, offered alternative service and learning spring break trips this year to Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Colorado and South Carolina.