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September 12, 2018

I have been following the weather reports as Hurricane Florence approaches. This is a serious storm not to be taken lightly. As I have prayed for those along the coast, I am reminded of my favorite places along the ocean, retreats where my family and I have enjoyed vacations. The storm also brings to mind the story of a benevolent ghost from Pawley’s Island.

Do you believe in ghosts?  Many people in the Georgetown area of South Carolina do.  If you ask about ghosts in that part of the country, you are likely to hear the story of the Gray Man of Pawley’s Island.

Years ago, before the Civil War, Pawley’s Island was a place where rice planters kept summer homes.  The plantation owners would go to the small island across the marsh to get away from the oppressive temperatures and the voracious mosquitoes that were a fact of life in humid, Lowcountry summers.  The ocean breezes and the solitude of the island were a respite from heat and malaria.

In one of these summer homes, there lived a beautiful young girl.  She had a suitor named Beauregard who had been away in Europe for several months.  Finally, she got word that her true love was sailing home.  She decorated the house on Pawley’s Island with greenery and flowers and asked her mother to prepare his favorite meals.

When Beauregard arrived, it was a happy occasion for the entire family.  In the midst of their celebration, Beauregard challenged one of the servants to a horse race down the beach.  The race was on!  About halfway down the beach, Beauregard took a shortcut through a marshy area.  His horse suddenly stumbled, throwing him from his saddle into quicksand.  Beauregard was unable to free himself.  The servant watched helplessly as the young man sank to his death.

The young woman was grief-stricken at the loss of her sweetheart.  She wept for days.  Every morning she wandered the beach alone as if she were expecting the man she loved to return.

One morning, a great distance down the beach, she saw a man. He was dressed entirely in gray, standing on top of a sand dune, gazing across the water.  As the young woman moved closer, her heart began to pound.  The man seemed to resemble Beauregard.  As she got closer, a gray mist came up from the ocean, swirled around him, and he vanished from her sight.

That night, she had a disturbing nightmare about an ocean storm.  In her dream, she saw Beauregard dressed in gray, beckoning her.  The following morning, she shared the dream with her family. She also told them of the strange encounter on the beach the day before. They became quite alarmed.  Her father insisted that they take her immediately to visit a physician in Charleston.  The entire family accompanied the young woman.

While the family was in Charleston, a hurricane roared across the island destroying everything.  When the young woman and her family learned of the devastation on Pawley’s Island, she realized that the appearance of the Gray Man had saved their lives.  She was convinced that he was the ghost of Beauregard!

In those days, long before the advent of Doppler Radar and weather satellites, tropical storms and hurricanes struck suddenly and without warning.  Like the grieving young woman, many others since have believed that the Gray Man was their protector.

To this day, the residents of Pawley’s Island declare that the Gray Man is in their midst.  He resides, they say, at The Pelican Inn, one of the oldest structures on the island.   The islanders tell of times when the Gray Man appeared to signal an approaching storm.  The apparition is said to have warned numerous residents just before Hurricane Hazel arrived in 1953.  All were evacuated, and no lives were lost.

Pawley’s Island Chapel is a small structure built out into the marsh on stilts. Nearly every summer for the last thirty-six years, while our family is at Pawley’s on vacation, I have been invited to lead worship in the chapel. On one occasion, I shared the tale of the Gray Man. In my sermon, I made the connection with a story from the Gospel of Matthew. The disciples were in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. Throughout the night, the disciples, most of whom were seasoned fishermen, rode out a fierce storm.  As morning approached, they saw a figure walking toward them across the waves.

They were terrified and cried out in fear. “It is a ghost!”

Then, their master spoke to them, “Take courage! Don’t be afraid!”

Several days after I had delivered the sermon, I was walking along the beach. It was dusk. A band of thunderstorms had passed and moved out to sea. As the sun set over the marsh with pink, purple, and orange swirls, the sky over the ocean was dark. Flashes of lightning punctuated the clouds.

Following the storm, the evening air was cool, and the breeze was brisk. Few other people were on the beach, but I noticed a couple walking toward me. As we passed each other in the fading light, they recognized that I was the preacher from the chapel service the previous Sunday morning.

“You had us worried for a moment,” the woman said.

The man added, “I knew you weren’t Jesus, but, for a moment, we wondered if you might be the Gray Man.”

The Gray Man?  Me?

Well, at least he is a kind and helpful ghost!

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