The tide seems to be turning as the wave of coronavirus cases begins to recede. While the world starts to move toward normalcy, the Rev. Wright Culpepper finds himself taking a moment to reflect on these unprecedented times.
As pastor of First United Methodist Church in Brunswick, the challenge of keeping congregants safe but engaged was a clear hurdle. On top of that, Culpepper serves as the executive director of FaithWorks, a Brunswick-based nonprofit that offers a number of services through programs like Open Doors, The Well, Cancer Network of Hope and Sparrow’s Nest Food Bank. He serves as the director of the pastoral care program at the Southeast Georgia Health System.
Looking back, Culpepper finds it a bit overwhelming to think of multitude of difficulties that had to be confronted all at once.
“So much has happened during the past year. All of FaithWorks ministries were deemed essential, so we never stopped,” he said.
For FaithWorks, volunteers are its lifeblood. But during the early days of the pandemic, they were forced to stay home, as many are retired and were rightly concerned about their health. The staff, however, stepped up to fill in the gaps.
“So much credit goes to FaithWorks’ outstanding staff who never stopped giving of themselves to minister to so many in our community during the pandemic,” Culpepper said.
But the volunteers were committed and most returned in the middle of last year. New faces have also joined the cause. It proved to be a theme that followed FaithWorks and helped keep it afloat through the dark days. Culpepper says the overwhelming dedication — from staff, volunteers, the community and other nonprofits — proved to be inspiring.
“Individuals stepped up in countless ways from turning over their stimulus checks, donating food for the pantry and hot meals for people who are homeless, offering resources of time and in-kind donations such as furniture and more,” he said.
“Organizations such as United Way, the Communities of Coastal Georgia Foundation, civic groups and churches all included us as a conduit to reaching both those impacted by COVID on a personal level and others who are a part of our normal care ministries. We are grateful for the trust this community puts in us to assist those who face great difficulty.”
One of the areas that perhaps faced the greatest peril was The Well, the homeless day shelter located on Gloucester Street. The fear of a COVID-19 outbreak at the shelter was a valid one.
To protect the homeless there, the volunteers and staff wore masks, conducted temperature checks and encouraged the washing of hands. As a result of the mitigation measures, there weren’t many instances of the illness. And when there were cases, Culpepper says the sick were able to be isolated in motel rooms with food provided for them.
While it took a coordinated effort and a lot of helping hands, the way people came together to offer aid those who were ill underscored the importance of the work it FaithWorks does.
“FaithWorks” mission is to encourage others to live out their faith — to roll up their sleeves and get engaged in building relationships with others who may look different or have different life stories. To recognize that God dwells in everyone and when we take the time to look for the divine, we will find it in others (and ourselves),” he said.
In addition to FaithWorks’ programs, Culpepper also found himself ministering to those on the frontlines, battling daily against the disease. As the director of pastoral care for the Southeast Georgia Health System, he met frequently with doctors and nurses who were exhausted by the crush of COVID cases.
“The darkest days had to be witnessing the great struggle at the Brunswick Campus of Southeast Georgia Health System and being unable to visit with those on the COVID floors or in the skilled nursing facilities,” he said.
“To see the weariness and worry on the faces of our physicians, nurses, therapists and others who threw themselves at the monumental task of caring for the sick brought great concern and prayer. At the same time, these warriors are an inspiration and a witness to all that is good in our community.”
Culpepper said a number of local clergy members stepped up to help. They stopped by to offer devotions, cards and gifts from their churches.
“Our pastoral care team of chaplains were also on the floors and units every day to offer inspiration, encouragement and prayer,” he said.
Healing fully from the pandemic will take time, both for those who experienced illness and loss from it, as well as those who felt the collective pain from witnessing suffering on such a colossal scale. But there is a silver lining. Culpepper says that the compassion that shepherded the Isles through the darkness will continue to serve as a beacon and a blessing. And new connections made during these trying times will likely buoy the work of nonprofits in the future.
“There are so many great organizations at work in this community. Zoom meetings, conference calls, and socially distanced in-person meetings helped us to identify who was doing what and how we could compliment and be of help to each other,” he said.
“The desire to serve this community created many new and creative projects including podcasts, videos, utilization of technology, food giveaways and online access to resources. We truly worked together and have developed deeper appreciation for what each organization does to serve.”
As the community, nation and world moves forward, he hopes that a passage from the Book of Psalm will provide hope and guidance for brighter days.
“Psalm 93 begins and ends with the ‘Majesty, glory and power of God.’ In the middle are references to floods and angry seas. Whenever we read about these in scripture, the writer is referring to chaos. We have certainly experienced a tumultuous period in many ways. We are so divided. There is so much angst. But, I do believe that most, if not all, have leaned on God during this year,” he said.
“In a sense, we have endured the winds of life which help us determine all that is good from bad and all that is useful from that which is harmful. But is is hard to let go of things. The Biblical stories of separation of wheat from chaff remind us that there are things that are essential and things that are not. We are not out of our chaos yet but those that recognize the power of God know that peace will come.”