To visualize how the coronavirus has changed ministry, you need only imagine the Rev. Wright Culpepper anointing paper hands with oil and blessing them.
For the past eight or nine years as a chaplain at Southeast Georgia Health System, Culpepper conducted hand-blessings in which he held the hands of nurses and other staff members and said a simple prayer.
“Lord, bless these hand so they become a blessing to all they touch,’’ he prayed. “I held each hand about 30 seconds.’’
With 91 patients in treatment for highly contagious and sometimes deadly COVID-19, the hospital isn’t allowing visitors. There are also limits on Culpepper and the three other chaplains, his son and associate pastor at Brunswick First United Methodist Bill Culpepper, the Revs. Peter Vivenzio and Thornton Willingham.
The nurses said they missed the blessing so they traced their hands on paper, cut them out and mounted them on bulletin boards. Culpepper went by, anointed each paper hand and spoke a blessing over them.
“For me, I got to touch 800 or 900 hands a year. It was heartrending to me that the nurses missed it,’’ he said.
But they and Culpepper are missing much more as are the patients and their families.
The chaplains don’t go onto the increasingly growing COVID-19 floors at all and go onto the other floors only in special circumstances.
“If someone wants a visit from a chaplain, we call the room or send a note,’’ he said.
One of the few exceptions is when someone is dying and asks for last rites.
“We do get the clergy in to perform that sacrament,’’ he said.
When he goes into the Intensive Care Unit, he stops outside the door and says a short prayer for the person inside, Culpepper said.
Also, the chaplaincy is widening its focus from patients and their families to the health care workers.
“People are tired, they’re worried,’’ he said of the staff, “but they’re making adjustments based on the needs of this community. Human nature says, ‘Fold your tent and quit,’ but there’s no quit over there.’’
One symbol of the rapid change the hospital has undergone to meet the needs is in the emergency room.
Culpepper saw all the furniture coming in as workers were getting ready to install furniture in the new emergency room entrance.
“I went on vacation, I came back and it’s full of beds,’’ he said.
He is hopeful of implementing some new ministries to provide solace to health care workers who can’t get it elsewhere because there are few in-person church services.
“I’m planning on offering communion. It’s the only chance for some so many churches are closed,’’ he said. “I hope to bring some comfort and hope that we’re going to get through this with God’s help.”
It would not be in the form of a gathering.
“I’ll bless the elements and a nurse can come down and receive the wafer and the juice and go back to work. We’ll do it once or twice a week,’’ he said.
Then he added quietly, “We’re not touching anyone.”
There are still details to work out to meet protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he said.
On a recent Wednesday, the nursing staffs gathered on the floors and Culpepper ministered remotely.
“I offered blessings and prayers over the phone to let them know they’re locked in but not forgotten,’’ he said.
It also strange to walk the hallways in the hospital where, previously, he often saw 50 people from the community when he made his rounds.
“Now, they’re empty,’’ he said.
Formerly, he met with family members who sat beside beside hospital beds or in waiting rooms. Now, family members aren’t allowed inside the facility.
“It is tough. I’ve ministered to people in the parking lot,’’ he said.
Family members may have dropped someone for surgery or followed an ambulance to the hospital and can’t get inside. Often, they’re outside waiting for an answer.
“You can’t talk face-to-face with the doctor like you used to,’’ he said, “but they’re in there and they’re doing heroic work in the face of an impossible task.”
The coronavirus has also affected other FaithWorks ministries that Culpepper heads. The Sparrow’s Nest, which provides food and services for the needy, and The Well, a daytime shelter or the homeless, have done well because of the community’s generosity, he said.
After having reduced hours at the onset of COVID-19, the Sparrow’s Nest is back to normal although the staff has had to take over some work previously done by volunteers. Because most volunteers are in older, at-risk groups, they have been encouraged to stay home.
There have been a lot of food donations to the Sparrow’s Nest pantry during what is normally a time of bare shelves and money has come in to help people who lost income as some businesses and industries shut down.
“There are a lot of good people in this community,’’ he said.
Asked if the Bible has any references to trials like the coronavirus, Culpepper said, “Maybe the stories of Pharaoh and Moses” or of a king who didn’t do what God wanted.
The world is going through an extremely difficult time, but the resulting changes could be beneficial, he said, likening it to metaphorical threshing of grain.
“There is always a period of time for winnowing,’’ for separating the wheat from the chaff, he said.
“The stuff that isn’t necessary is blown away, and the good wheat falls to the ground,’’ Culpepper said. On the other side of the pandemic, “The things that are essential or eternal will be there,’’ he said.