From Church Walls to Hospital Halls

In our busy, noisy world, the grand gestures grab headlines while quiet moments of grace often go unnoticed. And yet, moments of grace will sustain us through our darkest hours. No one understands this better than the chaplains of Southeast Georgia Health System’s Pastoral Care program. Director of Pastoral Care Wright A. Culpepper, D.Min., experiences many moments of grace. “I am most surprised when someone comes up to me in a store or restaurant and says, ‘You were with me when my loved one died.’ I may have done nothing more than sit with them and offer a bedside prayer, but a longtime bond is established. There is peace in knowing we are not alone.”

For more than 40 hours a week, Culpepper, Peter Vivenzio, Thornton Willingham and Bill Culpepper bring solace and support to the Brunswick Campus, and a chaplain is available 24/7 for emergencies. Culpepper once studied models that “extend ministry beyond the walls of a church,” which makes him value his Health System role even more. “Most churches reflect one color or social economic group, but everyone comes to the Health System – rich, poor, black, white, brown, young, old, all religions. It has become a place to study the uniqueness and commonality of us all.”

A Team Effort
Chaplains partner with hospital staff to “address the complete needs of a patient – health, spiritual and emotional,” says Vivenzio, adding, “Doctors, nurses and chaplains perform a team effort. The body and soul need healing.”

The role of these spiritual advisors expanded during the pandemic. People from all walks of life suffer, especially frontline health care providers. The heroes in scrubs are never far from Culpepper’s mind. “COVID-19 has been like a long slog through mud. You see the weariness in people’s faces. Some nurses changed departments or retired due to stress. New nurses stepped in to help. Physicians return daily to the battlefield. I witness amazing people fulfilling their calling to serve.”

Vivenzio agrees. “I am always impressed by the commitment and work ethic of the staff. COVID-19 and 2020 tested the Health System, but the public can be proud.”

Thanks to the chaplains, Shelly McKinney, R.N., nurse manager for the 4 St. Simons COVID-19 unit, knows her team is cherished. “Every single Wednesday morning at 6:45 a.m., throughout this pandemic, Wright Culpepper offered prayers and blessings for our staff,” McKinney says.

When COVID-19 interfered with Culpepper’s annual Blessing of the Hands, where he blesses and anoints caregiver hands with oil, McKinney devised a plan. Staff members traced their hands, cut out the tracings and glued them to posters. They wrote their names, family and patient names on the tracings. “I moved through the hallways, placing a little oil and offering prayers. It warmed my heart that this was important enough for them to make sure the blessings occurred,” says Culpepper.

When local churches closed their doors or limited services due to the pandemic, the chaplains began offering weekly communion in the hospital chapel. “Many come for the offering or to pray to re-center themselves spiritually,” Culpepper says. When the hospital restricted visitors for health safety reasons, hospital chaplains took over the duties of local clergy by ministering to patients.

Leading with Compassion
COVID-19 plunged our world into a state of collective mourning. We have lost so much – from loved ones to jobs, school routines and human connection. In dark times, however, there will always be guides. Vivenzio recalls a dying woman, broken hearted because she had never been baptized. As he performed the baptism ritual at her bedside, she wept, saying, “I can meet my God now.”

Reflecting on the last year, Culpepper puts the struggle in perspective. “In the early days, there was fear. Then, there was resolve to continue the fight. Now, with the vaccine, there is hope. The vaccine has been a big help to the mental health of our health care providers.” He draws strength from God, his family and community.

COVID-19 changed our world overnight, but Culpepper urges us to remember that which never changes. “The God of generations past is the God of today and of generations to come. Trust in the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of all there is.”

To help support programs like Pastoral Care Services, call Southeast Georgia Health System Foundation at 912-466-3360.