One year ago today, I got a text that said, “Have you heard?” It was about 7:00 on Sunday morning, and I hadn’t heard anything. I’d just gotten out of the shower and was about to eat breakfast. I hadn’t even started perusing Facebook yet. So, I responded, “No. What’s up?” The message I got back was one I never expected. “Chuck died early this morning.”
Chuck Culpepper was my priest and the reason not only that I go to church, but probably the reason I still call myself a Christian. He was a mentor, a leader, a jokester, an inspiration, a croquet professional, baseball lover, big kid, and my friend. For my whole life up until I started going to St. Alexis Episcopal Mission in an old warehouse in downtown Jackson, I went to church because it was expected of me. But, after my first time hearing Chuck preach, I started going because I wanted to. I needed to. I became part of a community, and even met my long-time across the street neighbor there.
Chuck’s sermons had a relaxing quallity. They always started off with a story that somehow tied into the day’s scripture, though sometimes I would’ve never thought it could. The stories were almost always stories of his life growing up in Meridian, losing his father at a young age, his grandmother’s influence on him, his time in law school, the navy, or seminary, or any number of other experiences. Even though humor was usually involved, his sermons seemed to always curve around to a softening of his voice, and he would wrap up in a way that let you know God was in the room with you.
This is one of his stories about us being called to be fishers of men that I remember well.
When he was in the Navy, he was stationed in Virginia, and while he was there, one of his friends on the ship was getting married somewhere on the coast of North Carolina. He and a couple buddies were groomsmen, so they all loaded up in a car and drove down for the day. It was a summer wedding, so it was hot in their rented tuxedos in an un-air conditioned church. Also, being a Baptist wedding, the reception consisted of mostly sherbet punch and pimento & cheese sandwiches. So, being sailors, he and his buddies couldn’t wait to get out of there. As soon as they could split, they stripped off the monkey suits and headed for the nearest store they could find that sold beer. The group of them went in and bought a Styrofoam cooler, several 6 packs, a bag of ice, and some snacks for the drive back to base. When they put the items on the counter to pay for them, the man behind the counter looked at them and said, “You boys must be going fishing.”
Charles Leland Culpepper
4/11/1950 – 7/28/2019