Pastors representing the Covington area churches involved with community Holy Week services include, from left, Covington First United Methodist Church Pastor Doug Gilreath, First Presbyterian Church of Covington Pastor Billy Wade, St. Paul AME Church Pastor Thomas Stegall, Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd Pastor Edwin Beckham, and First Baptist Church of Covington Pastor Cody McNutt. Not shown is Grace United Methodist Church Pastor Matt Murphy. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)
Bringing to life the very picture of Christian unity, half a dozen churches in Newton County will again celebrate Holy Week together as they host five community-wide services of preaching, music and fellowship. Everyone is invited to join in the celebration, which begins Monday, April 14 and continues through Good Friday.
“I don’t know how long this has been going on, but it was going on before I got here and I’ve been here 28 years,” said the Rev. Billy Wade, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Covington, which is hosting this year’s Holy Week services.
Wade, who jokes that he’s been here so long all the rest kind of look to him to say whose turn it is to host, said other churches involved include Grace United Methodist Church, St. Paul AME Church, The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, First Baptist Church of Covington and Covington First United Methodist Church.
“I think so often we get caught up in our own churches and what’s going on with us and inwardly focus,” Wade said. “This has been one way we have lifted our eyes a little bit and remembered that we are bigger than just one church and that we have a common voice that goes out into the community…
“This is an opportunity for us to worship together. Sometimes worship divides us because of our various theological understandings and rituals and just our styles of worship. We try to blend it a little bit in these services and people get to go into churches they probably don’t go into often. They have friends and when they get in there, they realize they know a lot of different people from different traditions.”
Sermons for the week typically focus on what the Gospels say Jesus was doing that week, but Wade said the daily sermons are not limited in topic. The five weekday services begin at noon and include half an hour of worship followed by a meal provided by the host church. Wade said there is a suggested donation price for the meal, which usually consists of various soups and salads.
This year’s Holy Week celebration, which is at First Presbyterian located at 1169 Clark St. in Covington, begins on Monday with a message by the Rev. Thomas Stegall, senior pastor of St. Paul AME (African Methodist Episcopal).
Stegall, who was ordained an AME church deacon in 1993 and an elder in 1995, served four years in the U.S. Marines before coming back to his native Georgia and completing his degree at St. Leo College in Atlanta. He also holds a master in divinity degree from Turner Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.
Stegall has held numerous positions within the denomination, including vice president of the AME Ministers’ Union, member of the Board of Examiners for the East Atlanta District and the Atlanta North Georgia Annual Conference. He serves on the Trustee Board for the Atlanta North Georgia Conference. Stegall’s community affiliations include One Voice in Covington and the Newton County Ministers’ Union.
On Tuesday, the Rev. Doug Gilreath, senior pastor of Covington First United Methodist Church will preach the message. Gilreath holds a degree in psychology from Kennesaw College and University. After graduation, he became involved with a young adult Bible study and through a series of events, Gilreath was led to enter the candidacy program for ordained ministry and enrolled at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.
He was ordained an elder and became the first full-time pastor in the 172-year history of the Mountain Valley Circuit in Cleveland. He served there eight years before being appointed to Locust Grove UMC. He completed his doctorate in Christian spirituality at Columbia School of Theology. Gilreath was appointed to the church in Covington in 2009.
The minister for Wednesday’s Holy Week service is the Rev. Cody McNutt, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Covington. A native of West Memphis, Ark., McNutt received his bachelor’s degree in communication and a minor in religious studies from the University of Arkansas.
He moved to Louisville, Ky., where he began working on his master of divinity degree and became pastor of New Heights Baptist Church. He received both his master’s and doctor of philosophy degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
McNutt received his doctorate in 2012, and continued to pastor New Heights Baptist, a church he led for eight years prior to receiving the call from the First Baptist Church of Covington to become its senior pastor late last year.
On Thursday, the observance of communion will be held during the service and Wade and the Rev. Matt Murphy, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, will officiate.
Wade, who came to the Covington church in 1986 after serving as associate pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charleston, S.C., comes from a family with a strong Presbyterian heritage with other family members also serving as ordained ministers. He grew up in Decatur and graduated from Presbyterian College in 1975. He received the Columbia Fellowship and other top honors from Columbia Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1980. He was also ordained that year and began serving the church in Charleston that same year, as well.
Wade has served on numerous boards and councils throughout the community and in his denomination. He is co-founder of the Newton and Morgan Counties’ Habitat for Humanity and founded and chaired the board of the Community Food Pantry of Newton County. He received the 1990 Newton County MLK I Have A Dream Award.
Wade has been active in the governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church (USA), having served as moderator of the Presbytery of greater Atlanta and he continues to serve on numerous boards and councils. He has also served as commissioner to the General Assembly.
Murphy, who is a native of Chicago, Ill., grew up going to the Baptist church. In the 1970s, he became a Methodist and was called into the ministry in his early 20s. Murphy went to Clayton Junior College, which is now Clayton State College, and transferred to Georgia State University for his undergraduate degree. He went to the Candler School of Theology where he received a master’s in divinity.
Murphy has been an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church for 25 years. Prior to his appointment to Grace UMC in Covington 11 years ago, the pastor served churches in Atlanta, Griffin and Gainesville.
The Good Friday service will be led by Father Edwin Beckham, pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. Beckham was on his way to becoming a history professor and working in Washington, D.C. for the American Historical Association, when he realized he was being called into the ministry. He had just left graduate school and had a growing family. Ten years later, he was ordained as a minister in the Episcopal Church.
Before coming to Covington, Beckham served as an associate minister for Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Athens for a number of years. A native of Greenville, S.C., Beckham grew up in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He became involved in the Episcopal denomination during his undergraduate years in college.
Beckham holds a history degree from Furman University in South Carolina. He completed his master of divinity degree at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest.
Beth Slaughter Sexton is a freelance writer based in Gwinnett County.
Contact her at email@example.com.