Culpeper Presbyterian Church marked the end of an era Sunday.
The church’s annual Christmas play, “A Christmas Epiphany,” marked the church’s official goodbye to longtime pastor The Rev. Wayne Bernardo who will retire at the end of the year.
More than 200 people crammed into the church and hundreds more watched on YouTube in the church’s hall as Bernardo acted in the Christmas play and said goodbye to the congregation.
“This is kind of crossing the rubicon thing, there’s no turning back,” Bernardo said. “It’s time. I feel it. I’m proud of what we have and our journey together. I’m also excited for the future. I can’t wait to see what the next person brings in and where this congregation goes next.”
The church has changed immensely over the 27 years – growing with new buildings and new faces but one thing has stayed the same, the feeling of love inside the building.
“Words can’t express,” Bernardo said. “It’s my family. Everyone there is in some way part of my family and I pray I was part of theirs. It was like a giant family reunion.”
Bernardo has touched lives throughout the church. His compassion for others and his ability to communicate no matter the demographic has endeared him to everyone who has crossed his path – either as a member or just as a visitor.
Capturing his quiet love was a challenge that music director Cheryl Jarvis embraced.
“This is probably the most special moment I’ve had at this church in the last 11-12 years,” Jarvis said. “Last year Wayne challenged me to top the play from last year. This year I kept looking for plays and nothing worked, so I said ‘it’s time to write our own.’”
That play centered on a homeless man – Ray, played by Bernardo – trying to find a quiet moment in the church’s memorial garden. His quiet moments are often broken by loud members of the church, distraught over the fact their pastor is retiring. As they practice the play, they interact with Ray – actually Bernardo trying to find his own quiet moment – and they break out in song praising the Lord.
The play was based on a song written by congregation member Mort Chiles and then the play was filled in with original music by Jarvis, Bailey and Tracy Hayes and more.
Bernardo was part of it from the start, but small surprises were built in to keep him on his toes.
“I think he’s overwhelmed,” Jarvis said with a laugh.
Katherine Ayers, a member of the church’s 2018 class of session members, said the church has had only about six pastors in its 204 year history. Bernardo has been a strong part of that foundation, and one of his strengths has been his ability to act. Ayers recalled the time in 2014 when he portrayed the Rev. Thomas Hooper for a whole hour.
“He has such a knack for putting himself in the position, carrying out the character and putting it into the word of God,” Ayers said. “He has a way of relating to all generations,. He’s so calm, he’s such a great listener.”
Listening and quickly responding is what Tracy Hayes will remember most about her pastor and friend. Tracy’s son Bailey faced a life threatening disease in 2013, when he was ill with the flu and pneumonia. He had to be revived four times and the prayers from the church and Bernardo’s compassion were part of what kept him going.
“Going through what we went through, it was obviously something that had never happened before,” Tracy said. “Wayne was the center of this massive church family push that supported us. It was constant lifting up. Wayne was such an intrical part of that. We really learned what a church family was like.”
Her eyes watered as she talked about the importance he and his family have had.
“He’s much more than a minister to me,” Tracy said. “We have a personal relationship. We go out to eat and we see each other outside of church. For me it’s a little bittersweet because I’m going to be sad that I won’t see him up on the pulpit. I’ve come to grips with him needed to retire. We’re looking forward to whoever fills his shoes.”
Bailey Hayes, who shared his gift of song with Bernardo during the play, said that the minister has played a big role in his life.
“It’s very special,” Bailey Hayes said. “Rev. Wayne has been so utterly compassionate and giving and has just our hearts when we needed it the most. I’m just honored to be a part of this.”
At the end of the play, Bernardo’s wife Margaret – known as “Dita” to all of the children in the church – came to retrieve and tell him it was time to come home.
It was a fitting way to end his time as minister.
“I’ve done what I can do,” Bernardo said. “I love our time together. Everyone in this building is in my heart. Everybody has different gifts and skills and I’ve done what I can do. I’m excited to see what’s coming.”