By Les High
Pastors across the nation have laid to rest hundreds of thousands of people who have died from COVID. Few, however, have had the heartbreaking task of Pastor Jerome Bullard of the Bridge of Life Church in Leland, who conducted the funerals of his father, brother and son, all of whom died from COVID within a span of 18 days in late July and August.
Bullard says he is comforted by the fact that he knows all three are in heaven. Still, a couple of weeks after the funerals, the loss hurts deeply.
“I loved my father and my brother, but no one should have to bury their children,” Bullard says.
Bullard is strong during the hour-long interview in his Bridge of Life Church office, but there are the emotional moments one would expect.
COVID caused deaths in three generations of the Bullard family – his father, Carlos D. Bullard Sr., 81, Jerome’s older brother Carlos D. Bullard Jr., 62, and Jerome’s son, Jerome (L.J.) Franklin Bullard Jr., 38. All three once worked at the nearby papermill, International Paper in Riegelwood, but they also farmed family land off Livingston Chapel and Brinkley roads south of Delco in eastern Columbus County.
Bullard pulls up a photo on his phone taken the day his father died July 28 at New Hanover Regional Medical Center after a brief fight with the virus that has killed nearly 650,000 Americans. The photo is of his father’s hands, dimly framed by the background of the sheets of his hospital bed.
“See those hands?” Bullard asks quietly. “I took a picture of his hands because those are the workingest hands I’ve ever seen.”
Later, Bullard shows pictures of a deer lane he recently bush hogged on 126 acres of family-owned land. Normally, L.J. (which stands for Little Jerome) would have had the tract in shape for the upcoming deer season, but he died of COVID on Aug. 15. All the Bullards enjoyed deer hunting.
Being together in the woods created a deep bond between L.J. and his stepson Wyatt, 15. “I just wanted to make sure Wyatt had a place to deer hunt this year,” Bullard says, his voice breaking.
A family built on faith
Bullard says going to church and reading the Bible were expected in his home as a boy.
“My momma and daddy were people of faith and my daddy was a student of the Word,” he says. “We saw him and Momma study it at home. They made sure we were in church. We were taught to believe Jesus is our savior.”
The family grew up farming tobacco, corn and soybeans. Jerome and Carlos Jr. bought their own farm when Jerome was 18 and Carlos Jr. 21.
In 1987 at age 26, Jerome began preaching part time at a Pentecostal Freewill Baptist Church in the nearby Rowan community. The church grew from 16 parishioners to 100 or more in the 12 years he was there, first as a part-time minister for five years then full time for seven.
He founded Bridge of Life in 2006 and in three years moved into a bay of a small industrial building in the Leland Industrial Park not far from his home in Delco. The church eventually bought the entire building in 2012. Bullard says there were 450-550 members pre-COVID and about 400 now who attend two services. Bullard’s son Wesley runs the church’s youth group of about 50. Bullard’s wife Gwen is a nurse but also the church’s administrator. They have been married nearly 40 years.
Wesley also preached at L.J.’s funeral, recalling how the two were typical brothers growing up but became close in their faith.
Jerome and Gwen got COVID at Christmas, 2020. Jerome described having flu-like symptoms while Gwen had some respiratory difficulty and lost her sense of taste and smell. Neither had to be hospitalized.
L.J. was the first member of the family to be hospitalized this summer. He had a pre-existing condition that came after he suffered a heart attack the previous April. He had to be brought back to life five times, Bullard says.
Carlos Sr. and Jerome’s mother, Esty, both came down with COVID in July.
“We saw them getting bad but Daddy didn’t want to go to the hospital,” Bullard says. “Momma didn’t want to go without Daddy, so I finally told him that if he didn’t go, Momma was going to die.”
Bullard said the family thought Esty was the one who might not survive because she’d had a stroke in 2015 and was partially debilitated, needing a walker to get around.
“Momma and Daddy were on the same hall,” Bullard says, “and they let Momma see Daddy just prior to his death. They called and told us he had gotten worse. We got about halfway to the hospital when they called back to tell us he had died.
“Daddy got bad fast,” Bullard continues, “but then he got better, off oxygen, walking around, then turned back bad again. He was cutting hay the day before he got sick.”
Carlos Jr. was also hospitalized and worsened quickly. He also had a pre-existing condition.
“My brother was on the ventilator, but he didn’t last long,” Bullard says. “He was a good man, too. He had a gentle spirit, very kind, and worked all his life at the paper mill. I wanted to be like him. He was that kind of person.”
He left behind a wife, Sharon, a son and daughter, Carlos Bullard III and Amy Bullard Patrick, and four grandchildren.
Sharon said the two had been together nearly 50 years as they dated through middle school and high school and were married 42 years. “People said if you didn’t like Carlos, you didn’t like anybody,” Sharon says.
“If it wasn’t for our faith we couldn’t make it. Nights are the worst. He always stayed outside working ‘til dark. I keep waiting for him to come in the house, but he’s not.”
Loss of L.J. hits hard
“L.J. loved life; he was funny,” Bullard says. “If you stayed around him long you were going to laugh, but he had a serious side too. He loved his country. If he believed in something, he didn’t sway. He was as good a student of the Word as his daddy. … He wasn’t ashamed to tell anybody about Jesus.”
“After L.J. had his heart attack last year, people at church were telling him they were glad he made it,” Bullard says. “He said ‘I’m glad, too, but if the Lord took me, I know where I was going.’”
In addition to Mary Evelyn, L.J. left behind three stepchildren: Hannah, 22, Alexis, 19, and Wyatt Willett.
“All three of them were his stepchildren but they loved him just like he was their dad,” Bullard says.
The three funerals were mostly upbeat celebrations, but they belied the sorrow Bullard felt underneath.
“I hurt through my daddy’s and brother’s funerals, but I never hurt like I did with my son. I’ve never been able to sympathize in this kind of deep way with someone who loses a child, but I can now because there’s nothing like it, nothing like losing a child, especially when I thought he would preach,” Bullard says, his voice cracking with emotion. “I thought L.J. would preach. But, you know, he did. He preached everywhere. They say he was the social media preacher. They said he was a workplace preacher. Everywhere he went, he preached.”
The past few weeks have been tough, Bullard says.
“My wife is taking it real hard. Mary Evelyn and Sharon are taking it hard. I’m taking it hard. I hold up pretty good in public, but when I get by myself is when I … me and the Lord have our moments.”
Did it test his faith?
“No. No sir. I say that with all humility. I’ve asked God why. I’ve got a tree stand I go to that I call my prayer tower. Sunday night prior to L.J. dying, he got bad off. I told Gwen, I was sitting around the hospital miserable because I couldn’t pray like I normally do. And I asked God and Gwen if it would be alright if I went home to be where I could talk to God out loud.”
On the trip home, though, a car pulled out in front of the car driven by his brother-in-law Roger. No one was hurt, but both vehicles were totaled.
“My whole objective was trying to get home and pray,” Bullard says. “I wondered if the enemy (Satan) was trying to stop me. I got home and prayed until a quarter after five. People all over the world were praying for us. Africa. Missionaries all over the world were praying. It really shocked us all when he didn’t make it.
“You know, I told my church Sunday, ‘Is (God) silent? Is he listening? What are you doing, God? Are the scriptures being fulfilled? You know I sometimes wrestle with God like Jacob did, especially that night we got in the wreck … but God’s got a perfect plan and that’s what I rely on.”
Bullard is guarded when asked about the vaccine and tensions among churches across the nation.
“We’re safe at this church,” he says. “We have hand sanitizer. We ask people not to shake hands and get into people’s faces. It’s an individual decision whether to come to church or not come to church. Some wear masks and some don’t. I don’t judge anybody. If they get the shot or don’t get the shot. I don’t preach against it. I’ve got my ideas about it, but those are my ideas.”
He estimates about half his congregation has been vaccinated.
Reflecting on L.J.’s funeral, Bullard says it was more joy than difficult.
“Because L.J. loved God and wasn’t scared to die, we are at peace. At the funeral, we laughed. There was spirituality. There was strength. I’ve preached funerals that were difficult because you didn’t know if the person was saved or not.
“COVID,” he says, “is no respecter of person.”