Beloved Toledo Pastor, “Not Really” Retiring, Prepares for Ongoing Urban Impact
By Mark Butzow
In 1961, a young man and his wife got lost on their way to an interview in Toledo, Ohio. As they drove around downtown, what they saw while trying to find First Church of God that day convinced them they wanted the job—and they wanted to stay long-term.
“We got a nice tour because the driver first took us to the wrong address. We drove past the museum, the University of Toledo and such. We decided in the car ‘if they ask us to come here to pastor, we are going to stay here for a long time,’” Culp said in an August interview.
And they did stay. Rev. Dr. Robert Culp started as lead pastor that fall, a few years after finishing ministerial studies at Anderson University (then Anderson College), where the tall Pennsylvania youth also played varsity basketball. He did graduate work at Anderson, too, while at his first pastorate in Danville, Illinois. Now, sixty years later, Bishop Culp is set to retire from his pastoral role in Toledo.
He and First Lady Dr. Maggie Culp leave behind a large congregation served by more than a dozen ministers who offer support to members, as well as the greater Toledo community.
“He has certainly been a wonderful pastor, in every sense of the word,” offers Rev. Dr. Janice Carson Hearn, ordained in 1988. “Pastor Culp took me under his wing, instructed and fed me (and all members of his congregation) the Word of God, which he has lived and faithfully modeled. He has patiently, tirelessly encouraged, supported, guided, and advised me in establishing the prison ministry, the home ministry, the annual Boys2Men conferences, and other assignments over the course of many years.”
During his entire six decades in Toledo, Bishop Culp has been involved in bettering the conditions for Toledo’s low-income neighbors, and that won’t be changing now.
“My retirement from being lead pastor here at First Church is not really a retirement, but shifting roles,” Culp said. He is diving headfirst into an ambitious community service project—transforming a closed satellite campus of the University of Toledo into a hub for community services programming.
“Me and a couple of other churches just recently met with the mayor (Wade Kapszukiewicz). The city is planning to take over the campus of Scott Park, which closed a year ago. It includes seven buildings with about 200,000 square feet of space,” Culp said. The coalition working on this hopes to utilize it for community services to help the homeless; teach skills to those who’ve been in prison, as well as to the general population; and to provide programs for improving mental health, decreasing domestic violence, and similar efforts.
Culp says the group will apply for several million dollars in grants to update air conditioning and heating systems at the campus and replace dated roofing. In three years’ time, he says, they will have 100 employees.
That type of commitment is Bishop Culp’s legacy, and he says it started at the end of his freshman year when another student opened his eyes to the unfair plight of the Black community at that time. “I decided that day I was going to change all that, how I treated everybody,” Culp said. “How I treat others is more important than how they treat me.”
Reverend Culp’s activism for the Black community took the form of efforts like:
- involvement with the NAACP and other groups working to fight discrimination early in his time in Toledo, building on efforts he made while a college student in the late 1950s. (He helped to get several businesses in Anderson, Indiana, to open their doors to Blacks for the first time.);
- helping convince the Toledo City Council in the late 1960s to pass a fair housing ordinance against redlining. While it was later overturned by voters, Federal law soon helped reduce that discriminatory housing practice; and
- creating a corporation of sorts to expand job opportunities for the poor in Toledo. At its peak, the corporation had a McDonald’s franchise, two grocery stores, and a small factory. “It helped community members with spiritual life and the quality of their lives, really,” he recalls.
Toledo can expect more of the same from Bishop Culp in the years to come.
“I’ve enjoyed all of it. Community leaders have cooperated quite well. We’ve opened doors.” As to the secret of his success? “There is always quite a lot of turnover” in churches, activist organizations, etc. “Having somebody they can know and love gives them trust. That helps open doors.” Bishop Culp has certainly done that, thanks to a commitment to the city of Toledo and her people which he and his wife made sixty years ago.
Mark Butzow operates Mark My Words Ink, a freelance writing and editing service, and is a former journalism instructor, broadcast journalist, newspaper reporter and copy editor. He lives in Madison County, Indiana, with his wife, a first-grade teacher at Liberty Christian School in Anderson.