By Rhonda Jessup, Director of Public Relations at the University of Mount Olive
Brendan Hooker of Garner had a rocky start in life. A child of divorce, he struggled with his identity, family connections, and friend choices.
“I considered myself to have been a rather difficult person to get along with until I found religion near the end of high school,” he admits. “Mental health issues and a general feeling of being unwanted made me act out in ways I’m not proud of.”
Once Hooker found Jesus Christ, he said, “I began to improve myself on moral grounds, as well as tackle the internal struggles that were negatively influencing my well-being.”
Hooker became a kinder and more outgoing person. Rather than avoiding him, people began to gravitate toward Hooker. “I was finally able to accept myself, and I became comfortable associating with others,” he said. “I began to form positive relationships that opened up fantastic opportunities to me.”
One of those opportunities came about during his studies at the University of Mount Olive (UMO), where Hooker was a student from the fall of 2018 until the spring of 2022. Majoring in English and minoring in psychology, Hooker accepted an internship during the spring of his senior year with the History Department at Wayne County Public Library. “One of my English professors, Dr. Alexis Poe-Davis, actually recommended the position to me,” he said.
During the six-week internship, Hooker’s responsibilities included attending lectures, helping teach classes on genealogy resources, and assisting other librarians. His favorite part of the job was writing for the library’s monthly newsletter, “The Big Ditch.” “I was really able to put my writing skills to work,” he said.
Hooker enjoyed the experience so much that, at the close of the internship, he applied for and accepted a position as a Digital Navigator. Since then, he has been promoted to Library Assistant/Public Relations Coordinator, effective August 1. In this new role, he will soon relocate to the Mount Olive branch of the Wayne County library system.
“My internship helped me to realize that libraries have so many great resources to offer in addition to books,” Hooker said. “My ultimate take-away is that you should take an opportunity when it is presented to you.”
Hooker plans to seek his librarian certification as he continues his passion of public service within Wayne County Government. He currently resides in Warsaw, NC.
“I am so grateful for the life-long bonds I formed while at UMO,” he said. “The quality of education that I received from my professors will help me achieve anything I set my mind to accomplishing.”
The University of Mount Olive is a private institution rooted in the liberal arts tradition with defining Christian values. The University is sponsored by the Convention of Original Free Will Baptists. For more information, visit www.umo.edu.
In 1946, Frank Capra told a story about how the life of one ordinary man in one typical small town made a difference that impacted the world. This story went on to become an icon of the holiday season and a movie many of us watch every year, but this year became the year I lived it.
For eight and a half years, I taught proudly at Wayne Community College. It was a job I had prayed for and thanked God for daily. Then Covid-19 happened, and we all shifted to working remotely. I worked primarily from home but went into my office occasionally. When I did, everything had changed. Fellowship was truncated. Everyone kept masked in their separate offices and rarely socialized anymore. Covid-19 stole the heart of our connection to each other. That impacted me more than I realized.
I thought the grass was greener in other departments, but I had no opportunity to move there. Then I thought the grass was greener outside the pasture, and I left Wayne Community College.
It was a golden opportunity that promised to pay me double what I made teaching and let me stay home all day building curriculum. Within three months, I was putting down money on land and finally building my house. Before the land was fully in my name and the contractor was hired, I was fired.
Closed Doors = Opportunities
I didn’t see it coming, and I was in shock. Then I got angry. God and I had a few choice words as I walked my property and realized I couldn’t move forward with the dream and everything I had longed for was on hold once more.
I felt so foolish. If I had known it would end like this, I would have never left Wayne Community College. Sitting in a field full of weeds looking like I’d lost my mind, I cried out to God for answers.
God didn’t answer me in that moment or even the next ten, but He did answer. First of all, He showed me that the cost of building during Covid was so high that I would have been upended if I started the house build when I wanted to. It was better to let the ground rest for now.
Secondly, He showed me that He had to let me go through all that to pull me out of my comfort zone and into my calling as a writer. As a teacher, I didn’t make time for writing. I thought I would just wait till I retired. God said, “nope, I need you now.”
The Difference One Life Can Make
What proceeded to happen was a series of open doors that only could have happened by God’s hand. I walked into small businesses, corporate offices, and local government and found favor to tell stories about all sorts of people and places. The blog grew to an international readership in over 30 countries with over 10,000 views. That gave me a platform to talk about social issues and advocate for change on a national and global level. All of a sudden, this little ordinary girl in a little ordinary town was making a big world difference.
Doing the right thing doesn’t always pay you back monetarily. In fact, this year closes out on the lowest bottom-line in my bank. But what God and I have built together this year on faith is something I couldn’t have imagined with thousands of dollars and plenty of job security.
What God Saw That I Couldn’t
In the Fall, parents across the country were enraged with Covid-19 restrictions hurting learning for their kids, LGBTQ agendas forced into education, and Critical Race Theory being taught in school. Even at the college level now, curricula are being rewritten to divide people over issues of race and sexuality. As I watched the news unfold, God spoke to me:
I was contacted by a K-12 school in Minnesota. The administrator and I had met in a small group online, and she had been reading my work at The Bohemian Princess Journal. She called and asked me to write her school’s entire curriculum.
With 75 committed families on the line, it just got serious. God started putting people in my path to partner with me in the vision. All of a sudden, I knew what to do and who to pull in to help make the best curricula possible for them. The biggest project of 2022 will be creating this curriculum.
Simultaneously over the summer and fall, I was busy networking with small businesses, local government, and non-profit organizations. God opened doors for me to walk into places I never thought I would go, and He gave me favor with important people when I went there. Out of those meetings came paying writing gigs and networking connections that would build into 2022 and beyond. From those opportunities came bigger opportunities to help my town and community in tangible ways including partnerships with Wayne Community College to bring classes into the community. That’s when God revealed another truth.
This year didn’t start out to be anything I thought it would be and, like George Bailey, I had some dark moments where I didn’t want to be part of it anymore. But God saw me and all the talents I was hiding and called me out of hiding forevermore. Rebecca J. Whitman Writing Services and The Bohemian Princess Journal are here to stay. I can truly say, now, that it is a wonderful life in Mount Olive.
I am not sure about God’s timing, but this year has taught me to discern God’s voice and follow it no matter what it tells me to do because there is always a reason for it. God has sent me on some crazy adventures this year and shown His hand in more ways than I can count. Here are some of the adventures slated for 2022:
Build a non-denominational Christian curricula for K-12 instruction that is also applicable to Adult Education
Launch The Bohemian Princess Journal into weekly podcasts on Mondays.
Streamline the content and change the look of the website; make blog posts follow a theme and post once a week on Fridays.
Work with non-profits, churches, and small businesses to write promotional materials and branch into social media marketing.
Please pray for the success of these adventures and consider donating to keep the work going.
May you be blessed and may God shake your own foundations and send you on new adventures in 2022.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed…
It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself.
All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
On November 20, 2021, Mount Olive, NC will see the inauguration of the second-largest event since its globally recognized Pickle Festival. We think it is a pretty big Dill, so we decided to cover it for today’s story. With some advanced notice, hopefully, no one will be left Squealin’ that they missed out on all the fun. Excitement is Brewing in Mount Olive, and we hope you will be a part of it.
The Pickles, Pigs, and Swigs event was created to celebrate the role of agriculture in our community. An NC Pork Council whole hog cookoff will feature 20 cook teams competing from 8:00 pm tonight (November 19, 2021) till Saturday morning. On Saturday morning, the teams will be judged and prizes will be awarded. Then the hogs will be chopped up, seasoned, and combined with side dishes to be sold per plate to the public. 4,500 hush puppies, 75 gallons of potatoes, and 63 gallons of slaw will be prepared for the event. Plates are $10 each and include chopped BBQ, slaw, BBQ potatoes, and hush puppies. People can purchase plates through a drive-thru by the Southern Bank building downtown (previously at the old Train Depot) or they can come and sit down and enjoy the festivities.
A fenced-in beer garden will be available for people to purchase and consume beer from a local craft brewer, R&R Brewing. Fifteen local vendors will be set up including vendors making funnel cakes and kettle corn. The Mount Olive Pickle Company will have pickles as well as a pickle train ride for kids. Antique tractors will be out on display. A partnership with the University of Mount Olive will provide corn hole and giant board games like Jenga and Connect Four for people to enjoy.
Live entertainment will be provided from 11:00AM-6:00PM by North Carolina artists on the following schedule:
4-6:00PM: Riggsbee Road, an all-female bluegrass/country/cover band from Raleigh, NC. The lead vocalist, Shelley Kelly, is a Mount Olive native excited to come home and support her hometown.
The event is expected to see between 2-3,000 people come to the North and South 100 block of Center Street, Mount Olive, NC on November 20, 2021. Funds raised from the event will go back into the community through the Mount Olive Community Development Corporation. Efforts are underway to revitalize downtown Mount Olive and bring people back to the downtown area.
After a year of COVID pandemic isolation, we all need hope and something to celebrate in the community again. Life is far more intentional now. It is the hope that this event will be a part of building civic pride and community spirit as people come out safely and have a good time. If you are in the area, we hope to see you there!
Did You Miss It?
Here are some photo highlights from the inaugural event. If you heard of the fun and were left squealin’, make sure you add this event to your calendar next year.
I grew up under the ministry of Pastor Ferrell Hardison at Whitley Church (now The Bridge) in Princeton, NC. He raised us to see church ministry like we are all part of the same team. Jesus is the name on the front of the jersey; our church name is on the back. What matters is the name on the front of that jersey. I’ll partner with any church that let’s us work with them (to serve our community) because it is about advancing the Gospel not one church over another.
Andrew Price, Pastor of The Bridge Church, Mount Olive, NC
Andrew Price is a small town, country preacher with deep roots and agricultural heritage in the community he serves today, but he will be the first one to tell you how surprised he was to end up the pastor of a church in his hometown. Introduced to the Bridge Church (then Whitley Pentecostal Holiness Church) as a teenager with his mother, Andrew has been a part of The Bridge Church NC for many years.
When God called him into the ministry, it began as a job at Falcon Children’s Home and Family Services, an outreach of the Pentecostal Holiness Church serving at-risk children and families. There were many challenges to the work, but the highlight of that time was the fact that Andrew met and married his wife, Nicole, there. Nicole and Andrew both credit their time in service at Falcon Children’s Home for setting important foundational lessons to the ministries they would go on to lead later.
Purchasing a home in Mount Olive, Andrew and Nicole laugh when they recall the early years of their marriage. They say they “really were living on love back then; we didn’t have much.” Nevertheless, God put a seed of hope in their hearts that they could do something for God in the town of Mount Olive, NC.
Andrew took a position as the Children’s Pastor for The Bridge Church in Princeton, NC, and Nicole took a job teaching music in Wayne County then (later) Johnston County Public Schools. It made more sense for them to move closer to their jobs, so they rented out their Mount Olive house and made the move. This could have been a moment to feel defeated because they were leaving Mount Olive, but they didn’t. They knew God was in the move and would not disappoint them in the journey regardless of where the road ended.
Pastor Ferrell Hardison, then Senior Pastor of The Bridge Church NC, became a mentor and friend to Andrew and Nicole. He knew their heart for Mount Olive, but, at that time, that was not part of the vision for The Bridge. The Bridge Church was one church with two locations, Princeton and Goldsboro, and it was very intentional about how any further locations would happen. When the next location was attempted, it wasn’t Mount Olive, it was Smithfield. Pastor Ferrell asked Andrew to take the point on that launch because he knew he had a pastor’s heart. Andrew accepted and learned a lot during his time in Smithfield that would help him later as well.
Going to Smithfield was short-lived and seemed in the opposite direction of where they wanted to be, but it would not be the only time the Prices were left to question God’s plan. In 2013, the hurt hit close to home with the loss of their first son, Anthony Jordan Price. They still remember and celebrate Jordan every year with family trips to his grave. Jordan was just 40 weeks old when he died, yet he was a part of this world from the moment of conception.
It is hard to come through such devastating personal loss and see beauty on the other side of it, but Jordan is now a big brother to three brothers who have learned to value life more acutely because he existed. No life, no matter how short it is lived, is without value.
The Ministry Structure
Looking from the outside in, it is easy to misjudge The Bridge Church NC. Are they competition to other churches–even in their own denomination? Are they spreading the Gospel or just another rock-star contemporary church with a feel-good message? To all these questions and more, I point you to the Bible. 1 Corinthians 3 teaches us that denominations are not the point; we are all co-workers in God’s service. In John 17, Jesus himself prayed for a spirit of unity not division amongst Christians. As Pastor Ferrell explained it, we are like members of a football team, and when we go out on the field (in ministry in the community) it is as a team united with other churches, not in competition against them. The Bridge Church NC expands into locations the Lord directs its leadership to go, and it reaches people that haven’t been able to be reached any other way. Whenever possible, they work with other churches and organizations to make a bigger impact in the community through acts of volunteer service and giving to the needy.
As a whole, The Bridge Church NC is one church with, now, four locations. In addition to ministry outreaches in Kentucky and Belize, The Bridge Church is located in Princeton, Goldsboro, Mount Olive, and Smithfield. Though the sermon points are generally the same every service across all four locations, the personalities, strengths, and stories of each pastor as well as the locations themselves make each location different.
Since its growth into a multi-site church under the leadership of Pastor Ferrell Hardison, The Bridge Church NC has fostered a sense of volunteerism and community engagement unparalleled in many churches today. Moving forward under the leadership of Pastor Jim Wall, the church is strategically building a legacy to pass on to future generations. Members of The Bridge NC give of their time, talent, and treasure because they want to partner with the vision of the church and with its outreach to the community. They are excited to serve and see Jesus at work in their hometowns, and they volunteer as an act of stewardship and obedience to Christ.
The Bridge Mount Olive Story
When The Bridge decided to go to Mount Olive in 2016, Pastor Ferrell, Andrew, and Nicole rejoiced that things had come back around full circle to answer this desire of their hearts.
The first location was a very humble beginning in a rented auditorium at the University of Mount Olive (UMO). It was the beginning of a beautiful partnership with the college that continues today, but it was not an easy place to serve. Every Sunday was a pop-up that had to be set up and torn down by a small group of volunteers starting around 6:00 AM every morning. When Covid happened, UMO had to press pause on its partnerships with outside organizations–and that included The Bridge Church.
Having to find a new place to meet felt like a punch of defeat. How could they come so far just to be shut down now? With two weeks left at the college and no place to go thereafter, Andrew felt God say in his spirit: “we’re not done”. He made the need for a location known to the people of The Bridge Mount Olive and asked everyone to pray and put out feelers in the community.
From those prayers and conversations came the opportunity to rent the Dudley Christian Disciples of Christ Church’s fellowship hall on Sundays. In less than a year of partnership together, Dudley Christian reevaluated the lease agreement and opened up more opportunities for The Bridge Church Mount Olive to access the property and grow in its ministry. The primarily older congregation at Dudley Christian said they were blessed by the sound of the children everywhere.
We feel like neighbors, but we want to feel like family.
Leadership of Dudley Christian Disciples of Christ Church
The desire to grow together as a family led the two churches to have their first combined service on November 7, 2021. They look forward to more growth and collaboration in the future.
The Bridge is not just a place I go, it is a people with whom my family can pursue Christ.
Ronnie Wise, Congregational Life Director
Where They Are Headed
The Bridge Church Mount Olive has an exciting future ahead of them. Celebrating 5 years in the community in October 2021, they plan to be here for many more years to come. Over the next months and years, they plan to invest strategically in growing their ministries to kids and students as well as outreaches into the community and UMO.
For more information about The Bridge Church Mount Olive, check out their Instagram, Facebook, and website. You are also welcome to join them for Sunday morning services at 10:00 AM here.
When you walk into the new location of the Southern Ground Coffee Shop at 1037 N. Breazeale Avenue in Mount Olive, NC, you immediately notice it is not your normal commercial experience. Farmhouse style home decor, handmade hardwood tables, a corner booth filled with pillows, and plush, earth tone couches and chairs welcome you. Girls behind a long colonial blue beadboard counter with coffee beans epoxied into the top greet you by name and take your order. These girls are more than baristas; they are family to the owners, Amy and Robbie Brogden. The personalized care they put into their service is a trademark quality of the location. They don’t just know their regulars by name, they know what they want to drink and what temperature they want to drink it.
The Journey Here
Before we can celebrate where Southern Ground is today, we need to tell the story of where they have been. Owners Amy and Robbie Brogden did not see coffee in their future when they met and started dating 8 years ago. Amy was a successful independent woman in the securities industry in Wilmington. Robbie was a father with four teenagers and his own construction business in Mount Olive. Though they saw the potential for partnership in each other, they took their time getting to know each other before they were ready for marriage. When they did marry, Amy took a position in insurance sales in Duplin county. Amy’s manager encouraged her to increase her sales by working from a local coffee shop and letting the busyness lead conversations and potential sales to her. The problem was that there were no coffee shops in Mount Olive. That need birthed the idea for Southern Ground.
When Amy told her husband about the advice from her manager and the idea of a coffee shop, he took her driving around the town of Mount Olive. Coming from a family with deep roots in the community and over fifty years of knowledge serving it himself, Robbie knew that the right location for a business like that would be near Interstate 117 and the University of Mount Olive. With no business plan and no money in the bank to fund it, they found the perfect location, made the decision to act on it, and did every sort of odd job they could to pay for it.
My husband is the kind of person that you don’t tell something to unless you really want it. He is an encourager and will move heaven and earth to make that thing come true for you even if it means he has to work hard, long hours to do it. His confidence empowers me. We are a team, and when we work together, the dream happens.
I’m not scared to take a chance. If you don’t play the game, you know you’re going to lose. I make a decision and live in the reality of it, not the fairytale.
Faith in Business
Both Amy and Robbie Brogden were raised in Christian homes, and that faith is the root of their business. Southern Ground is not overtly religious nor does it hound guests with the Bible, but neither are they ashamed of who they are and hiding it. Most of the girls serving are Christians as well as the owners, and they are kind and respectful to everyone. They genuinely don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings; nevertheless, what you see is what you get with them. They won’t sugar-coat things or change who they are to please others. Southern Ground knows they won’t be liked by everybody, and that’s okay.
The Brogdens are also hard-workers with giver mindsets. Often working 80-100 hour weeks, they give most of what they make to the community because it is what they feel they are supposed to do. They are not perfect people. “I disappoint God everyday,” Amy says. “I am so not worthy. But He knows we are trying hard, and He is honoring that not just for us, but for the others that come in here.”
How Covid Affected Their Business
While Covid-19 caused many small businesses to close their doors, Southern Ground found its start in it. Campus closures and quarantine caused less traffic to come in from the university and businesses, but something surprising happened to fill the gap: Google. People began to intentionally Google search for them because they wanted to support a local small business. From this traffic, a loyal following developed, and many of those people still patron the business today.
Supernatural favor protected and blessed Southern Ground because God wanted them to be there. Far more than a cup of coffee, they are a place of service and ministry to the community. At Southern Ground, students congregate and study, small groups meet, and families hold celebrations. Southern Ground is a launching place for fellowship and wholesome, healing community. The impact of their business has only just begun.
Supporting Small Business
When they were just starting out, Amy had to learn everything she could about coffee. She researched the business and learned how to operate her business well. Amy and the girls on her team were mentored by other established coffee shops. They learned how to properly make and serve gourmet coffee and smoothie drinks, play with the ingredients, and make their own recipes. Those recipes are featured on their menu today, and Amy is now mentoring two women wanting to open two coffee shops in eastern North Carolina.
Southern Ground supports many small businesses and an example of this is in the fact that they source everything they can locally. “We are a small business and couldn’t make it without the small businesses supporting us,” says owner, Amy Brogden.
Southern Ground takes pride in the uncompromised quality of their products. Their coffee is exclusively sourced from a North Carolina roaster, Cactus Creek. Part of their partnership includes a proprietary blend, Southern Sunrise, that can only be purchased at Southern Ground Coffee Shop. The milk used is sourced locally from Simply Natural. Cinnamon rolls and other pastries come from local bakers, many of whom are in-home makers. Supplies used to remodel their shop came from local hardware stores including Jones True Value. Even their social media presence supports a local business, Daily Testify.
The First Location
The first location at 997-E Henderson Street, Mount Olive, was a beautiful hole in the wall that opened in 2020 and holds a lot of fond memories. Everyone at Southern Ground recalls times when the whole shop–every guest and employee–contributed to the same conversation. They loved that sense of community engagement, and they hope the new location will see more not less of it.
The first location was the place where standards of excellence in customer service and branding were established. In this place, Southern Ground Coffee Shop became known as a home away from home with Farmhouse Style similar to Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Fixer Upper and Magnolia Network. The commitment to make everything welcoming even extended to the bathrooms.
Advice for Business
Both Amy and Robbie agree that being in business for yourself is not for the faint of heart, but it’s worth it. The step of faith that started their business is still a step of faith today; all the profits from Southern Ground’s first location were put back into the business.
We knew God wanted us to open the shop because He kept putting the right people in our path to make it happen just when we needed them to be there.
When God does that, you have to go; don’t question it. It is a day-by-day step of faith and trust in Him. You figure it out along the way.
The new location more than doubled the space for Southern Ground from 1200 sq. ft. to over 2600 sq. ft. That extra room brings some exciting new perks along with favorites from the old shop.
For example, the large round Magnolia Co. clock iconic from the first location fills part of the back wall while a new stone fireplace and magnolia log mantle fill the other.
A large black and white conference room sits tucked behind a warm rust wall to the left of the fireplace featuring the signature dry-erase board from the old location.
A new white board gives the shop the opportunity to celebrate the diversity of their patrons. Guests are welcomed to sign it and share where they are from.
A drive-thru window welcomes guests to get service on the go without leaving their vehicles.
What’s Coming Soon
Artists from the Art Department at the University of Mount Olive are currently working with Southern Ground to put a mural on the side of the building.
A copper framed hood behind the counter welcomes a stove to expand the menu. Later this fall, Southern Ground plans to add soup, sandwiches, and salads to their gourmet coffee and smoothie menu.
Online ordering will soon make it possible to offer quicker service.