Jeanette Rupert smiles as she speaks to the crowd at George Floyd square in front of "Icon of a Revolution," a painting of Floyd by Peyton Scott Russell, in Minneapolis on April 20. Rupert grew up in the neighborhood and helped found 612 MASH, a nonprofit that provides medical treatment to people in and around George Floyd Square. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

Jeanette Rupert is still treating COVID-19 patients in Methodist Hospital’s intensive care unit, a job she took when the pandemic started. 

This story also appeared in Minnesota Public Radio News

“It’s a lot less intense. I do believe the vaccine played a role in that,” she said. “Things are looking up.”

She’s still volunteering in George Floyd Square, with a nonprofit she helped launch in the wake of Floyd’s death that provides free preventive health care. It now has a brick-and-mortar location that will soon be a walk-in clinic.

Rev. Jesse Jackson addresses the crowd at George Floyd Square as Jeanette Rupert and Spike Moss listen as people gather at the square to celebrate the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin on April 20. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

And in the midst of everything, Rupert’s work has earned her recognition and awards. Rupert, who is also a minister, has been, with other members of her family, a mainstay in George Floyd Square, helping to plan protests, memorials and other events. 

Rupert said she’s navigated feelings of hopelessness, fear — and, on the good days — joy this past year.

‘We are needed’

Rupert said that range of emotions was on full display on the anniversary of Floyd’s death last month.

“It was monumental to see the community come together. To see people who may never have stepped foot in Minneapolis before come together and witness the power of love and faith and community,” Rupert said.

Rupert said the highs and lows of the last year have brought her clarity on something that gives her hope: That no one person can go it alone, whether it’s healing from COVID-19, grappling with the emotional trauma of generations of racism or the everyday stress of daily life. 

It’s a revelation Rupert said she had during the worst of the pandemic, lying on her couch, hoping an overnight shift at the hospital would be canceled.

“I must have audibly said, ‘I don’t think I can go in. It’s too much,’” she said.

“And my daughter hears me, and says, ‘Mommy but you have to. Because people can’t heal themselves.’ And I felt this sense of conviction like, yeah. People can’t heal themselves. We are needed.”

‘I woke up praying for Jeanette Rupert’

Rupert said another reminder of that need for connection came unexpectedly in January, this time from a complete stranger. One day at work, her manager found her in the break room and handed Rupert a letter.

It was from Peggy Jones, a woman who lived hours away in Aitkin, Minn., and who Rupert had never met before.  

Jones said she’d heard Rupert on the radio last December and couldn’t get her work, or her commitment to nursing and to helping people in George Floyd Square out of her mind. Jones, who is white, said being hours away from the spot where George Floyd was killed made her feel helpless. 

“I’m not exaggerating when I say that I woke up in the morning, praying for Jeanette Rupert,” said Jones. “Here’s this woman who is just trying to be the hands of Jesus. She just wants to help people and she’s in this situation that she never could have imagined.”

After a few weeks thinking about Rupert, she wrote her a letter.

“I wrote her to say, ‘I just want you to know that I am praying for you. Just know that there’s someone out there who’s lifting you up,’” Jones said. 

Jeanette Rupert and Peggy Jones. Credit: Courtesy of Jeanette Rupert

Rupert said she held on to that letter for days, unsure of how to respond to a complete stranger. It was her mom who finally encouraged Rupert to call Jones. 

Jones called her right back.

“I was overjoyed,” Rupert said. “She said ‘What do you need? I want to help. Do you need supplies?’ But I didn’t know this person. I didn’t want to just jump in with all my needs.”

For weeks, Rupert and Jones talked, Jones always asking if there was anything she could do to help, Rupert always saying she was OK. 

And then, this spring, as Minnesota braced for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the man who killed George Floyd, Rupert realized what she needed was a break. 

Jones quickly arranged for Rupert and her husband to stay in a cabin near her house. 

Rupert says they hiked, spotted bald eagles. Jones and her friends brought meals. And Jones invited Rupert and her husband, who are both deeply Christian, to her Bible study group. 

The women say they were surprised and pleased to find they had so much in common, even though their lives are very different. 

“We’ve made a connection. We understand each other a little bit more,” Jones said. “At the end of the day, it’s about people connecting.” 

Their conversations have veered in and out of race, a conversation Rupert is having a lot these days with her white friends who, she says, are trying to do a better job of understanding what it means to be Black in America. 

“It’s the uncomfortable conversation that many people don’t know how to navigate. I have friends who are of the dominant culture, who are white, who say, ‘I don’t know what to say anymore, what words to be using. I want to be sensitive,’” Rupert said. “It can get tiring. However, it is inspiring.”

Rupert and Jones talk regularly now, and they both say their new friendship has been an unexpected bright spot in an unprecedented year. 

So in June, Rupert, her husband and their children are heading back up north again, to see Jones and her family again for a weekend of fishing and canoeing. 

Catharine Richert is based in Rochester, Minn., and covers Southeast Minnesota for MPR News. She was previously on MPR's politics team, and has contributed to MPR's health care coverage. She lives in Rochester...