KOH2RVA: Day 333

dress up shoesI got this email from Steve Blanchard a few days ago and wanted to share it with (all seven of) my readers.  It’s a short one, but a good one:

I heard a story today from a volunteer that really impressed upon me the Kingdom. This past week, in our clothes closet, a lady came in need of a pair of size 10 shoes. Our volunteers began trying to find a pair to no avail. The volunteer who had escorted her to the clothes closet overheard and said, “You need a size 10?  I wear a size 10,” and proceeded to remove her shoes and offer them to the lady in need. Fortunately, a few moments later, the clothes closet volunteers found a pair of size 10 shoes that fit perfectly so our volunteer was able to keep her shoes, but what an act of selfless love to offer the shoes off her feet to one in need. On top of that, she did not want her name mentioned so that no credit would go to her. The Kingdom at work behind the scenes!

Steve Blanchard
Minister of Christian Compassion
Richmond’s First Baptist Church

 

KOH2RVA: Day 300

tired_runnerThere’s something about a nice round number…

But what I think of when I see this number—300—is that there are only 65 days left in our year-long, every-member mission trip.

For some people that may inspire a surge of fresh commitment to the mission: “We don’t have much time left! Let’s do something great!” For others it may inspire a heavy sigh: “We’ve been on this mission trip for nearly 10 months. We’re exhausted!”

For me, it’s a little of both.

I think about some of those things I was hoping to do on this mission trip, like putting up a mailbox at church where our neighbors in the Fan could drop their prayer requests so we could pray for them on Wednesday nights. Like taking portraits of some of our homeless neighbors and turning them into big posters that could be plastered on walls downtown with the caption: “I’m not homeless: Richmond is my home.” Like working more closely with county and city governments, so that our efforts would be multiplied. I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to all of those things.

On the other hand, I’m surprised and pleased by what we have been able to do. I didn’t know, for example, that we were going to form a partnership with the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School. I didn’t know that our youth were going to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Nickelsville, Virginia. I didn’t know our fifth graders were going to go Christmas caroling at nursing homes. I didn’t know the second graders were going to raise money to buy a new pair of shoes for Cheryl.

There have been dozens of other things that have surprised and pleased me as I’ve watched this mission trip unfold, and those are the things that inspire me to keep going. I want to get to September 8th like the Apostle Paul, who said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

I hope you will be able to say it with me.

KOH2RVA: Day 283

Al AstleAl Astle will be 97 on August 30, but he’s still so cool that when he walks past you can feel a breeze. I’ve heard him play the vibraphone. Think Lionel Hampton or some of the other jazz legends of his era. The man can groove.

At least, the man could groove.

I’m not sure Al plays the vibraphone anymore, but this much he does: Sunday after Sunday, when he is able, he sits on a stool in the East Balcony and welcomes the people who come to church. His son, Chris, often sends me updates on his dad, and he sent this picture in an email titled “Father’s Day, Part I.” Chris says, “Here is Papa Al as he passes out the bulletins before the service at First Baptist Richmond.” I don’t know about you, but if I were coming to church on a Sunday morning, tired and a little bit grumpy, the sight of Al sitting on his stool would cheer me up. It might even bring heaven a little closer to earth.

If that’s all Al did it would be enough, but if tradition holds I will also see Al at Community Missions this morning, sitting in a chair behind a table helping our homeless neighbors check their bags so they can take showers and receive other services. I filled in for Al one Wednesday recently when he was in the hospital and gained even more respect for who he is and what he does.

There must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth. Al Astle, at age 96, is practicing at least two of them, and maybe more.

If I close my eyes I can almost hear his vibraphone.

KOH2RVA: Day 227

Wilfredo de JesusTime magazine recently published its list of the 100 most influential people in the world, complete with brief essays on each one written by other influential people. For example: New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote about hip hop artist Jay Z; Academy Award winner Jodie Foster wrote about this year’s Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence; and Mega-Pastor Rick Warren wrote about Wilfredo De Jesús, a “transformative Christian voice.” This is what he said:

Wilfredo De Jesús, better known as Pastor Choco, embodies the true definition of what Christ said the church should be. As the senior pastor of New Life Covenant Ministries, one of the fastest-growing churches in Chicago as well as one of the largest Assemblies of God congregations in the nation, Pastor Choco encourages others to go out into the community not just with words but with his own actions. Under his leadership, New Life is reaching out to the outcasts and forgotten in our society — the homeless, women suffering with addiction and prostitution, and young people in gangs.

But his influence spreads far beyond the Chicago area as vice president of social justice for the nation’s largest Hispanic Christian organization, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. With Hispanics playing such a large role in the expansion of the evangelical church in the U.S. and their vast influence on the political landscape, Pastor Choco is and will continue to be a strong, ardent voice on the direction of our country.

What got my attention, of course, is that part where Rick Warren, arguably the most influential pastor in America, said that Wilfredo De Jesús, one of the 100 most influential people in the world, “encourages others to go out into the community not just with words but with his own actions. Under his leadership, New Life is reaching out to the outcasts and forgotten in our society—the homeless, women suffering with addiction and prostitution, and young people in gangs.”

I sometimes say, “If you’re trying to bring heaven to earth, just look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, and then roll up your sleeves and go to work.” It sounds as if Pastor Choco and his congregation are doing exactly that in Chicago. In their own way, the people of First Baptist Church are doing exactly that in Richmond.

And who knows what kind of influence they may have?

KOH2RVA: Day 173

Song_Sparrow-27527-2I’ve been looking through this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch. The big news is that the federal government is going to cut $85 billion in spending, beginning today. It remains to be seen how those cuts will affect us locally or how much they will slow our progress in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

But that’s an interesting thought in itself, isn’t it? That the actions of the federal government could have an impact on the coming of God’s Kingdom?

The Times-Dispatch reports that “Henrico County could lose between $1.1 million and $2.1 million in grant funding used to support special education, the Head Start preschool program, programs for at-risk children and other federally funded efforts…. In total, roughly 20 to 30 positions could be jeopardized, many of them teachers. Money for equipment and materials would also be reduced” (page B1).

So, yes, if you’re at an at-risk child in Henrico County federal budget cuts could mean that you don’t go to Head Start, or you don’t get a free or reduced lunch. If you’re a Head Start teacher it could mean that you lose your job. And when you sit in my office a few months from now and say, “Pastor, I lost my job because of federal spending cuts!” it’s going to feel like heaven is a long way away.

But here’s the good news: God does not depend on federal funding.

On Wednesday morning I went downstairs to Community Missions at First Baptist Church, where I found about 75 of our homeless neighbors waiting for showers, hot coffee and pastries, and some of the love of Christ that is so generously shared by our volunteers. I told them I had been reading Luke 12 that morning, where Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear, for life is more than food and the body more than clothing.” In that same passage he asks his disciples to consider the ravens and the lilies, and to notice how God feeds and clothes them. “If God feeds the ravens and clothes the lilies,” Jesus says, “then how much more will he feed and clothe you!”

“Is that true?” I asked. “Has God ever fed and clothed any of you?”

Every hand in the room went up, and for the next few minutes I heard testimonies of how these people had been cared for by God or by God’s people when they had little or nothing of their own. I finally had to call time, but even as I made my way out of the room some of them crowded around to tell me their stories.

This was two days before the sequester was scheduled to take effect, two days before deep cuts in federal funding would cost some people their jobs. Financial disaster was looming on the horizon but at Community Missions heaven was coming to earth. The brothers and sisters of the one who had “no place to lay his head” were bearing witness that God cares, and that he can and does provide.

There haven’t been a lot of hymns written about the federal government, but there have been a lot of hymns written about the Heavenly Father. Here’s one that will leave you humming:

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

KOH2RVA: Day 101

hugYesterday—Day 100 of KOH2RVA—we had at least 100 guests at the Ralph Anderson Memorial Christmas Breakfast for the Homeless in the dining hall at First Baptist Church, and that’s not counting Santa Claus.

I remember Ralph.  I used to see him in Community Missions on Wednesday mornings, taking down the names of our homeless guests and helping them check their bags so they could get a shower.  He loved that job.  He loved those people.  Shortly before he died he established a small endowment that would produce enough income to put on one big breakfast a year and yesterday that’s what we had—one big breakfast.

I watched as our guests filed into the room past a uniformed police officer and took their places at the tables.  They seemed eager, excited, their eyes shining in a way I rarely see on those other, ordinary days.

When it was time for the blessing I took the microphone and said, “Before I pray, let me say a personal word of welcome.  I’m really glad that you’re here.  And I want you to know that these volunteers who have come to serve you breakfast this morning have come because they love you.  They don’t refer to you as ‘clients’: they call you ‘neighbors,’ and ‘family,’ and ‘friends.’”

And then I prayed, saying something like, “Lord Jesus, you didn’t have a house.  You said so yourself.  You said, ‘Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’  But if you did have a house I believe you would want to throw open the doors to these, your brothers and sisters.  And on a day like today I believe you would want to serve them breakfast.  And so, we’re going to do that for you, and we ask you to bless it, and them, and us, in your name.  Amen.”

And then the breakfast began, and it was wonderful.

I sat at a table and talked and laughed with the men who were there.  But eventually the talk came around to what happened in Connecticut last Friday, that terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  The shock and disgust registered on their faces.  One of them said, “I can’t believe it!  I can’t believe anyone would want to hurt a child!”

It seemed ironic; I had just heard that a mother had decided not to bring her children to our weekday school that morning because “all those homeless people” were milling around outside the doors, waiting for breakfast.  She was nervous after what happened in Connecticut last week.  A lot of parents were.  And even though she is thankful we have a ministry to the homeless she just couldn’t bring herself to drop off her children while they were there.

I wish she could have seen the look on this man’s face as he said, “I can’t believe it!  I can’t believe anyone would want to hurt a child!”

Someday, when heaven comes to earth, that man and her children will be best friends.  They will get out of the car at school and come running across the parking lot, giggling, and calling his name.  And he will scoop them up in his arms with a big smile, and carry them to their classrooms like a guardian angel, looking back only long enough to reassure their mother as she waves and blows kisses.

Until that day comes, we’ve got work to do.

KOH2RVA: Day 85

Bake and Take2I went to Richmond’s First Baptist Church yesterday for the International Missions Prayer Breakfast, and to hear missionary Ann Lovell speak about her ministry among women working in the sex trade in Thailand. What I loved about her presentation was the simplicity of it: how one thing simply led to another and then another.

It started when she began to drive through the red-light district in Chiang Mai and pray that the brothels and massage parlors there would be closed down, but then her heart was broken by the plight of the women themselves, and she began to feel led to talk to them and pray with them. She found a brave friend or two to go with her and soon she was striking up conversations with prostitutes on the streets, asking them about their lives, and offering the possibility of another kind of life altogether—the abundant life found in Jesus.

The work has been slow, the results have been small, and yet you could see the joy on her face, you could hear it in her voice, as she talked about the lives that have been changed dramatically through her efforts and the help of the Holy Spirit.

When I came out of the Dining Hall I bumped into seven or eight of our members coming out of the Adams Room pushing a cart full of cookies. It was the “Bake and Take” group, which is exactly what it sounds like: a group of people who bake cookies and then take them to nearby homes in a little bag they hang on the doorknob with a friendly message from First Baptist Church inside. It’s not really evangelism; just a “sweet” way of loving our neighbors.

And as I walked across the parking lot to my car I saw Rick and Kim Peters unloading the food they had cooked for our homeless neighbors the night before, getting ready to serve it up for lunch in our Community Missions suite on the basement level. If you haven’t seen the video about their ministry you should see it now by clicking HERE.

I drove away from First Baptist yesterday thinking I had been in a beehive of mission activity, from learning about this ministry in Thailand, to loving our neighbors here in the Fan, to feeding the hungry and homeless among us, First Baptist was busy!

And I couldn’t have been prouder.

This year-long, every-member mission trip is gaining momentum, and there are some days, like yesterday, when the Kingdom comes as God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven.