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Posts Tagged ‘unity’

hands-sandOn Tuesday night of last week some of the key leaders of Richmond’s First Baptist Church sat down with some of the key leaders of First African Baptist Church “just to talk.” One of the things we talked about was the fact that our two congregations used to worship together until we went our separate ways in 1841. We’ve worshiped together a few times since then and our preachers have swapped pulpits from time to time, but for the most part we have carried out our separate missions separately.

So on Tuesday night we began by talking about mission of the Church: What is it here for? What it is supposed to do? The more we talked the more we seemed to agree on the Church’s essential missions and purpose. And then Dr. Rodney Waller, pastor of First African, said, “When it comes to the church’s mission I’ve got to go back to the book,” and he asked us to look at this passage from the second chapter of Acts:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47, ESV).

We had been talking about the way the American church seems to be fighting for its very survival these days, doing everything it can to attract and retain members. Rodney pointed out that in the early church it was The Lord who “added to their number” as the church was faithful in doing all those other things: devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bead and the prayers. He wondered if The Lord wouldn’t add to our numbers if we would simply be faithful about doing the same.

And then he said: “What if our two churches could show Richmond what true reconciliation looks like?”

And that’s when I got goosebumps.

I don’t know what “true reconciliation” would look like, not yet, but it was exciting to talk about it and after an hour of conversation we agreed to get together for another meeting to talk some more. Before we parted ways Rodney said, “I believe The Lord was in this meeting tonight; I felt the Holy Spirit.”

I felt it too, Rodney.

I don’t think it was ever the Lord’s intention for our two congregations to go their separate ways. And I doubt that he cares much for all these denominational divisions in the world. As I tell people sometimes, “Jesus only has one church.”

These days, more than ever, it may be important to remember that.

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Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1850s_jpgOne of the things that keeps the Kingdom of heaven from coming to Richmond, Virginia, is the old animosity between the races. White people used to buy and sell black people on the auction block in this town. That’s not something you get over right away.

It’s been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, but you can sometimes still feel the old guilt and fear and hurt that hangs in the air between the races. If the Kingdom is going to come, if God’s will is going to be done, we’ve got to clear the air. We’ve got to recognize that we are children of the same Father, and start treating each other like members of the same family.

To that end let me share a story about my father.

I’m planning to drive to West Virginia to see him today because my brother Scott, who lives nearby, thinks he may be down to his last few days. I’m at peace about that, and my dad isn’t in any pain, but because of that he’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I woke up this morning thinking about this story. I think I’ve shared it with you before, but let me share it again in honor of my dad and in the hope of someday achieving true and lasting reconciliation between the races.

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I was born on March 14, 1959, in Selma, Alabama. My mother tells me I was the most difficult of all her babies to deliver, and that while she was waiting for me to make up my mind about being born she walked the hallways of that hospital saying the 23rd Psalm over and over: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” My father was the new pastor of the Presbyterian church in Hayneville, Alabama, 35 miles away, and recently he told me the story of his own labor, there, and of his eventual delivery.

He said that when he was considering a call to that church he asked the committee chairman what the civil rights situation was in Hayneville. Since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, resistance to integration had been strong in the South, and sometimes violent. The chairman said, “Well, you’re a good old South Carolina boy, aren’t you? You know what it’s like.” And it’s true. My father had grown up in South Carolina. He probably knew exactly what it was like. But he came anyway. He hadn’t been there very long when a member of the church invited him to say the opening prayer at the next meeting of the White Citizen’s Council. “What is the White Citizen’s Council for, exactly?” my father asked. “Could I look over a copy of the Constitution and Bylaws before I give you my answer?” And the man looked at my dad as if he were crazy, or maybe a communist, and said, “Well you know what it’s for: it’s to keep niggers in their place!”

Although I don’t think the Constitution and Bylaws read that way, that is what the White Citizen’s Council was for. According to one of my better sources the WCC was an American white supremacist organization which flourished between the mid-fifties and the mid-seventies. With about 15,000 members, mostly in the South, the group was well known for its opposition to racial integration in the South. Headed by Gordon Lee Baum, a St. Louis attorney, its issues involved the so-called “protection” of “European-American” heritage from those of other ethnicities. If my dad had only had Wikipedia he would have known all that. But in answer to the man’s reply Dad said he didn’t think that was his role in the community. He said he thought his role was to share the gospel with anyone who would receive it, black or white, and to make no distinction between the two. “And that,” my father said, “was when he looked at me as if he really did have a rattlesnake loose in his house.”

It was not long after I was born that the leaders of Dad’s church sat down with him to discuss the policies of racial integration being promoted by the denomination. According to some Presbyterians, at least, black people ought to be welcome in the church just like white people. The elders of the church in Hayneville talked about that for a long time and finally decided that black people—“negroes” as they called them in polite company—were welcome to visit the church but not welcome to join it. And then they looked at my dad to see what he thought. He must have been about thirty years old at the time, a young man, sitting in that room with all his elders, trying to be respectful. But finally he said, “This church doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to Jesus Christ. And I don’t think he would keep anyone from joining because of their skin color.” And the man who had chaired the search committee looked at my dad and said, “Son, I don’t know what kind of religion they taught you in seminary, but we’ve only got one kind of religion here, and it’s that good old Southern religion.”

Soon word began to get around in Lowndes County that the new pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Hayneville was a “nigger lovin’” preacher. Church attendance began to fall off. Women would stare at my mother in the grocery store. And then one morning while she was fixing breakfast she noticed a string of cars passing by the house, slowing down at the front yard and then speeding up again. One of our neighbors called to ask if we were all right and Mom said, “Yes, why wouldn’t we be?” “Didn’t you know?” said the woman. “Why, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of your house last night!”

Mom hung up the phone and got my father out of bed. He put on his bathrobe and slippers and walked across the front lawn to a patch of burned grass. My mother watched him poke a pile of ashes with the toe of one slipper and when he came back in she said, “Well?” And he answered, almost disappointed: “Sure was a little one.” But after that the threats began to get more serious until my father finally decided he needed to get his family out of there. So, he loaded up his wife and three little boys in a 1953 Ford Fairlane, strapped a dog house on top with our dog “Lady” and her five puppies inside, nailed a piece of plywood over the opening, and then, under cover of darkness, pulled out of the parsonage driveway and headed up the road toward Southwestern Virginia, where he would try to continue his ministry under happier, friendlier circumstances.

Things were happier there, and friendlier, too. But even though I was just a toddler when we left Alabama those stories, and my father’s courageous example, have shaped my views on race relations ever since. How about you? Who shaped your views on this issue?

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greetings-from-richmond-virginiaThe second thing on my agenda on Wednesday mornings is “Ecumenical Jogging” at 6:15. It’s a fancy way of saying I go for a morning run with my friend Wallace Adams-Riley, Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.

We talk about a lot of things while we’re running. This morning I talked about something I had read in Ben Campbell’s book, Richmond’s Unhealed History, and since nobody says it quite like Ben, let me quote:

While metropolitan Richmond’s leaders were busy over the last forty years fighting among their fragmented jurisdictions, vying for businesses, abandoning and opening massive shopping centers, trying to keep poor people in other jurisdictions, struggling to build four identical balanced sub-economies, and worrying about race and income levels of citizens, other middle-sized cities in our region stole our entire banking industry, built light rail systems, renewed their downtown areas, acquired major league sports teams, and developed public education systems far more competitive than either metropolitan Richmond’s suburban or urban systems. They built the same highways, suburbs, and shopping centers as metro Richmond, but the resulting common wealth was much greater and the larger city prospered (pp. 211-212).

campbell-headshot

Rev. Ben Campbell

It’s that “common wealth” Ben is concerned about. He argues that metropolitan Richmond doesn’t have it because it’s divided among Richmond City, Hanover, Henrico, and Chesterfield Counties. He often talks about how in Charlotte, North Carolina, the city and county governments merged to form a single jurisdiction, and were therefore able to attract major industry and professional sports teams.

I was telling Wallace about all this (or trying to while huffing and puffing along Franklin Street), and that’s when he said, “We should start a movement called ‘One Richmond.’”

“One Richmond,” I repeated. “I like it.”  And a few steps later I said, “Let the record show that ‘One Richmond’ was born on February 6, 2013, during a morning run.”

Sometimes I get criticized for talking about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, even in my own church. Some of our members tell me they don’t live in Richmond: they live in Henrico County, or Hanover, or Chesterfield. And so I have to say, “You know what I mean—Metropolitan Richmond.” But what if I didn’t have to say that? What if Richmond weren’t divided up into “four identical balanced sub-economies” as Ben Campbell says? What if it were just one, big happy city?

I’m sure that the people who work for the county governments could give me lots of reasons why we shouldn’t become one, big happy city, and maybe they will, but the vision remains compelling. Why not One Richmond?

Wouldn’t that bring heaven a little closer to earth?

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Last night I went to an event called “Bless Richmond,” mostly because it seemed so consistent with First Baptist Church’s year-long, every-member mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. It was held at U-Turn, a sports facility that used to be a Circuit City warehouse, but last night housed hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of Richmond Christians who had come together to bless their city.

The most remarkable thing about the gathering—apart from the high-energy worship—was the fact that black people and white people came together, united by their love for Jesus and their love for Richmond. The idea that that’s remarkable is, in itself, remarkable, but here—nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, it is.

It says something about how deep the divisions in our city have been, and how much work still needs to be done. But last night, as we were praying for Richmond, Ben Campbell prayed that what has been known as the “Capital of the Confederacy” would become known as the “Capital of Reconciliation.” I think that’s the sort of thing that would make Jesus glad, and the sort of thing that would, indeed,

Bless Richmond.

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Photo by Linda Moore, whose other pictures of the event can be seen by clicking HERE.

See my shaky, hand-held YouTube video by clicking HERE

A Christianity Today feature on Richmond as one of six cities in America where Christians are making a difference.  Take a look by clicking HERE.

UPDATE: The “Bless Richmond” event collected 13,157 pounds of food, $8,237.76 in contributions, and 54,346 meals.  That’s a blessing!

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My friend Jane, who has commented on this blog in recent days, shared with me Dr. Seuss’s story of the Sneetches, which I had never heard before.  I think it’s a perfect parable of unity, and one that is especially helpful in these days when the congregation of Richmond’s First Baptist Church is feeling somewhat divided by our September 19 vote on membership.

I’d like to add to this story my own appreciation for those who are able to voice their views and vote their conscience even when their views are different from mine.  One of those came by my office this week to tell me he’d been hurt by some who said he wasn’t supporting the pastor just because he didn’t agree with him.  “Poppycock!” I said (or something like it).  You don’t have to agree with the pastor to be a good and faithful member of the church.  In fact, you probably ought to disagree from time to time as a matter of principle.  As the Sneeches will teach us, it’s not wrong to be different;

It’s only wrong to think it is.

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Now the Star-bellied Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-bellied Sneetches had none upon thars.
The stars weren’t so big; they were really quite small.
You would think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But because they had stars, all the Star-bellied Sneetches
would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”

With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort, “
We’ll have nothing to do with the plain-bellied sort.”
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
they’d hike right on past them without even talking.

When the Star-bellied children went out to play ball,
could the Plain-bellies join in their game? Not at all!
You could only play ball if your bellies had stars,
and the Plain-bellied children had none upon thars.

When the Star-bellied Sneetches had frankfurter roasts,
or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts,
they never invited the Plain-bellied Sneetches.
Left them out cold in the dark of the beaches.
Kept them away; never let them come near,
and that’s how they treated them year after year.

Then one day, it seems, while the Plain-bellied Sneetches
were moping, just moping alone on the beaches,
sitting there, wishing their bellies had stars,
up zipped a stranger in the strangest of cars.

“My friends, ” he announced in a voice clear and keen,
“My name is Sylvester McMonkey McBean.
I’ve heard of your troubles; I’ve heard you’re unhappy.
But I can fix that; I’m the fix-it-up chappie.
I’ve come here to help you; I have what you need.
My prices are low, and I work with great speed,
and my work is one hundred per cent guaranteed.”

Then quickly, Sylvester McMonkey McBean
put together a very peculiar machine.
Then he said, “You want stars like a Star-bellied Sneetch?
My friends, you can have them . . . . for three dollars each.
Just hand me your money and climb on aboard.”

They clambered inside and the big machine roared.
It bonked. It clonked. It jerked. It berked.
It bopped them around, but the thing really worked.
When the Plain-bellied Sneetches popped out, they had stars!
They actually did, they had stars upon thars!

Then they yelled at the ones who had stars from the start,
“We’re exactly like you; you can’t tell us apart.
We’re all just the same now, you snooty old smarties.
Now we can come to your frankfurter parties!”

“Good grief!” groaned the one who had stars from the first.
“We’re still the best Sneetches, and they are the worst.
But how in the world will we know,” they all frowned,
“if which kind is what or the other way ’round?”

Then up stepped McBean with a very sly wink, and he said,
“Things are not quite as bad as you think.
You don’t know who’s who, that is perfectly true.
But come with me, friends, do you know what I’ll do?
I’ll make you again the best Sneetches on beaches,
and all it will cost you is ten dollars eaches.

Belly stars are no longer in style, ” said McBean.
“What you need is a trip through my stars-off machine.
This wondrous contraption will take off your stars,
so you won’t look like Sneetches who have them on thars.”

That handy machine, working very precisely,
removed all the stars from their bellies quite nicely.
Then, with snoots in the air, they paraded about.
They opened their beaks and proceeded to shout,
“We now know who’s who, and there isn’t a doubt,
the best kind of Sneetches are Sneetches without.”

Then, of course those with stars all got frightfully mad.
To be wearing a star now was frightfully bad.
Then, of course old Sylvester McMonkey McBean
invited them into his stars-off machine.
Then, of course from then on, you can probably guess,
things really got into a horrible mess.

All the rest of the day on those wild screaming beaches,
the Fix-it-up-Chappie was fixing up Sneetches.
Off again, on again, in again, out again,
through the machine and back round about again,
still paying money, still running through,
changing their stars every minute or two,
until neither the Plain- nor the Star-bellies knew
whether this one was that one or that one was this one
or which one was what one or what one was who!

Then, when every last cent of their money was spent,
the Fix-It-Up-Chappie packed up and he went.
And he laughed as he drove in his car up the beach,
“They never will learn; no, you can’t teach a Sneetch!”

But McBean was quite wrong, I’m quite happy to say,
the Sneetches got quite a bit smarter that day.
That day, they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches,
and no kind of Sneetch is the BEST on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars,
and whether they had one or not upon thars.
—Dr. Seuss

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