Our Challenge to the City of Richmond

This op-ed piece was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Wednesday, January 31.  I wanted to post it here as well so that it can be easily re-blogged, or shared on Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Let’s read, Richmond!


February is Black History month.

We want to challenge our city to read some history.

But it’s not only black history: it’s our history, black and white together.

I’m the pastor of Richmond’s historic First Baptist Church, founded in 1780.  David is the founder of Arrabon, a non-profit organization devoted to racial reconciliation.  Together we want to challenge the citizens of Richmond to a city-wide book read during the month of February.

The idea for a city-wide read began after the tragedy in Charlottesville on August 13, 2017, when one person was killed and many more were injured in a clash between white nationalists and anti-fascists.  When rumors began to circulate about a similar demonstration on Monument Avenue, many of us wondered how we could keep the same thing from happening here.

I had already registered for a one-day conference in Louisville, Kentucky, on September 11 called “The Angela Project,” named after the first enslaved person to set foot on American soil.  It turned out to be a one day awakening, in which speaker after speaker cited the injustices experienced by African-Americans in this country: inequities in income, housing, and education that appeared to be the product of systemic racism.

But what could be done?

Dr. Kevin Cosby, organizer of the event and pastor of the 14,000-member St. Stephen Church in Louisville, recalled his conversation with Joe Phelps, a well-meaning white pastor who wanted to know what he could do to make things better between black and white people in that city.

“Do you really want to help?” Cosby asked.

“Yes!” Phelps answered.

“Then read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

 It was a challenge.

To Cosby’s astonishment, Phelps, the pastor of Louisville’s Highland Baptist Church, agreed.  When he finished, the two pastors got together to discuss the book.  It led to a weekly lunch joined by other black and white pastors in the city who read books and talked about the problem of racism.  That led to an organization called “Empower West” (a reference to West Louisville, home to most of the city’s black population), that, among other things, challenged the entire city to read a book during Black History month.

When I got back to Richmond I had lunch with my friend David Bailey to talk about what I had learned and to dream about what we might do together to make things better between black and white people in this city.  When I mentioned the city-wide book read he pounced on it, because he knows we fear what we do not understand. And so we decided to challenge the citizens of Richmond to read a book together during the month of February.


The book is The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, subtitled: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. It’s the same book the citizens of Louisville will be reading, and it’s described on the dust jacket like this:

 “In this groundbreaking history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein, a leading authority on housing policy, explodes the myth that America’s cities came to be racially divided through de facto segregation—that is, through individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law incontrovertibly makes clear that it was de jure segregation—the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments—that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.”

Those “discriminatory patterns” appear to continue in Richmond, where most of the city’s black population has ended up in the East End.  Why is that?  And how did it happen?

Rothstein’s book has answers.

If you have read this far you are a reader.  And if you are reading the Times-Dispatch then you care about this city.  As a reader who cares about Richmond, David and I challenge you to read The Color of Law in February, and to join us for a livestream conversation with the author at 7:00 pm on Monday, February 12, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church (2709 Monument Avenue).  The event is free and open to the public.

—Jim Somerville

Onward, Christian Soldier

Carol AdamsI met Carol Adams at a “Faith Leaders’ Summit” at the Police Department.

She was the one who had invited me, and when I got there, there she was: this petite, policewoman with a radiant smile, handing out water bottles and snacks and making me feel welcome in a place that didn’t exactly reek of hospitality.

Carol believed it was important for the church to be involved in the community and so did I.  First Baptist had just started its year-long, every-member mission trip back in the Fall of 2012.  We were trying to bring the “Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia”—the KOH2RVA.  I had asked our members to “look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, roll up your sleeves, and get to work.”

One of the things that didn’t look like heaven in our beloved city was the amount of violent crime.  Although Richmond was no longer America’s “murder capital” (as it had been in the early days of the crack cocaine epidemic) there were still far too many murders—forty or fifty a year as I learned from the police chief during that first summit.  But what could we do?  How do you “roll up your sleeves” and stop people from murdering each other?

I kept going to the summits.  I got better acquainted with Carol Adams.  And one day, after there had been a spate of violence in Mosby Court (one of the housing projects in Richmond’s East End), Carol invited me to “prayer walk” the neighborhood.

I met her there, not knowing exactly what she meant by “prayer walking.”  It turns out she meant going from one apartment to the next, knocking on doors, and asking residents how we could pray for them.  The residents seemed a little reluctant to come to the door after the shootings of the previous few days, and when they did they seemed a little suspicious of this black policewoman and the white man standing there with her.

But eventually we all got the hang of it.

I would tell them I was a pastor and ask if there was anything I could pray for.  Typically there was, and typically they were not the kinds of things we pray for in our comfortable, mostly white, West End neighborhoods:

Pray for my sister.  Her boyfriend got killed.
Pray for my kids.  I’m afraid to let them come outside.
Pray that all this shooting and killing would stop.

It was after that last request that Carol told me her colleagues on the force kept insisting that she wear a bulletproof vest when she went to the projects.  But she grew up in those neighborhoods.  She feels at home there.  “Besides,” she said, laughing, “I got Jesus!”

On the morning of September 10, 2017, when First Baptist Church was getting ready for its annual “One Sunday” celebration, four people were murdered in Gilpin Court.  It broke my heart to see the headline.  It made me think we still have a long way to go before the Kingdom of Heaven comes to Richmond, Virginia.  But what could I do?

A few weeks later I called Carol Adams and told her I was going to go to Gilpin Court and do a “prayer walk.”  “I’ll come with you,” she said.

And there we were again, walking around another frightened neighborhood, knocking on doors, offering to pray with people.

There was a man who wanted us to pray for his health: he was having trouble breathing.  There was a young woman who stood in the shadows of her doorway, asking us to pray for her newborn baby.  And then there was a woman named Destiny who told us that things were going pretty well for her: she had just gotten a good job.  “Well,” I said, “let’s thank God for that.”

And so we joined hands and prayed: me, Destiny, Carol, and Joyce Gasparovic, a member of First Baptist who had come with me.  When we finished Destiny said thank you and then she said, “All I need now is a house.”

Carol said, “You need a house?”


Carol asked her a few questions, quietly, and then said, “I’ve got a house for you.  It’s in a good neighborhood.”  She explained to me, privately, “I’ve got a foundation that owns three houses.  We make them available to women who have suffered domestic abuse.”  And then she turned back to Destiny.  “There’s no man involved, is there?”  “No!” Destiny said.  “Then let’s get you moved in,” Carol said.

Destiny was over the moon.

When I heard Carol Adams was running for Richmond Sheriff as a write-in candidate I wanted to do anything I could to help her.  Maybe this post will help you get to know her a little better.  And maybe, if you live in Richmond and find yourself at the polls on November 7, you will write in her name and check the box beside it.

As I posted on Facebook: “Carol Adams is one of the finest, strongest, bravest, and most capable Christian soldiers I have ever known.”

She’s got my vote on November 7.

“Enough, Preacher!”

I may have pushed too hard in yesterday’s sermon.

For three weeks after white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville I mentioned racism in my sermons and how we need to root it out of our hearts and out of our nation.

I got email from one television viewer who said I had crossed a line, that I had started “preaching politics” from the pulpit.  I didn’t write back immediately, but when I did I said this:

I don’t think I was preaching politics.  I believe it is God’s dream that all his children—red and yellow, black and white—live in harmony.  I believe Martin Luther King shared that dream.  I believe that people who dream of an all-white United States in which black people are either enslaved or excluded have a different dream, and I firmly believe that dream should die.

But I did not preach about Republicans or Democrats, I did not speak a critical word about our president or congress, I did not suggest political solutions to societal problems.  I called on the people of God to behave like it, and to love their neighbors.

I will always do that.

Yesterday I did it again, even though I had told the worship planning team on Tuesday that I thought our congregation had heard all they could hold for a while.  But I couldn’t help myself.  The statistics I heard at a conference on Monday had broken my heart, and my heart had been soaking in those statistics all week: white households control 90 percent of the wealth in America while black households control only 2.6 percent; the top ten percent of white homes are worth $1.4 million or more while the bottom fifty percent of black homes (once the family car is deducted) are worth less than $1,700; a black college graduate can expect to make only two-thirds the income of a white high school dropout.[i]

I was talking about forgiveness, and about sins that seemed too big to forgive.  My hope was that my congregation would hear those statistics and come to me afterward saying, “Gosh!  That’s awful!  What can we do to change that?”  Because I think there are things that can be done, and I think Christian churches in America—both white and black—should be working toward solutions.

I was preaching to people who have shown themselves to be remarkably compassionate, people who have been willing to step forward and engage the problems of our society in order to make a difference, in order, as we say, “to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.”

But yesterday I may have pushed too far.

I may have bumped into the compassion fatigue people get when they have cared as much as they can for as long as they can, or I may have said what I said in a way that made people feel guilty rather than empathetic.  That’s what I heard afterward: “I’m not a racist!” (No: didn’t say that you were); “Where did you get those statistics?” (from Antonio Moore, an African-American lawyer from Los Angeles[ii]); “I have a lot of black friends!” (Exactly!).

I do, too.  And it’s exactly because we have a lot of black friends that we can be moved with compassion for black Americans everywhere, and want them to have what we (white Americans) have.

That’s how Yvette Carnell explained it.[iii]  When I spoke to her after last week’s conference I said, “I want black Americans to have decent housing, and good schools, and adequate health care, and equal opportunity…”  I wasn’t finished yet but I saw her smiling.  “What?” I asked.

“You want them to have what you have,” she said.




[i] “The Angela Project,” hosted by Simmons College in Louisville, Kentucky, on September 11, 2017.

[ii] Find Antonio Moore here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfP8rCe_fAITriqI3UPYF0Q

[iii] Find Yvette Carnell here: https://www.youtube.com/user/YCarnell


The Churchgoing Habit

In Sunday’s sermon I mentioned that the churchgoing habit is an easy one to break.

If I had had more time I might have talked about how it happens, how you take a Sunday off and realize there are all those other things you could be doing during that time, all those other things other people actually are doing during that time: sleeping in, going to the beach, going to the mountains, having a second cup of coffee, reading the New York Times, mowing the lawn, lounging by the pool, or doing nothing much at all.

It’s a nice change of pace, but I’m guessing it could quickly become the new normal.  And it might take weeks, or even months, to become aware that something was missing, something you used to get at church that you aren’t getting anymore.  And on your best days you might acknowledge that what you were missing is pretty important: the fellowship of other believers, the robust singing of hymns, the prayers of the people, the Word of the Lord, and the faithful preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, one that consistently challenges the false gospels of appearance, achievement, and affluence.

So I’ve come up with a strategy that will make the churchgoing habit harder to break.

It came to me when I was talking to a couple of guys on their cigarette break.  I was just standing there, and one of them offered me a cigarette.  “No, thanks,” I said.  “I never have developed that habit.”  “Lucky you!” he said.  “I’ve been trying to break it for years.  Cigarettes are expensive!” (he didn’t mention that they can also kill you).  It struck me then that people will pay good money for something that has the potential to kill them simply because cigarettes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive.

And that’s when I came up with my new strategy.

Let’s just pump some nicotine into the air conditioning system at church this summer, let it waft over the pews along with all that cool air as people sit there and listen to the sermon.  They won’t even know they’re inhaling it, but somewhere around Monday or Tuesday of that week they’re going to say, “Man, I’ve got to get back to church!”  They won’t even realize they’re doing it, but as they keep coming to church and keep inhaling that nicotine the addiction will begin to grow stronger and stronger, until they start saying things like:

“I’m dying for a sermon.”
“I sure could use a good hymn right about now, couldn’t you?”
“I haven’t had communion in, like, forever!”
“Will Sunday ever get here?”

I know there are probably laws against adding nicotine to the air conditioning system, but the churchgoing habit has gotten a little too easy to break.

And desperate times call for desperate measures.

–Jim Somerville

What happens after we die?

at-his-resurrectionI’ve been doing “Sermon Talkback” in the adult Sunday school classes at Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the past few months.  In the older adult classes, in particular, people often want to know what comes next.  “What happens after we die?” they ask.  There are lots of answers to that question out there, depending on which books and magazines you read, which movies you watch, and which radio stations you listen to, but not all of those answers are strictly biblical.  The best biblical answer I’ve found comes from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner in his discussion of the word immortality.  Take a look:

“Immortal means death-proof.  To believe in the immortality of the soul is to believe that though John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, his soul goes marching on simply because marching on is the nature of souls just the way producing butterflies is the nature of caterpillars.  Bodies die, but souls don’t.  True or false, this is not the biblical view.  The biblical view differs in several significant ways:

  1. “As someone has put it, the biblical understanding of human beings is not that they have bodies, but that they are bodies. When God made Adam he did it by slapping some mud together to make a body and then breathing some breath into it to make a living soul.  Thus the body and soul which make up human beings are as inextricably part of parcel of each other as the leaves and flames that make up a bonfire.  When you kick the bucket, you kick it one hundred percent.  All of you.  There is nothing left to go marching on with.
  2. “The idea that the body dies and the soul doesn’t is an idea which implies that the body is something rather disgusting and embarrassing, something you’d rather be done with. The Greeks spoke of it as the prison house of the soul.  The suggestion was that to escape it altogether was something less than a disaster.  The Bible, on the other hand, sees the body in particular and the material world in general as a good and glorious invention.  How could it be otherwise when it was invented by a good and glorious God?  The Old Testament rings loud with the praises of trees and birds and rain and mountains, of wine that gladdens the heart of man and oil that makes his face shine and bread that strengthens him.
  3. “Those who believe in the immortality of the soul believe that life after death is as natural a human function as waking after sleep. The Bible instead speaks of resurrection.  It is entirely unnatural.  We do not go on living beyond the grave because that’s how we are made.  Rather, we go to our graves as dead as a doornail and are given our lives back again by God (i.e. resurrected) just as we were given them by God in the first place, because that is the way God is made.
  4. “All the major Christian creeds affirm belief in resurrection of the body. In other words, they affirm the belief that what God in spite of everything prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of human beings but a new and revised version of all the things which made them the particular human beings they were and which they need something like a body to express: their personality, the way they looked, the sound of their voices, their particular capacity for creating and loving, in some sense their faces.
  5. “The idea of the immortality of the soul is based on the experience of humanity’s indomitable spirit. The idea of the resurrection of the body is based on the experience of God’s unspeakable love” (Wishful Thinking, pp. 49-52).

What’s in It for Me?

easter-traditions-hero-HEaster is wonderful.  No doubt about it.  It’s exciting to think that Jesus rose from the dead.  But what’s in it for us?  What does the resurrection of Jesus do for us?  That’s the question I tried to answer in my Easter Sunday sermon.  Here’s an excerpt:


The women who came to the tomb in Matthew 28 received the same message we have received this morning: that Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed!  But it has a different effect on us than it had on these women.  We’ve heard it so many times that the good news of Easter has become old news.  “Christ is risen,” the preacher says, and we yawn and say, “Whatever!”  But notice what happens to these women.

  1. They are filled with fear. And from the outset we need to notice that this is not the same thing as being afraid.  The soldiers were afraid; “they shook and became like dead men.”  But not these women.  They were filled with fear, which must mean something else.  I’ve looked up the Greek word.  It’s phobos, from which we get phobia.  And one of its meanings is “to be afraid.”  But it can also mean “profound reverence,” or “awe,” and I’m not sure I have enough experience of that kind of fear to tell you what it means.  But I’ve heard about it.   People who have been bungee jumping talk about the rush of adrenaline they get standing there on the railing of a bridge getting ready to jump.  They look down at the river, 300 feet below.  They know that if the bungee cord breaks they will die.  Their hearts are pounding.  Their breathing speeds up.  But then they do it: they dive off the edge of the bridge and scream all the way down, and then bounce up and down at the end of that long rubber band with the kind of relief you can’t experience unless you have almost died.  I can’t know this for a fact, but I believe that when those women heard the news that Jesus was alive they were filled with that kind of fear: the kind that is like a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart.
  2. They are filled with great joy. And this is one of the things I love most about Matthew’s version of the Easter story.  In the earliest and best manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel, by comparison, it says that the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  And that’s the end of the Gospel!  But Matthew tells us that the women left the tomb quickly “with fear and great joy” and ran to tell his disciples.  Again, I’m not sure I’ve had enough experience with that kind of joy to tell you what it means but I’ve come close.  I was there for the birth of both my children and the physical symptoms were a whole lot like bungee jumping.  My heart was pounding.  My breathing changed.  Fear may be one of the words I would choose to describe what I was feeling, but the dominant emotion was joy—great joy!  And I know: I’m one of the lucky ones.  It doesn’t always work out that way.  But if it has for you then maybe you know what I’m talking about: when that baby is born you are filled with joy and more alive than you have ever been before.
  3. They are moved to worship. There they were, running through the graveyard, filled with fear and great joy, when suddenly—there was Jesus.  In most of our English translations he says something to them like “Greetings!” but that doesn’t sound right, does it?  I’m thinking he must have used that traditional Hebrew greeting, that he must have held up one hand and said, “Shalom!”  And when he did they saw the mark of the nail.  So, there is no question in this Gospel about who it is; no momentary confusion as in John’s Gospel, thinking that it might be the gardener.  These women are standing in the presence of the risen Christ and they know it.  Without a word they approach him, fall at his wounded feet, and worship him.  And if those other emotions—fear and great joy—are what we experience in those moments when we are most fully alive, then surely worship—genuine worship—falls into the same category.  I’m not talking about excitement.  I don’t mean pumping up the volume and pounding out the beat until you think you’re at a rock concert.  I’m talking about worship, about suddenly finding yourself in the presence of the risen Christ, so that your heart beats faster, and your breathing changes, and the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  And that can happen almost anywhere, even in a graveyard.

But it seems to happen most often in church.

In my work I sometimes talk with people who are unhappy.  They’ve tried to make a life for themselves and fill it with every good thing they can think of, but it still hasn’t worked.  They still aren’t happy.  They come to me thinking I might have some clue about what’s missing.  And often as they talk I think of that line from John’s Gospel, where Jesus says, “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”  He doesn’t only mean that they will have more quantity of life; he means that they will have more quality of life, what we sometimes call “the good and beautiful life,” and that life, apparently, is found in his presence.  So where would you go if you wanted to find yourself in the presence of the risen Christ?  What about the kind of place where every effort has been made to enhance that possibility?  A whole room that has been set apart for that sacred purpose and a whole hour when we turn our thoughts toward him: when we listen to his word, and stand to sing his praises, and sometimes, in the silence of prayer, almost hear him breathing beside us on the pew, and feel the little hairs on the backs of our necks stand up?  Expectation makes all the difference.  When we come to church like those women came to the tomb, expecting an encounter with Jesus, we will not be disappointed.

Because Christ is risen, friends.  He is risen indeed.  It’s the same news those women heard on that first Easter so long ago and it’s as true now as it was then.  On this Easter may it fill you with fear, and fill you with joy, and move you to worship…

…the risen Christ.

–Jim Somerville