Editor’s Note: I asked my daughter Ellie to write up an account of her recent mission trip to St. Croix with a group from First Baptist Richmond. Their assignment was to lead a sports camp for children on the island, in partnership with Frederiksted Baptist Church. As you will read, their experience with the church in worship was as meaningful as any other part of the trip. Please understand that the views of this guest blogger do not necessarily represent the views of the management…they just make the management proud. —Jim Somerville
A few weeks ago a group of 11 from First Baptist Church met in the Robinson Street parking lot around 4 am. At that time, without even a drop of coffee in our systems, there was no way we could imagine what the journey we were about to embark on would bring. We didn’t know that we would experience some of the most genuine love on God’s earth, or that the hugs we would give to children might change their lives forever, and some of us had no idea that the Caribbean is really as clear and beautiful as it looks in pictures.
At 6 that morning, our group left for St. Croix in the U.S Virgin Islands—a beautiful paradise—where we were set to lead a children’s camp at Fredriksted Baptist Church. Pastor John Gilbert and a team of young men from the church graciously came to pick us up from the airport in their church vans and dropped us off at the “Cottages by the Sea’” about 50 feet from the Caribbean. After having some time to settle in that evening, we called it an early night to prepare for church the next morning.
“Prepare” might actually be the wrong word to use. Pastor John had asked us to have some songs and maybe testimonies ready for church that morning, “just in case,” but we had no idea what we were in for. Going to church that morning was our first real experience of “Cruzan time” (pronounced CROO-zhun) or “island time” that Pastor John had told us so much about. This laid-back philosophy seems to apply to so much more on the island than just their sense of time. It’s the idea of worry-free living. If you think about it, most of the things we worry about in American society stem from the stresses we associate with time: deadlines, tardiness, waiting, missed appointments, etc. If you aren’t fretting about those things, you are much less overwhelmed by everything else in life.
Meeting the people of Fredriksted Baptist Church opened our eyes to the way life could be if you really left those stresses behind. For example, I don’t know if anyone from our mission group could say that they have ever met a more loving and welcoming group of people. Those of you who were at First Baptist a few weeks ago hopefully got a taste of this love and appreciation of God through the “Cruzan-style” passing of the peace led by members of our mission group. We encouraged the congregation to “get out of their seats, out of their pews, and out of their comfort zones” to hug their brothers and sisters in Christ, and tell them that they loved them. But this was only one of the ways we really saw God’s presence in the St. Croix worship service. No one in the congregation seemed to be worried about what others might think about the way they worshipped God. Everyone was fully present in their worship experience and no one seemed to be thinking about what anyone else was doing.There were times in the service when Pastor John or another member of the congregation would call on someone to come up and sing, choose a song, play the piano, or share a testimony. No one was stressed about the fact that they hadn’t prepared anything. They just humbly came forward and shared what was on their heart—and because it wasn’t prepared in the way that we might think necessary it was truly genuine. It didn’t feel rehearsed or even fake. These people were up there giving God all they had.
We got to experience this first hand when Pastor John reminded the church as they were leaving the service to come back that evening to hear members of First Baptist’s mission team shared their testimonies. “Some of them know about this, some of them don’t,” he said. None of us knew about it. But instead of being worried about it, as typical Americans would, we took inspiration from the members of Fredricksted Baptist and used our recently adopted Cruzan attitudes to say “I mean… it’s whatever!”
The worry did start to sink in a little that evening as we settled into our pews, Pastor John introduced our group, and we realized that we were the service that evening. But, with Meredith Booth courageously leading the way, we—one by one—began to get out of our seats, out of our pews, and out of our comfort zones to share our testimonies with total strangers. Except they weren’t total strangers: that morning through our worship experience together, they had become our families. And when we started to speak it wasn’t stressful, because it was real. It didn’t have to be rehearsed because we were speaking from our hearts, and we found strength knowing that God was right there with us.
Hearing the “Amens” coming from the congregation helped us as well. It felt like God was speaking through these people, saying “Right on,” or “You got this,” and hearing one affirmation after another was like a wave of his presence sweeping through the room. Every time someone shouted “Amen!” it was clear that they were having a connection with God, or with what we were saying in that moment, and that was an incredible feeling. Every now and then we even heard the jingle of a tambourine coming from the back of the sanctuary—just another way someone found to share the love of God that was overflowing from within.
We left church that evening feeling full to the brim with God’s love and that was only our second night – we hadn’t even started the mission work yet! Of course we knew that coming back to First Baptist would be a little bit of an adjustment after this experience. But, instead of just accepting that, we decided to share a little bit of our experience with the church the Sunday we came back and did the best we could through the passing of the peace. We did this in the hope that some of the joy we had experienced through worshiping “Cruzan-style” would be transferred to the congregation of First Baptist.
For those of you who did participate in the passing of the peace that Sunday, I hope you were blessed. But my hope is that everyone can take something from the many ways that the members of Fredriksted Baptist experience God. Don’t worry about what other people are thinking of the way you worship. If you feel the presence of God when you shake a tambourine—go for it. If you hear his voice when you dance in the aisle—go for it. If you feel like sharing your testimony—go for it. If you really connect with something in the scripture or something you hear in church—shout out an “Amen.” And for those of you who are hating me right now for encouraging this because you think that it might cause the worship service to run too long and keep you from beating the Methodists to lunch (wink)—time to get on Cruzan time. Be actively present in your worship of God—this Sunday, every Sunday, every day, every minute—and you will reap the many rewards.