Ralph is Associate Pastor for Christian Invitation at First Baptist Church. In the old days his position might have been called, “Minister of Outreach and Evangelism,” and we might have expected him to stand on the corner of Monument and Boulevard handing out gospel tracts and doing anything else he could to convert people to Christianity.
But that’s not really Ralph’s way.
More than 20 years ago Ralph pioneered the hugely successful Divorce Recovery Workshop here at First Baptist Church, which opens its doors to people going through unimaginable pain and helps them take the first steps toward “a future with hope.” Many of those people were so moved by the welcome they found here that they have made First Baptist their permanent church home. In his role as Minister of Christian Invitation Ralph has been going out into the community seeking the least, the last, and the lost, and bringing them back to church with him. It makes an enormous difference if those people get a warm welcome when they come, if they experience the love of Christ for themselves instead of only hearing someone else talk about it, and that’s why Ralph finds himself thinking so much about hospitality.
On Tuesday we talked about a “school of hospitality” that would function much like the Divorce Recovery Workshop—a series of Sunday night sessions where people from the Richmond area would learn how to share the love of Christ in their homes and in their churches. I suggested we call it, “The Ralph Starling School of Radical Hospitality,” and I was only half joking; there is something about the way he does it that the rest of us need to learn.
So, we talked about a session where we would focus on showing hospitality to the generations—how do you make people who are young, old, and in-between feel welcome? We talked about a session focused on people with disabilities. Two of our newest members at First Baptist are blind, and we’re having to learn how to anticipate and accommodate the needs they might have (I’ve been delighted to see Bill and Ruth Hodge taking Tammy and Stephanie around on the regular new member tour of the church facilities, arm-in-arm, narrating every step of the way). We talked about a session focused on “welcoming the stranger” (as Jesus puts it), thinking especially about refugees, international students, and people of other religions.
We were just getting warmed up when we had to head back to church for a meeting, but I hope you will keep your eyes and ears open for news about the Ralph Starling School of Radical Hospitality (or whatever we choose to call it) coming sometime this spring, while we are still on this year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA.
Can you imagine how heaven might come to earth for someone who visits our church or one of our homes and experiences the welcome of Christ himself?