KOH2RVA: Day 325

Rodney2Have you ever listened to a black pastor talk about the challenges his people face?

I did yesterday.

I had lunch with Rodney Waller, pastor of First African Baptist Church; one of his deacons, Booker Jones; and two of my deacons, Mary Ann Delano and Bob Palmer. We were talking about Rodney’s challenge from a previous meeting—that our two churches show Richmond what true racial reconciliation looks like.

I’m not sure how it came up, but Rodney told us that most of the people who live in the ghetto want to get out, “they just don’t know how.” He talked about black men who try to succeed and, for any number of reasons, fail (have you ever wondered who was going to get the job when there were three white men and one black man applying?). And then, because they feel like failures, they leave. And then, out there on their own, they shift into survival mode. And then, because they’re trying to survive, they begin to sell [drugs]. And then, to numb the pain of failure, they begin to use.

Rodney also talked about black women whose men have left them to raise children by themselves, and how it is nearly impossible to find the kind of job that will pay for child care and provide enough for their family to live on. Often they collapse into the safety net of social services and find it almost impossible to get out. And then they take a ride out to Short Pump (though not on the bus: it doesn’t go that far), and they see all these West Enders (“West Endians” Rodney called them) strolling through the mall with shopping bags full of high-end merchandise. “They want that kind of life but they don’t know how to get it and it makes them angry.”

Angry?

Yes, angry. Rodney said we need to acknowledge that there are structures of oppression in society that keep black people down, and that most of these date back to the time of slavery. He said, “I believe that many black people carry with them the hidden wounds of slavery, and those wounds keep getting opened up, and it causes pain.”

You can agree or disagree, but that’s pretty honest talk from the pastor of Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, and a good way to begin honest conversations that will be ongoing between our two churches. By the end of the meeting we had agreed to form a group of deacons called “The Twelve”—six from each church—who will continue to meet and talk and lead us to that place where we can show Richmond what true racial reconciliation looks like.

I summarized it like this: “Jesus told us to love our neighbors and you are our neighbors, but we can’t love what we don’t know so the first step, always, is to get to know each other.”

And that’s what we’re going to do.

As we were leaving I said, “You know what I’ve always dreamed of? An ethnic food festival, like the Greek Festival or the Armenian Festival. Why couldn’t our two churches get together and host a Baptist Food Festival?” We walked out laughing, trying to imagine what Baptist food would be (Fried Chicken? Sweet Potato Pie?), but it wasn’t a bad way to end a meeting.

It left our mouths watering for more.

KOH2RVA: Day 324

PovertyToday’s guest blogger is Dwight C. Jones, Mayor of Richmond. He’s got some things to say about poverty in our city and what we can do about it.

I have to believe that part of his concern for the poor comes from his years of ministry (most recently as pastor of the First Baptist Church of South Richmond), from years of preaching the gospel, in which Jesus says things like, “I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me.” This much is certain: when the Kingdom of Heaven comes to Richmond, Virginia, nobody will be in need.

Until then, we’ve got work to do.

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In March 2011, I decided to make good on a promise I made to myself when I decided to run for mayor. Approximately a quarter of our city’s residents live in poverty. Nearly half are poor or near poor. In a city that is growing like ours, that is thriving in so many ways, this is unacceptable. We have unlimited opportunities if you are a student, have a great idea for a new business, or even want to run for office, for example. But opportunities are just out of reach for too many of our neighbors.

This is why I decided that, for the first time, we were not going to take the approach that we needed a program here or there to take a stab at the problem of concentrated poverty, but that we needed a comprehensive approach. Poverty stems not just from one or two social obstructions, but from decades of policies and institutions that have made it hard for those working to get into the middle class to realize their dreams. Many of these problems were decided and put into place or forced upon us long before we got here. Richmond has a past with much to be proud of, but also much to learn from. I refuse to believe that our history, though painful at times, can keep us from becoming the city that I know we can be.

MAYOR RICHMONDWhile the problems that create concentrated poverty touch many pillars of our city, the good news is, so do the solutions. When I announced the Anti-Poverty Commission’s formation, it was the beginning of a conversation that I hoped would touch every corner of our city. We had representatives on the commission from every sector. There were business leaders, civic and community leaders, elected officials from the city and surrounding counties, folks who lived in and worked in communities of concentrated poverty, representatives from my administration, and professors from our higher education institutions. They looked at the root causes of this problem from every angle. Whether it was transportation, education, housing, health or job creation, there was something that needed fixing, but also, something we could do about it.

This past January, I was presented the report and wasted no time in dispatching representatives from my senior staff to work with Councilwoman Ellen Robertson and Thad Williamson, a professor at the University of Richmond, to get to work on an implementation strategy for the report’s recommendations. While we cannot wave a magic wand and all of a sudden make these pockets of poverty go away, there are many things that we can do together both in the short term and in the long term to bring down our poverty rate and empower Richmonders to realize their dreams.

As we are moving into another phase of this effort, I am naming our anti-poverty work after one of my personal heroes, Maggie L. Walker. The Maggie L. Walker Initiative will honor the social and entrepreneurial legacy that she left behind.

Our work will be spurred by task forces on education, housing, economic development and transportation that will submit detailed implementation plans so that we are ready for the next round of the budget cycle. I have also named individuals to a Citizens Advisory Board, which will consist of civic and business leaders — but half its membership will be residents living in or working in neighborhoods of poverty. It is critically important that those who would be most affected have a strong voice in the process. I have asked Williamson and Robertson to continue to co-chair this effort.

I firmly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that we cannot become the best Richmond unless all Richmonders are along for the ride. I was recently asked by a local blog, “What does community mean to you?” I answered, “To me, community means that we care about one another. We care about education even if we don’t have kids in the school system. We want small businesses to succeed even if we’re not the ones making a profit. We want a clean and sustainable James River even if we’re not the ones out on the rapids. In good times, we celebrate together as a community and in tough times, we fight back together as a community.”

I don’t believe that things will remain the same years from now, simply because that’s the way things have always been. I don’t believe that the block you grow up on will determine your journey in life. And, I don’t believe there is anything we cannot achieve if we go at it together.

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Click HERE to read it online and access related links.

KOH2RVA: Day 323

overflowing-cupI like to go to church
I like to go to church.
I like the happy songs we sing,
I like to go to church.

I don’t know when I learned that song but I was humming it as I walked home from church yesterday. It had been a good morning in worship, with an emphasis on prayer that pervaded the entire service and made me want to say, “Amen!”

And speaking of prayer…

Since I started talking about the missional church at First Baptist five years ago there has been some discussion about where that mission takes place—inside or outside the building. Sometimes the people who are on mission inside the building—teaching Sunday school, working with children’s choirs, serving Wednesday night supper—complain that all the attention is being focused on the mission outside the building—helping the homeless, building Habitat houses, and tutoring in the elementary schools.

Well of course it’s not either/or, it’s both/and, but in an effort to get us thinking outside the walls of the church and get us working in the community I have necessarily drawn attention to that part of our mission, and the church has responded enthusiastically, so enthusiastically that in my less faithful moments I begin to wonder if there will be anybody left inside the building to sing the hymns or teach Sunday school.

So, here’s the prayer I’m praying these days:

Lord, I want you to fill up the pews of this church until they are overflowing with people who love you and love to sing your praises.

I want you to fill up the offering plates until they are overflowing with gifts given back to you in tearful gratitude.

I want you to fill up the classrooms with disciples who are eager to learn, leaning forward in their seats, open Bibles on their laps.

I want you to fill up the hallways with people who greet each other with hugs and laughter, where every Sunday feels like a family reunion.

I want you to fill their hearts with love, fill their souls with faith, fill their minds with truth, and fill their lives with every good thing you have to give until it overflows this building and spills out onto the streets of this city and into every surrounding suburb.

I want you to pour yourself out through your people until your Kingdom comes, and your will is done, in Richmond as it is in heaven.

Now, that’s the kind of prayer that gets at the “both/and” problem, and gets at it in a Kingdom way.  There is no lack of abundance in God’s kingdom.  We don’t have to choose between being on mission inside the building or outside.

We can do both.

Amen?

KOH2RVA: Day 322

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What are the signs of the coming Kingdom? They’re in the hallways at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

I’ve posted two of these previously, but take a look at what our bulletin board artists have done to communicate the truth that our church is on a year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia–the KOH2RVA–and that we really do want everybody to get off the bus and onto the mission field.

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Children's Ministry

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Is KOH2RVA part of the church’s culture?  Has it gotten into our DNA?  We’re still working on it, but a walk down the hallways of the church will let you know we are moving in the right direction.

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KOH2RVA: Day 321

smokingOn Wednesdays I go down to the basement level of the church to speak to the men and women who come to First Baptist for hot showers, clean clothes, a cup of coffee, and a little bit of the love of Christ. I enjoy doing it, and I try not to make it too “preachy.” I simply try to encourage people who live a harder life than most of us can imagine.

But this week I told a story I heard from church historian Bill Leonard years ago. It was about a time he visited a rural church in Kentucky that didn’t even have a building: the congregation just sat outside on wooden benches. Bill sat down beside a man who was wearing a pair of faded bib overalls, with a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes in the front pocket.

When the preacher got warmed up to the subject of his sermon he said, “I’m getting tired of these people going out honky tonkin’ on Saturday nights, getting’ drunk and carryin’ on like they do. What kind of example is that to be settin’ before our kids?” And the man in the bib overalls said, “Amen, preacher! You tell ‘em!”

And then the preacher said, “And what about these young women walkin’ around with their skirts cut up to here and their blouses cut down to there, showing off everything the good Lord gave ‘em? How is a young man supposed to keep his way pure?” And the man in the bib overalls said, “Amen, preacher! That’s right!”

But then the preacher said, “And what about cigarettes? People who call themselves Christians walkin’ around suckin’ on them cigarettes like a baby sucks on his bottle! That’s got to stop!” And that’s when the man in bib overalls turned to Bill Leonard and said, “That ain’t Bible and I ain’t listenin’!” and walked off in a huff.

I said to my friends at Community Missions, “That’s a funny story, but it does raise the question of who you listen to. This man said he wasn’t going to listen to something that wasn’t in the Bible, but what he really meant was that he wasn’t going to listen to something he didn’t agree with. What about you? Who do you listen to? Who has authority in your life? Is it the Bible? Is it your mother? Is it the voices in your head?

I said, “For me, it’s Jesus. I believe he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and I believe that if I follow his Way I won’t be disappointed. So, I read the Gospels, and I underline what Jesus says, and I try to live by it. And even if I get to the end of my life and find that Jesus has led me to a locked door (although that’s not going to happen), I don’t think I will have any regrets. I believe his Way really is the best way to live in this world.”

It’s the reason First Baptist Church is on this year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia: because it’s so important to Jesus, because he mentions the Kingdom some 120 times in the Gospels, because he teaches his disciples to pray that God’s Kingdom will come, and His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So, we’re working hard to bring heaven to earth, and it’s not necessarily because we want to, but because Jesus said so.

What about you?  Who do you listen to?