Author’s Note: From the second Monday in September 2012 until the second Monday in September 2013 I tried to post on this blog every day, sharing the pictures and telling the stories of First Baptist members who were “bringing the KOH2RVA”—the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia—as part of our year-long, every member mission trip. Even though our members have continued to bring heaven to earth in the five years since then, I have rarely shared their stories. I was “blogged out.” But this story seems exceptional, and I was inspired to share it here.
Anybody else might have called it off.
A twenty percent chance of rain might have been enough to do it. A fifty percent chance, certainly. But Justin Griffin was going ahead with the picnic even if the bottom dropped out of the sky, even if it rained so hard that the main access to Charlotte Acres was flooded and closed, with police barriers across the road.
Which it was.
Christy and I had left early enough to get to the picnic on time, and when we pulled away from the house it wasn’t raining. But shortly after that it was, and a few minutes later it was raining hard—so hard that my wipers at their highest setting couldn’t handle the volume. I slowed down and kept driving, determined to get there on time. But when we got to Creighton Road there was a sign that said “Closed to Through Traffic.” We weren’t going through; we were only going to Charlotte Acres. But before we got there we found those barriers across the road and had to stop, turn around, drive back to Mechanicsville, take Highway 360 to Interstate 295, and then head south to the Creighton Road exit.
It took a while.
We considered giving up and going home but Justin wasn’t giving up. He had posted on Facebook the day before, telling us that because there was a covered pavilion at Charlotte Acres the picnic was going forward “rain or shine.” He was determined.
And let me tell you why.
Months ago, maybe years ago, I told Justin about the annual picnic we used to have when I was a pastor in Wingate, North Carolina. We called it “The Promise of Pentecost,” and we got the idea from one of our Baptist partners. On Pentecost, people from all over the ancient world heard the gospel in their own languages. They responded to that good news in faith. They became one church, one family. “The Promise of Pentecost” was that the family of God divided by the artificial barrier of race could come together in Christian unity, at least for a day, at least for a picnic. I invited the pastor and members of Nicey Grove Baptist Church in our town to join me and the members of Wingate Baptist Church on the afternoon of Pentecost Sunday, and they did, and for four glorious hours we experienced the kind of unity most families only dream about.
I told Justin that story and it found a place in his heart. He began to work toward a similar event on the Saturday closest to May 20, the date Pentecost would be celebrated this year. He built an entire website around the idea, calling it “1721 Reunions” after John 17:21, where Jesus prays that his disciples “may all be one.”
Justin asked if he could use the church’s property at Charlotte Acres, where the members of First Baptist used to go often for fellowship events. There are grassy fields out there, and a covered picnic pavilion, and functional rest rooms. “Sure,” the church said. “Do it!” But Justin ended up doing most of it by himself. He invited other churches to join us. He offered to provide the food (with a little help from Chick Fil-A). His wife, Alexandra, was recruited to make the desserts. By the time Saturday, May 19, rolled around, he had invested money, time, and energy.
He wasn’t about to let a little rain stop him.
Christy and I finally got there, late, and found about seven cars parked in front of the little community building. We put up our umbrellas but still got wet splashing through ankle deep water on our way to the door. When it was time for lunch Justin stood in front of the twenty people in the room and talked about his dream of Christian unity, which was rooted in the dream of Jesus himself and articulated in his prayer from John 17. It was a short speech, but a good one. When it was over and Justin had blessed the food I told him I would like to hear him preach sometime. I would. His heart is in the right place.
As you might guess there was plenty of food: enough Chick Fil-A sandwiches for 150 people, complete with potato chips, side dishes, fresh fruit, beverages, and Alexandra’s bountiful desserts. I left not long after I ate, needing to get back into the Sermon-Writing Chair on a Saturday, but the next day I heard as many as fifty people had shown up by the end, and that they had spent hours talking and laughing and playing silly games together. Some who were there talked about the rare experience of Christian unity they had enjoyed, across racial and denominational lines. And it made me think Justin was wise to go ahead with the picnic, even under those discouraging circumstances.
One of the women at the picnic was wearing a T-shirt she had gotten somewhere with the words “Faith Like Noah” printed on the front. We joked about it at first, thinking it was perfect for a day when the rain was coming down so hard. But later I looked at Justin, laughing off the weather and filling the plates of everyone who had come to the picnic, and I thought, “Yes. That’s what Justin has: faith like Noah.”
Or like Jesus.