Staying Long Enough

lonely-old-woman-windowGladys Hinson was a member of the search committee that called me to my first full-time ministry position.  She was a retired elementary school teacher who had a little trouble keeping her thoughts to herself.  When I was having lunch with the committee after preaching my trial sermon she blurted out, “Well, the rest of you can look all you want, but I’ve found my pastor!”

I loved her for that.

I also loved her for what she did when I got settled in my new job; she asked me to set aside some time when I could go with her to visit “her people.”

Her people turned out to be members of the church who were now living in nursing homes in the area.  She took me to three different places, and at each one she introduced me to elderly men and women who had once been actively involved in the life of the church.

The way my perception changed about each one was almost miraculous.

For example: when I walked into one room I saw an old woman sitting in a wheelchair, but as Gladys began to tell me about the way this woman had worked with the preschool choir, and how she had led our Vacation Bible School each year, and how she had once showed up at a costume party dressed as a sunflower (!), she became younger and stronger in my eyes.  And maybe it wasn’t only my perception.  As Gladys talked about her this woman sat up straighter in her wheelchair and began to beam until it was easy to see her as the “sunflower” she had once been.

And here’s what happened to me:

I stayed at that church nine years, and in those years some of the people who had been active and involved when I arrived moved on to the nursing home.  When I went to see them I didn’t need anyone to tell me about them—I knew!  And when Gladys herself moved into the nursing home I tried to be as faithful to her as she had been to “her people,” and tell anyone who would listen what a wonderful person she was.

This is what can happen when you stay at a church long enough: you can see vital, active members transition into a different stage of life.  And here’s another thing that can happen: you can stop burying church members and start burying friends.

I’ve been here more than eleven years now, and that’s how I feel after some of the recent deaths in our congregation, after having to say goodbye to friends like Alice, and Ruth, and Buddy, and Liz, and Bernard, and June, and Lee, and Anne, and John, and Bill.

It makes me sad.

The good news is that if you stay at a church long enough you get to baptize some of the children you dedicated as infants (I’ve done that).  You get to marry some of the children you’ve baptized (I’ve done that, too).  In other words, you get to be part of the full circle of life in the church.

You get to be part of the family.

Thank you for letting me into some of the most intimate spaces of your lives—birth, death, aging, and adolescence.  And thank God for those people like Gladys who “knew us when,” and who see us the way God sees us when nobody else can.



Right at the Center

baptism 2019

NOTE: This is No. 4 in my weekly letters to the congregation of First Baptist Church.  If you’d like to get these letters in your email inbox, even if you are not a member of the church, you can sign up HERE.  And in case you’re wondering, that’s me, Jack Buckbee, and Ann Carter, above, standing waist deep in the James River (photo by Matthew Brown).


It started with a question from Ann Carter, our Minister to Students.

She had been talking to Will Storey, who wanted to be baptized, but he wanted to be baptized in the river.  He remembered those baptisms we had done a few years ago at Bill and Beverley Hundley’s beautiful place on the James.  She called me to ask:

“Are we planning to do another river baptism anytime soon?”

“No,” I said.

I mean, we weren’t planning to.  We had baptized, like, 19 people the first year we did a river baptism, and 21 people the next year, and 13 people the year after that, and then there were only two people who signed up, and it didn’t seem worth all that trouble just for two.  But here was one young person who wanted to be baptized in the river and for some reason I heard myself saying, “Hey, if he wants to do it, let’s do it!”  But then Ann asked, “Can we do it before the end of August?”

And that’s how we ended up having a river baptism on Sunday evening, August 18.

Ann scouted out some locations and decided on a boat ramp at Robious Landing Park.  She told Will and he told some of his friends and before we knew it there were four, then five, then six young people who wanted to be baptized in the river.  They came forward during the invitation hymn on Sunday morning and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen: all those young people streaming down the aisle of the church to present themselves as candidates for baptism.  They may have gotten more hugs from the congregation afterward than they had ever gotten in their lives.

I got in my car around four to drive over to Robious Landing Park and at 4:30 I got out and started walking along the wooded path that led to the boat ramp.  It was longer than I thought, and even in the shade the temperature was somewhere in the nineties.  But when I got to the boat ramp I found a big crowd of happy, sweaty people and by 5:00 the crowd was bigger, sweatier, and (if possible) happier.

I put on my robe along with Ann and those six students, and then we paraded down the ramp while the James Family played and sang, “I have decided to follow Jesus.”  Everybody was singing along; it was perfect.  And when I waded out into the refreshing waters of the James I was grateful to be one of those in the river and not one of those sweating on the shore.

But then I became even more grateful.

Baptism 2

with Luke Hubbard (photo: Matthew Brown)

Ann introduced the students one by one and read their Scripture verses, and then they waded out to stand next to me in the water.  That’s when I felt the lump rise in my throat—when I stood beside these students and asked them to profess their faith, and when they said in voices loud enough to be heard on the shore, “Jesus is Lord!”  I swallowed hard and said, “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, and upon your profession of faith in him, I baptize you into the family of God in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  And then, one at a time, I dipped them down beneath those cleansing waters and brought them up again.

Can I tell you something?  I never feel so much at the center of God’s will as when I’m baptizing.  I mean, Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and there I am, doing exactly that. If I died in that moment I would go straight to heaven, right? But in that moment on Sunday evening, as one after another of those young people was lifted up out of the water and into their new life with Christ, heaven came to earth.

It really did.


–Jim Somerville


Charley's dedication (10)

Note: This is the third in a series of personal letters to my congregation, and although I don’t mention it anywhere in this post this picture of Charley Ozmore honking my nose during his dedication (above) seems like the perfect illustration of the joys of ministry.


One of the privileges of being a pastor is that you get invited into some of your congregation’s most intimate moments:

  • When you learn that a baby has been born, and go by the hospital to celebrate with the elated new father and the exhausted new mother.
  • When a young man sits on the couch in your study reciting his carefully rehearsed reasons for wanting to be baptized while his parents look on with pride.
  • When a couple comes for pre-marital counseling, and sits there blushing while you talk about the joys and challenges of married life.
  • When you get the call that someone has died, and drive to the home to sit with the grieving family.

Those moments can come at any time, and they do, but they come most often on Sundays, because that’s when we all get together for worship, and Bible study, and fellowship.  And some of the most intimate moments come when you least expect them.  Here are just a few from this past Sunday:

  1. Before I even got to Flamming Hall for the 8:45 fellowship time I stepped into the sanctuary to make sure everything was ready for worship and found Emma and Madelyn El-Khouri waiting patiently while their parents rehearsed for their part in the service. Madelyn jumped off the front pew, ran to me, and hugged me hard.  It’s just what she does when she sees me, but it was one of those moments that made me glad I’m a pastor.
  2. I was standing waist-deep in the baptistery, behind the curtain, getting ready to make my big entrance during the 9:30 worship service, when I looked back to see if Suzanne McCown (who was being baptized that morning) was ready to go with me. What I saw was Suzanne wiping tears from her face, overcome with emotion at the thought of what was about to happen.  She had told me earlier she thought of this as kind of a “wedding day,” when she would make her solemn vows to Christ.  How appropriate that the prelude on Sunday was the “Trumpet Voluntary” you’ve heard at so many weddings.
  3. After worship I stood near the piano to shake hands with people who were on their way to our “Altogether in August” Bible study in Flamming Hall. It’s not where I usually stand, and so I got to see people I don’t usually see.  One of them was June Burton, who, from the moment I came to First Baptist, has offered me nothing but kindness.  I was there when her husband Eddie died a few years ago and I did my best to help her walk through that grief.  She wasn’t walking on Sunday; she was in a wheelchair.  June has always been tiny but there she was in that child-sized chair and my first reaction was to bend down (way down) and give her a kiss on the cheek.  She hugged my neck and told me she loved me and then it was my turn to wipe away tears.

  4. I went to Bible study for a few minutes but then, because I could, I went to worship with the deaf church (their service begins at 11:00 and I’m usually working at 11:00 on Sunday morning). I was there for the welcome, the call to worship, the first hymn, and let me just say: it’s different in deaf church.  Sue Atkins[i] sat on the front pew “voicing” everything that was being signed, but other than that it was strangely silent.  Strange to me, that is: absolutely normal for the majority of people in that room.  I felt a connection to those brothers and sisters in that moment I don’t usually feel when we pass each other in the hallways and I offer my clumsy sign language version of “How are you?”  I could see how they were worshiping in their “heart language,” instead of having someone interpret the spoken word (which is what we do when they come to worship with us in the “Hearing Church”).  I watched one man nodding his head vigorously, as his new pastor, Dirk Hill, signed something I didn’t understand at all.  This man was “getting it.”  What Dirk was signing was helpful.  And I marveled at the ministry going on just down the hall from where I usually preach.

See what can happen when you come to church on Sunday?  Maybe it only happens if you’re the pastor, but I doubt it.  I’m guessing all of you have experienced such moments.  Maybe that’s why God makes it such a priority in his Top Ten list: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy!”  And maybe one of the ways we keep it holy is by showing up…and paying attention.

See you this Sunday,




[i] When I got home I learned that Sue’s mother had died around noon.  It wasn’t unexpected.  Lee had been in hospice for weeks.  But I thought how proud she would have been of her daughter, who left her bedside just long enough to help out with worship.



Note: Last week I posted the pastoral letter I wrote to my congregation in an attempt to share my heart and not only my head.  Here’s this week’s letter.

Summer is the time when I usually travel. I do it then mostly because my wife, Christy, is a kindergarten teacher who gets the summers off, and I want her to go with me. This year we splurged on a trip to Greece as a late celebration of my 60th birthday, and it was wonderful. I won’t go into the details; I don’t want to make you jealous; but if my 70th birthday is half as good, I will be happy.

But there I was, in the city of Athens, and on the island of Hydra, soaking up centuries of culture and lots of Mediterranean sunshine, and yet coming home to Richmond may have been the best part of the trip. We still had a few more trips to take before the summer was over. Christy went to Africa on a mission trip, I went to “Preacher Camp” for a week, we both went to Wingate, NC, for a conference, but as we were crossing the James River on our way home last week, we both let out a sigh of contentment. We were through with our travels for the summer.

We were home.

I didn’t know if I would like Richmond when I came here eleven years ago. I came from Washington, DC: the nation’s busy, bustling, cosmopolitan capital. Richmond seemed like a small Southern town by comparison. But now! Now, as I travel, I tell everybody who will listen how much I love Richmond. I tell them it has become a mecca for millennials because of the craft beer breweries in town. I tell them it was ranked the “Number One River City in America” by Outside magazine. I tell them about the growth of VCU and the University of Richmond, about the vibrant art scene in Richmond and the filmmaking industry in Virginia. I tell them we have more murals, per capita, than any other city in the US and some people are interested to know that it is the nation’s “third most tattooed city.”

But then I tell them about you.

I tell them how much I love Richmond’s First Baptist Church and the people who make it what it is. I tell them about the growing diversity in our congregation because of the “radical hospitality” we practice. I tell them about our rich history—239 years in this city!—and the way we have been focused on missions from the very beginning (the Foreign Mission Board of the SBC was “born” in our church basement). I tell them about our current focus of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia and how we seem to find ways of bringing heaven to earth every day. I’m proud of you, proud of the way you roll up your sleeves and do the work of the Kingdom. I brag on you wherever I go.

I love you, I love this church, I love this city, and I love that feeling I get when I sit on my front porch in the summertime as the day is coming to a close, when the traffic has thinned out, and the last jogger is running by. When it gets so quiet I can hear the sound of my own heartbeat, this is what I hear:

“This is home.”


Things Happen

grayland-hicks-jim-somerville-embraceAuthor’s Note: I’ve started a weekly newsletter to the members of my congregation called “A Word from Your Pastor,” mostly to let them know what’s on my heart, and not only in my head.  This was the first one, sent out last Friday.  

Some of you were at the 11:00 service on July 14 when an unexpected guest began to punctuate the service with loud shouts of “Hallelujah!”  I felt my anxiety levels begin to rise.  Who was this person?  Was he a threat to the church?  I listened carefully and decided that he didn’t sound threatening—just loud!—but he was making everybody nervous.

So, when I stood to preach I said, “Before I begin let me say that we have someone in our midst this morning who seems to have come to church determined to praise the Lord, and it’s been unsettling for some of us.  We aren’t that kind of church.  But if you can’t praise the Lord in church, where can you?  And if you can’t shout ‘Hallelujah!’ in church, then where?”

And then I began to preach.

Two minutes into the sermon our guest shouted “Hallelujah!”  Five minutes in he said, “Amen!”  And then, ten minutes into the sermon he stood and raised his hand, looking for recognition (and he was tall!), but I didn’t recognize him.  I preached to people all around him, refusing to make eye contact.

Five minutes later he sat down.

At the end of the service, after I had made announcements, he raised his hand again, and this time I did acknowledge him.  I walked up to where he was standing and asked him what he wanted to say.  He said, “I am the Chosen One!” (I didn’t know what to say about that).  But then he said, “I’ve been in the hospital.  My ribs are hurting.  I need prayer.”  And I knew what to say about that.  I asked him if I could say a prayer for him.  I asked him his name.  And then I said a prayer for Grayland.

When I finished he said, “I love you!  I would lay down my life for you!”  And he hugged me, and the whole church applauded.  He turned to the congregation and said, “I would lay down my life for all y’all.  I LOVE you!”  And someone shouted back, “We love you, too!”

It was a holy moment.

Which made this last Sunday hard for me, because Grayland showed up again.  I went to him before the service started and called him by name.  He said, “I love you!”  I said, “I love you too, Grayland, but I need you to know: we are not a shouting church and when you shout it makes some people anxious.”  He seemed confused by that and said, “I’ve got to do what the Spirit tells me to do.”  I said, “I know you do, and I don’t want to quench the Spirit, but I don’t want the church to get anxious or distracted.  We came to worship the Lord Jesus this morning and if everybody is looking at you they can’t look at him.”

And then he looked hurt.

I reassured him of my love and told him he was welcome and then went back to my seat.  I heard him shout something during the invocation I couldn’t quite make out, but then, a few minutes later, he shouted “Hallelujah” in a strangled voice, as if his heart had been broken.  During the pastoral prayer he got up and walked out mumbling something about how “the church is falling apart,” but it felt like my fault.  I didn’t think I had quenched the Holy Spirit but I was pretty sure I had quenched his.

Sometimes it’s hard to know just what to do.  I wondered later if all those people who had commended me for the way I handled the situation two weeks earlier would have commended me for the way I handled it on Sunday.  I don’t know.  But I do know this: when we come together for worship holy things can happen, beautiful things can happen, heartbreaking things can happen, but things can happen, and they DO happen, and if we’re not there for them we miss them.

I hope to see you in church this Sunday,



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Rags to Riches

OprahOprah Winfrey was born into a poor family in Mississippi, but this didn’t stop her from winning a scholarship to Tennessee State University and becoming the first African American TV correspondent in the state at the age of 19.

In 1983, Winfrey moved to Chicago to work for an AM talk show that would later be called The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Today Winfrey’s net worth is in the billions.


We love these kind of stories, don’t we?  These “rags to riches” stories, where some poor kid, through hard work and determination, rises to the top?

I’ve been thinking about that lately where Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is concerned.  I’m not saying that he was a poor kid, but let’s allow that his worldview may have been impoverished by the circumstances of his early life.

Born in 1959, Northam and his older brother of two years, Thomas, were raised on a water-side farm, just outside Onancock, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The family grew a variety of crops and tended livestock on their seventy-five-acre property. As a teenager, Northam worked on a ferry to Tangier Island and as a deckhand on fishing charters; he also worked on a neighbor’s farm and as a “stock boy” at Meatland grocery store. 

Humble beginnings, right?  And can you imagine that on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the sixties and seventies, Northam’s appreciation for African Americans may have been stunted by his environment and experience?

In my own experience, growing up in rural West Virginia around the same time, I remember the hateful things that were said about homosexuals (we hadn’t learned the word “gay” yet).

I myself said things that I am ashamed to remember.

But when I moved to Washington, DC, in 2000 I became pastor of a Baptist church in DuPont Circle, home to a large portion of the city’s gay population.  I got to know gay people, some of whom were brave enough to visit my church.  I listened to their stories over coffee in the neighborhood, and many of the stories they told broke my heart.  These days, when someone tells me, “I’m gay,” I remember those stories and feel a generosity of spirit that I didn’t have as a boy.

In its own way, it is a “rags to riches” story, and I’m wondering if Ralph Northam has a similar story where African Americans are concerned.  Would he say that when he posed for a racist photograph in 1984 he was “poor” in terms of his love and understanding for African Americans?  Would he say that now, because of his experience (and, I believe, a wife who keeps pushing him to grow, as my wife does), he is “rich”?  And do we have enough generosity of spirit to allow him to change?

I’ll just bet that when Oprah Winfrey walks into the nice stores in Chicago these days they let her shop.  Nobody says, “You’re poor!” because even though that was once true, it isn’t anymore.

To those who would call Ralph Northam a racist I say, “That may be true.  He may have been a racist once, and he may still be a racist.  I don’t know.  But it may also be true that he used to be a racist in the way Oprah used to be poor.  Maybe this is a rags to riches story.”

If that’s true, it gives me hope that all of us could become more generous in spirit, and learn to love those who are different from us as if love were money and we were all billionaires.

–Jim Somerville

People to Heaven or Heaven to Earth?

rapture-art-designOn Monday morning I posted this question on my Facebook page:

Quick survey: Would you say the PRIMARY mission of the church (not the only mission, but the primary one) is to:

A: Get people to heaven
B: Bring heaven to earth

I invited respondents to type “A” or “B” into the comments box without further comment (while acknowledging that on Facebook that was unlikely to happen).  Still, many of them did just that, and when I counted them up on Wednesday morning the “B’s” had it: 149 out of 181 responses.

I recognize that these people are my Facebook friends, and I’m sure they’ve heard me talk about my church’s mission as “bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.” They’re used to that kind of language.  Still, that’s a solid 82% who think the primary mission of the church is not getting people to heaven but bringing heaven to earth, which is not what I’ve always heard.

In my youth and childhood I often heard that our job, as Christians, was to “save sinners,” which in those days meant I needed to tell my non-Christians friends that they were going to hell.  That was the bad news.  But then I got to tell them the Good News: that God loved them so much he sent his only Son to die for them, and if they would simply accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior then when they died, instead of going to hell, they would go to heaven.

Good news, right?

But what do you do after you “get saved”?  Do you sit on a church pew until Jesus comes back, or until you die, whichever comes first?  No, of course not.  You go out and share the good news with others, who share it with others, who share it with others until the Gospel spreads around the globe like candlelight at the Christmas Eve service—from one wick to another.

That’s a beautiful image, and it reminds me of what Jesus said to his disciples at the end of Mark’s Gospel: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the good news to every creature” (Mark 16:15).  But the good news of Mark’s Gospel is proclaimed in the first chapter, by Jesus himself.  In Mark 1:15 he says, “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near.”  These are the first words out of his mouth.  And what strikes me about them is that Jesus does not say, “If you accept me as your personal Lord and Savior then when you die, instead of going to hell, you will go to heaven.”

Instead he talks about the kingdom.

Read the gospels carefully and you will find that Jesus refers to the kingdom some 120 times, more than anything else, and certainly more than heaven and hell.  The kingdom is his primary concern, and when his disciples ask him to teach them to pray he says, “Pray that God’s kingdom would come, on earth as it is in heaven.”  But that’s not all he does.  Jesus demonstrates the work of the kingdom by healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead, casting out demons, preaching the good news, and then sending his disciples out to do the same (Matt. 10:7-8) because that’s what disciples do.

That’s what I want to do.

I don’t want to be a convert to Christianity; I want to be a disciple of Jesus.  I answered his call a long time ago.  I’ve been following him ever since.  Through my regular study of the Gospels I’ve been listening to him teach and preach, I’ve been watching him help and heal, I’ve been studying his moves and learning his craft and then I’ve been getting out there and trying to do what I’ve learned from him, just like those first disciples.  Because I don’t only want to pray that God’s kingdom would come I want to work to make it so: I want to help Jesus bring heaven to earth.

And that’s the kind of church I want to belong to.

I don’t spend a lot of time preaching about heaven and hell.  I invite people into a life of discipleship.  I invite them to follow Jesus.  I believe that if they follow him faithfully wherever he goes they will end up where he did–in heaven.  I believe that I will.  And when that day comes I don’t want him to have to send some angel to see if he can find my name in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev. 21:27); I want him to recognize me at once, because we’ve been working together for years.  I want him to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.

“Enter into the joy of your master!”