A Night to Remember

Nigerians2It’s 7:35 p.m. on Tuesday, January 20, 2015.

Exactly 50 years ago, at this time, somewhere between 1,400 and 1,800 people packed themselves into the sanctuary of Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the annual business meeting. Why so many? Because two weeks earlier two Nigerian students from Virginia Union University had presented themselves for membership, and the church was voting on whether or not to let them in.

Fred Anderson writes: “To understand the scene in January 1965 and to sense something of the charged emotions, it is necessary to review the turbulent era. A scant ten years before, in 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that separate but equal was not to be allowed in reference to the public schools. Led by powerful politicians and fed by the fears of the white citizenry, especially in the rural areas, Virginia employed “massive resistance.” In some localities, the public schools closed. Although Virginia avoided the kind of ugly racial confrontations experienced in much of the Deep South, there were deep-set social customs, segregation laws, and spirits of defiance. The areas of public transportation, public accommodations, and voting rights were prime aspects of society about to undergo change.”

On Wednesday evening, January 20, all the conflicting emotions—the rights and the wrongs—from centuries of Southern living had a place of exposure in a meeting that stretched on for four hours. The staff and leadership had prepared carefully. 3,000 ballots had been printed. Tally sheets had been designed to make the proceedings smooth. News reporters were barred from the church grounds. This was strictly a “family meeting.”

The pastor, Dr. Ted Adams, began the meeting with a statement of his personal convictions. “In his calm and gentle manner characterized by extreme patience and understanding, the gentle Adams laid out the concern for open doors and open hearts. He appealed, as he had before, that the church should receive into its membership ‘anyone who came professing faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.’”

And then it was up to the church.

The main motion on the floor was that “an exception to the established church policy be made to accept under the watch care of our church the two Nigerian students.” Chesley Decker, the son of missionaries and an appealing young member, called for a change from watch care to full membership. In the time for discussion there were numerous speakers pro and con. Someone reckoned that between forty and fifty members spoke at some point in the long deliberations.

Some speaking against the motion argued that “If God had wanted the races to amalgamate…” etc., fearful that integration would lead to intermarriage between the races. Others worried that immediate admission would “split the membership,” and urged a deferral for at least six months. But the young people in the room, who felt differently, spoke with the courage of their convictions. One young woman stood at the podium and pointed her finger at some of her former Sunday school teachers. “You taught me to believe that Jesus loves ALL the little children—red and yellow BLACK and white! Was that a lie?”

It would be impossible to document the emotion in the crowded church sanctuary that night, but in the end, the (amended) recommendation to receive the Nigerian students as full members carried 773 to 540.

The word spread like wildfire.

The next day the story showed up in newspapers in Gainesville, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, DC. Some of the articles were supportive; others were simply surprised that a historic Baptist church in the “Capital of the Confederacy” would vote to admit black members.

It would be another two months before Martin Luther King led the march from Selma to Montgomery (dramatized in the recent film, “Selma”). Some have wondered how the publicity and policy changes surrounding that march would have affected the outcome of the First Baptist vote, had it been it held at a later time. We will never know.

But we do know this:

Fifty years ago tonight the people of Richmond’s First Baptist Church came down on the right side of history. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to carry the vote. They heard something of the gospel in Dr. Adams’ gentle request that “anyone professing faith in Jesus Christ should be admitted as a member.” They remembered that they were not only citizens of the American South, but also of God’s Kingdom. Ronald Howell, a member of the church, was quoted in the Richmond News Leader as saying, “The value of what we believe and profess is seen in what we do. By opening our church doors, we can prove to the watching world that we are sincere about our belief in the One God who is the Father of us all.”

It’s 8:35 now. Fifty years ago that church business meeting was just getting warmed up. It would be another three hours before the gavel came down and the few remaining members could go home. But what happened then defined who we are now. The “open door” policy of First Baptist Church had been tested and the door had remained open.

It was truly a night to remember.

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Much of the information in this post comes from Fred Anderson’s excellent reporting in The Open Door: A History of First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia, published by the church in 2006 (pp. 261-279).

Why not study the Bible with Brian Blount…in your kitchen?

news_faith_house_churchLast Sunday we tried a “secret” vesper service at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, depending on word-of-mouth and social media to draw a crowd. Some forty people showed up in the chapel at 5:00 for a half-hour service that included music by George Winston and Joshua Bell, and a video sermon by Amy Butler, Senior Minister of the Riverside Church in New York City. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive: “Perfect!” “Wonderful!” “Amazing!” and “When can we do this again?” Well, not this week, because the chapel is already reserved for the Prayers for Healing service.

But here’s another idea: What about using this week’s “Sermon for Every Sunday” in a small group Bible study?

You could do it like this: invite two or three friends to join you at the time and place of your choosing. For example, you could do it in your home or apartment at 8:00 on a Thursday night. You could sit at the kitchen table and offer some simple snacks. You could start by looking at the Gospel lesson for this Sunday from Mark 1:4-11 and talking about it among yourselves. And then, after twenty minutes or so, you could watch Brian Blount’s sermon for this Sunday on your laptop, set up at one end of the table.

blount-brian_200x240Brian is president and professor of New Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary here in Richmond.  His sermon for this Sunday is powerful, and brings together all his skills as a teacher, preacher, and scholar. I’m imagining how much better you and your friends would be prepared for worship on the following Sunday, when your own preacher announces his text for the day from Mark 1:4-11 and begins to preach on that passage. Worship would be far richer because of it, and your own faith and understanding deeper.

You can “rent” Brian’s sermon for $4.99 at http://www.asermonforeverysunday.com. You can pick up some simple, healthy snacks for about the same price. That’s less than $10 for an evening of soul-strengthening Bible study and you don’t have to teach! Ask everybody to chip in a dollar or two and you’re done!

I don’t know if this suggestion will change your life, but it’s a new year, and a good time to think about what kind of changes your life needs. Spending more time studying the Bible with friends sounds like a resolution worth making.

A Letter from Jerry

Shoppers Hunt for Post Holiday Bargains in AustinJerry first wrote to me as a regular viewer of the Sunday morning worship service from First Baptist Church on Richmond’s Channel 8.  Then he started to visit church a few times a month, usually at the 8:30 service.  Then he decided to join and join us in our mission of bringing the KOH2RVA (the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia).  That may have been the first time he and his son Travis gave $100 away to a needy family.  Now it’s become a Christmas tradition, and I believe heaven comes a little closer to earth each year.  Here’s this year’s story, in Jerry’s own words.

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Hi Jim,

Hope you and your family had a wonderful Christmas. Thought you might enjoy hearing about Travis and my Christmas eve card.

As we do every year we place $100 in a Christmas card signed “with love from God”. We headed to a dollar store in a modest income area.

We scoped out the store and within a few minutes we overheard a conversation between two women (probably mother and daughter). I guess their ages to be 45ish and 70ish. They were discussing a friend spending the night at their house because the friend was depressed because she did not have a Christmas tree. Upon further observation we saw they were purchasing canned food and bread….at the dollar store. Travis nodded at me and I gave him the go ahead. He approached the younger woman and handed her the card and wished her a Merry Christmas. She looked dumbfounded but wished us both a Merry Christmas in return. We smiled and immediately left the store. Travis said out of the corner of him eye he saw the woman opening the card.

Next Travis and I went to a Mexican restaurant for lunch. We talked about how God might be pleased with us for anonymously helping someone out. The secret being giving the glory to God who provided us with the means and the privilege. We believe the folks we help out every Christmas eve will know and tell their friends of a Christmas miracle…..and that this goodness will spread.

This is the most special thing we do all year. We love it.

Your Friends,

Jerry and Travis

What I Want for Richmond

black-and-white-hands-e12810219397001I am not a regular reader of the newspaper. I am not a regular watcher of television news. Even so, I have heard plenty about Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY, and Cleveland, OH in the last few weeks. I know that there is racial unrest in our nation that is registering on the Richter Scale.

I haven’t preached about it. Although Karl Barth famously urged preachers to step into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other I tend to leave the Times behind. I preach from the Bible, and I’m amazed at how often its timeless truths seem as fresh and relevant as the morning newspaper. Anyone who is listening to its pleas for justice, mercy, and humble walking with God will hear the names of “Ferguson,” “Cleveland,” and “New York.”

But I’m not thinking about them this morning; I’m thinking about Richmond.

What I want for Richmond is a different kind of reality. I don’t want us to be the next Ferguson. I want us to be a place where God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven. And I can’t imagine that it is God’s will for there to be enmity among his children, and especially not because of color or class.

So, what if, in Richmond:

  • We went out of our way to be kind to each other?
  • We greeted each other warmly, sincerely, with the sign of the open palm, proving that we meant each other no harm?
  • We visited each other’s churches, celebrating the truth that we have the same Heavenly Father, which makes us all sisters and brothers?
  • We took the time to call or listen to those who may feel especially vulnerable in this time of unrest, those who are thinking, “That could have been my son,” or, “That could have been me”?
  • We tried to be patient with those who learned prejudice from their parents or grandparents or other trusted elders as they struggle to learn a better way?
  • We prayed for police officers, who regularly risk their lives in the line of duty, and who live with more fear than they would ever want us to see?
  • We tried hard to see in the face of every other human being the face of Christ, and tried to love one another as he has loved us?

That’s what I want for Richmond. I know it’s a lot to ask, and I know it seems to leave out those who are not part of my tradition, and who may not be willing to look for “the face of Christ” in others. But can we at least see the face of a neighbor in the other, and recognize that this is our city, together? That it rises or falls on the basis of how we treat each other?  And can we make a silent promise, right now, to treat each other with love and respect?

My friend Ben Campbell has said he wants “the former Capital of the Confederacy to become the Capital of Racial Reconciliation.”  That’s a good and worthy goal and I embrace it, but I realize I want even more than that:

I want it to become Heaven on Earth.

A Poem

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To My Atheist Friends (while looking at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope)

Look at these:
Aren’t they amazing?
These are pictures of deep space,
the far reaches of the universe
and what can be seen in every dark corner
is light.

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Towering nebulae,
whirling galaxies,
clusters of stars so dense
they dazzle the eyes.

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There is an ancient text that claims:
“God is light.”

Work with me for a minute:
Imagine that it’s true,
that all the brilliant beauty in those images—
is God.
That He, or She, or It, is a luminous, swirling, benevolent
Presence
That fills the universe,
and touches every dark corner
with light.

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And then imagine that here—
on this tiny blue-green planet—
among humans who have evolved slowly
over millions of years
some humans
have been especially sensitive to that
Presence,
in love with the light,
listening for its low vibrations,
and that they have tried to put into words
what they have heard and seen,
tasted and touched.

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Imagine that other humans—
not so sensitive—
have found meaning in those words,
some sense of connection
to something they cannot name,
so that they have gathered up those words
and written them down
on tablets, scrolls, and in books.

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Suppose that’s what the Bible is,
the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita:
books full of words that bear witness
to some greater presence
by those who have heard the low hum
of the heavens, singing,
by those who have seen the light
and called it by name?

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It doesn’t mean that they got it all right—
this is testimony, not Truth—
but suppose there is a kind of truth there
for those who can hear it
and Good News (if you want to call it that):
The news that we are not alone:
That there is a luminous, swirling, benevolent
Presence
Watching over us,
Nurturing our slow growth
and stuttering evolution
over eons,

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Believing in us
Even when we can’t
Believe in ourselves,
And touching every dark corner
with light.

–Jay Green

Pictures from a Trip

I promised some pictures from my recent trip to Zion National Park.  Here are some of the better ones.

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A mountain called “The Watchman” watches over our campground

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A lovely young couple from British Columbia–Adam and Cesca–enjoy lunch on Observation Point.

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Joe admires the colored rock wall of the canyon in the Narrows

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Inside the Narrows, getting close to “Wall Street”

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Amazing colors, shapes, and textures in the canyon

Let me just add that the trip was everything it promised to be: good for the body, good for the mind, good for the heart, and good for the soul.  Joe and I questioned that occasionally, when we hiked near the edge of a 2,000-foot cliff on Angel’s Landing, when we were sloshing upstream through waist-deep water in the Narrows, when our hearts were pounding with the exertion of a climb to Observation Point, but when we got back to camp each evening, and sat down to some of Chuck’s gourmet cooking, all was well.  And when we sat by the fire later, talking and laughing late into the evening, all was even better.

God is good and his creation is a miracle. Get outside and savor it for yourself sometime.

Soon.

Marching to Zion–Again

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Some of you may remember that I tried to go to Zion National Park last year for a backpacking trip that was complicated by the shutdown of the federal government. Chuck, Joe, and I camped only one night in Zion; the next day we were kicked out.

“Sorry, fellas. The park is closed.”

“Can’t we just do some hiking while we’re here?”

“No. Sorry. The park is closed to any kind of recreational use.”

“But what if we don’t enjoy ourselves?”

It was a good try, but it didn’t work. We found ourselves driving through most of Southern Utah over the next few days, enjoying spectacular beauty and camping in places most people never get to see. We spent one night sitting by a crackling juniper-wood campfire, getting stiff necks from staring up at a sky full of brilliant stars.

But as we left Utah we promised each other that we would return, so, here we are, a little more than a year later, traveling from Virginia, and from Central and South Texas, to reconvene in Zion.

Our plans will have to be altered just a bit to accommodate Chuck’s recent basketball injury–a broken foot suffered in a pickup game with his daughter on the driveway. None of us is getting younger. But he’s offered to stay in camp and cook while Joe and I explore the remote reaches of the Park and that sounds…delicious.

My outgoing email message this week says that I’m on a wilderness retreat and that’s what this feels like in so many ways. I’ve known Chuck and Joe most of my life. I trust them completely. In the wilderness we talk through everything that’s troubling us; we listen to each other and offer whatever advice we can give; ultimately we promise to pray for each other, and that’s about the best anybody can ask for.

Except for this: we also have fun.

We tell stories and laugh out loud and slap each other on the back. For a few days each year the worries of the world fall away and we feel like kids again. It’s a good thing, and I wish everyone could have that experience. They can’t, but for the next few days Chuck and Joe and I are going to try. It won’t be easy, what with that broken foot and all, but if anybody can do it we can.

I’ll let you know how it comes out, and if I can remember to take some pictures, I will. In the meantime, keep the faith and know that somewhere in Utah my soul is singing:

I’m marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion,
I’m marching upward to Zion,
the beautiful city of God.