KOH2RVA: Day 352

So, I was talking with Rob Courain yesterday about this crazy idea he has to raise money for missions. Rob is a member of First Baptist who was baptized in the James River on August 18. He is also a co-founder of RVA United, the ministry with and for 20-30somethings in Richmond that rocks First Baptist Church with a powerful praise service on Tuesday nights (Rob plays guitar in the band). And, as it turns out, he is something of an entrepreneur.

Here’s what he’s thinking:

Using the business model made popular by Groupon, Rob has made arrangements with Arianna’s Grill at 700 N. Sheppard Street to offer up to 500 vouchers to our congregation valued at $20 each. When you buy a $20 voucher and take it to Arianna’s you get $20 worth of delicious Italian food. But here’s the interesting part: in exchange for the in-church publicity and promotion, Arianna’s will give half that money to the mission cause of our choice, in this case to Mark and Sarah Williams, CBF missionaries working to save the lives of AIDS orphans in South Africa.

Before reading any further, stop to appreciate that last point: Arianna’s—a friendly neighborhood restaurant less than two blocks from the church—is going to give half of the money it earns on these vouchers to missionaries in South Africa, evidence that the Kingdom of Heaven is coming to Richmond, Virginia.

Now, here’s the catch: in order to offer this kind of deal Arianna’s has to sell at least 200 vouchers. If they don’t sell 200, the deal is off. They believe that the publicity and promotion they receive through the church will be well worth the minimum of $2,000 they send on to Mark and Sarah. And they are hopeful, of course, that people who discover Arianna’s through this promotion will like it and want to come back at other times.

I have.

In fact, I’ve had lunch there the past two days. I love their lunchtime specials, their big, conversation-friendly booths, and the charming and attentive wait staff. But I looked at Arianna’s differently when I was there yesterday. It wasn’t just a friendly neighborhood restaurant, serving up good food at good prices: thanks to Rob I looked at Arianna’s as a partner in mission.

Vouchers go on sale at First Baptist on One Sunday, September 8. I want to be the first person in line, holding my $20 in the air, knowing that half of it will go to Mark and Sarah Williams and the good work they are doing in South Africa.

I hope you will be right behind me.

The Baptist Mother Teresa

LeenaWe had the privilege of hearing Leena Lavanya last night at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  Leena is from Narasaraopet, Andhra Pradesh, India, where she works with lepers, AIDS orphans, prostitutes, and others who rank among the poorest of the poor.  She has been called “the Baptist Mother Teresa” and is this year’s winner of the Baptist World Alliance’s prestigious Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award.

Leena was raised by Christian grandparents (her grandfather was a seminary professor and one-time vice-presisdent of the Baptist World Alliance).  When she was in her early twenties she won a scholarship to attend the Baptist Youth World Conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she was challenged by noted speaker Tony Campolo to dedicate her life to Christian service.  “He talked about that hymn ‘I Surrender All,'” she said.  “But he told us, ‘We don’t surrender all.  We surrender a dollar, a pound, a rupee.'”  In that moment Leena decided that she would surrender herself completely to Christ. 

And then she began to tell us what happens when you do that.

It started when she found herself seated beside a prostitute on a bus.  She struck up a conversation with the woman and eventually told her, “You should give up your prostitution.  You should start a new life.”   “Fine!” the woman answered.  “If you will feed the eight people in my family I will start a new life.”  And so Leena and her grandparents gave up breakfast for three months, saved the money, and bought this woman a sewing machine.  Then they spent six months teaching her how to use it.  Now the woman owns her own small business.

Leena talked about finding a boy crying by the side of the road.  His family had learned that he was HIV positive and put him out of the house.  “They had a nice barn,” Leena said.  “Their animals were well-kept.  But they put their son out of the house!”  She had to do something.  And so she found a place for this boy to live, and then discovered that there were others like him.  Now there are twenty boys living in an orphanage run by her ministry, Serve Trust.

One of the most touching stories she told last night was about her work with “leprous people.”  She said these people lie under trees outside the towns and villages.  No one will touch them; no one will take care of them.  But she had surrendered all to Jesus, and Jesus ministered to lepers.  And so, approaching them hesitantly, she began to talk to these people.   She began to feel compassion for them.  Before long she was caring for them, even dressing their sores.  “Why are you doing this?” one man asked her.  “Because of Jesus,” she answered, cheerfully.  “Who is Jesus?” he asked, and she began to tell him.  When she finished he told her through tears that he wanted this Jesus in his life.

But he also wanted to be baptized, and since Leena is not a pastor she asked the pastor of the local church to baptize the man.  The pastor came and had a look at him, but eventually shook his head and walked away.  The man was very sick, almost at the point of death.  How would they get him into the baptistery?  So, Leena began to tell him that it wasn’t absolutely necessary to be baptized.  Look at the thief on the cross!  Jesus said, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”  But the man still wanted to be baptized.  He pleaded with her.  Finally, Leena said, “I dragged him over to a water spigot, turned it on, and as the water poured over his head I said, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!”

He died a month later.

She went on and on like that last night, telling one story after another about seeing human need, feeling the pain of others, and doing something about it.  Her organization, Serve Trust Ministries, operates a home for the aged, a home for lepers, homes for HIV/AIDS-infected children and adults, and an HIV/AIDS counseling center.  She has been instrumental in starting more than 40 Baptist churches in the villages surrounding her hometown of Narasaraopet.  And yet she retains the bubbling enthusiasm of the young woman who went to a Baptist Youth Conference in Zimbabwe nearly twenty years ago.  When she finished speaking last night I stepped to the podium and said:

“Now I think we know the difference between surrendering some and surrendering all.”

Forgetting to Remember World AIDS Day

2098276910_39ea0cbbb71Today is World AIDS Day.


I know because I just went to Starbucks where all the baristas were wearing red aprons and where five cents of every purchase went to help people around the world living with HIV/AIDS. 


I was a little embarrassed that it took Starbucks to remind me.  For years in Washington I participated in the annual AIDS Walk.  Our church would put together a team of walkers, and together raise as much money as we could to help the Whitman-Walker Clinic.  We would all walk together, enjoying the camaraderie and the feeling that we were doing something to help.  One year I raised over a thousand dollars and earned a snazzy fleece vest.  Another year I ran the course early because I had to catch a flight later that morning.  But the year I remember best is the one where they asked me to write down the name of the person I was walking for.


I can’t mention his name here, but he was a member of one of my churches who had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion years earlier.  He was a happily married man—a father and grandfather—and the thought of dying of AIDS terrified him.  He didn’t want anyone else to know about it, but he talked to me confidentially and—very confidentially—we made some tentative plans for his funeral.


That was back in the day when AIDS almost always led to death.  These days things are better.  Being HIV Positive is not necessarily a death sentence.  Thanks to fund-raising efforts like the AIDS Walk and what Starbucks is doing today, people can live with AIDS almost indefinitely.  It’s not cheap, but it can be done, and because it can my former church member can rest a little easier.


Of course we haven’t solved the problem.  AIDS continues to ravage the continent of Africa, where there are millions of deaths each year and millions of children who have been orphaned.  I remember the Sunday in DC when I visited with an articulate young man from Nigeria who eventually admitted that he was one of those people—an AIDS orphan.  He showed me the statistics and they were heartbreaking.  A million orphans in his country alone, with millions of others across the continent.


So, I’m embarrassed that it took a trip to Starbucks to remind me that today is World AIDS Day.  I should have known that when I woke up this morning.  It should have gone off in my head like an alarm clock, accompanied by the picture of that young man’s face, and my friend and former church member, and all those people who live in the shadow of this devastating disease.


Please don’t let me forget it again.