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.

KOH2RVA: Day 177

prayer_hands_goldAt the close of every staff meeting at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we stand, join hands, and pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Richmond, as it is in heaven…” It’s a way of reminding ourselves of our mission, and for nearly five years it has served that purpose well.

But last night I attended worship at Richmond Hill, where people have been praying for this city and the surrounding region since 1866. Here are some excerpts from last night’s prayer—astonishing for its depth and breadth—led by a woman named Deborah who said:

Please join me in prayer for Metropolitan Richmond. When I say, “Hear us, O God,” please respond by saying, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

O LORD, we pray for Metropolitan Richmond, for the welfare of all of our fellow citizens, for the establishment of your order in our community, and for peace. Hear us, O God.

Lord, hear our prayer.

For the city of Richmond; for the counties of Henrico, Hanover, and Chesterfield; Charles City, Powhatan, Goochland, and New Kent; for the cities and towns of Ashland, Hopewell, Colonial Heights, and Petersburg; for Dwight Jones, the Mayor of Richmond, and all the members of the City Council; for all the Boards of Supervisors and Town and City Councils of metropolitan Richmond; for all the City, County, and Town managers of our metropolitan city. Hear us, O God.

Lord, hear our prayer.

For our schools; for all teachers, students, and staff; for all young people in our metropolitan city; for all day care centers; for our universities, community colleges, and technical schools. Hear us, O God.

Lord, hear our prayer.

For an end to racism and racial prejudice in metropolitan Richmond; for the dismantling of inequalities and healing of distress established by our racial history. Hear us, O God.

Lord, hear our prayer.

For all of our businesses and business people; for all who are employed and all who are unemployed; for our economy, for healthy work and distribution of wealth among all our people. Hear us, O God.

Lord, hear our prayer.

For our hospitals and nursing homes, and all who work in them; for our jails and prisons, all inmates and staff; for our probation officers; for all shelters, feeding programs, and social service institutions in metropolitan Richmond. Hear us, O God.

Lord, hear our prayer.

For all our churches, seminaries, and religious institutions; for all our clergy and church leaders; for all religious communities; for the Sisters of the Visitation of Monte Maria.* Hear us, O God.

Lord, hear our prayer.

For all who work in public service; for all those who work for local and state government here; for Bob McDonnell the Governor of Virginia, for Bill Bolling the Lieutenant Governor, for Ken Cuccinelli the Attorney General, and for all members of the General Assembly. Hear us, O God.

Lord, hear our prayer.

For all who are sick, for victims of abuse, for victims of violence, for the dying, the grieving, for those who are in poverty, for those who are alone, and for those who are in need of friendship. Hear us, O God.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Please ask your prayers silently or out loud for those persons who are on your heart, and for whom your prayers are asked. (After a period of silence) Hear us, O God.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Grant, O Lord, that your Kingdom may come here in this city of metropolitan Richmond, as it is in heaven. Help us to be a part of its coming; help us to minister to others in the Spirit and to accept your ministry for ourselves. We pray in Jesus’ Name. Hear us, O God.

Lord, hear our prayer.

When it was over I felt as if we had showered metropolitan Richmond with the love of God. I could almost see every wilting leaf in the city lifting itself toward that gentle rain. If the work of prayer is real work (and it is), may this be the kind of work that will help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to metropolitan Richmond.

Lord, hear our prayer!

*the nuns who started praying for Richmond in 1866

KOH2RVA: Day 150

greetings-from-richmond-virginiaThe second thing on my agenda on Wednesday mornings is “Ecumenical Jogging” at 6:15. It’s a fancy way of saying I go for a morning run with my friend Wallace Adams-Riley, Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.

We talk about a lot of things while we’re running. This morning I talked about something I had read in Ben Campbell’s book, Richmond’s Unhealed History, and since nobody says it quite like Ben, let me quote:

While metropolitan Richmond’s leaders were busy over the last forty years fighting among their fragmented jurisdictions, vying for businesses, abandoning and opening massive shopping centers, trying to keep poor people in other jurisdictions, struggling to build four identical balanced sub-economies, and worrying about race and income levels of citizens, other middle-sized cities in our region stole our entire banking industry, built light rail systems, renewed their downtown areas, acquired major league sports teams, and developed public education systems far more competitive than either metropolitan Richmond’s suburban or urban systems. They built the same highways, suburbs, and shopping centers as metro Richmond, but the resulting common wealth was much greater and the larger city prospered (pp. 211-212).


Rev. Ben Campbell

It’s that “common wealth” Ben is concerned about. He argues that metropolitan Richmond doesn’t have it because it’s divided among Richmond City, Hanover, Henrico, and Chesterfield Counties. He often talks about how in Charlotte, North Carolina, the city and county governments merged to form a single jurisdiction, and were therefore able to attract major industry and professional sports teams.

I was telling Wallace about all this (or trying to while huffing and puffing along Franklin Street), and that’s when he said, “We should start a movement called ‘One Richmond.’”

“One Richmond,” I repeated. “I like it.”  And a few steps later I said, “Let the record show that ‘One Richmond’ was born on February 6, 2013, during a morning run.”

Sometimes I get criticized for talking about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, even in my own church. Some of our members tell me they don’t live in Richmond: they live in Henrico County, or Hanover, or Chesterfield. And so I have to say, “You know what I mean—Metropolitan Richmond.” But what if I didn’t have to say that? What if Richmond weren’t divided up into “four identical balanced sub-economies” as Ben Campbell says? What if it were just one, big happy city?

I’m sure that the people who work for the county governments could give me lots of reasons why we shouldn’t become one, big happy city, and maybe they will, but the vision remains compelling. Why not One Richmond?

Wouldn’t that bring heaven a little closer to earth?

KOH2RVA: Day 69

I had to leave Grace Fellowship early last night to get to my next event, but that’s a shame, because there was some very gracious fellowship going on in the dining hall at First Baptist Church.

Vicky Nicholau, who has been doing this for years, welcomed everybody and asked for prayer concerns and praises. I was impressed by how she was able to call almost everybody by name in a room with more than a hundred of our homeless neighbors present. And I was impressed by the diversity of that group: there were black people and white people, old people and young people, men and women and a few I wasn’t sure about, but when I stood to pray I said, “God, there isn’t a person in this room who isn’t precious to you,” and I believed it.

I got the feeling that everybody who was volunteering last night believed it, and that made it possible for our guests to believe it, too. Again, I was impressed by how many people were able to call each other by name, just like they do at Wednesday night church suppers. But this was a Thursday night, and the people in the room didn’t look much like the ones who come on Wednesday. They looked happier, if that’s possible. More grateful. If you had been in that room I think you would have agreed that the Kingdom of Heaven came to Richmond, Virginia, at least for a little while.

I slipped out in time to get to the University of Richmond to hear John Kinney and Ben Campbell speak at the annual Weinstein-Rosenthal Forum on Faith, Ethics, and Global Society. Their topic was: “From Hurt to Healing: Forgiveness and Hope in Metropolitan Richmond.”

Ben talked about the hurt; John talked about the healing.

The way Ben tells the story Richmond has been deeply divided by the issues of race and class almost from the beginning. He talks about Jefferson proclaiming that all men are created equal and Henry saying “Give me liberty or give me death” while Richmond was becoming the largest slave market on the eastern seaboard. He talks about how decisions made in the latter half of the last century bulldozed some of Richmond’s traditionally black neighborhoods and pushed its poorest citizens into ghettos on the other side of the new Interstate.

There was plenty of hurt to talk about last night.

But when John Kinney spoke he said what would get us from hurt to healing was forgiveness of the past and hope for the future. I’ll probably need to save that for my next post because those are huge topics, but I hope you will pause and say a prayer for Richmond today, asking God to forgive us for some of the atrocities committed in the past (and there were atrocities), and to give us hope for a different kind of future.

The prayer itself might be a first step on the road to healing.

KOH2RVA: Day 49

Ben Campbell is an Episcopal priest, but when he starts talking about transportation he sounds like a Baptist evangelist.

Ben is the Pastoral Director at Richmond Hill, where I heard him speak on Thursday during a day-long clergy convocation on the challenges facing our city. Even though Thursday is my day off, I thought, “If First Baptist Church is serious about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, then its pastor needs to be at this convocation!” (I sometimes have to give myself little pep-talks like that).

We first heard from Mayor Dwight Jones, who introduced the report of his anti-poverty commission. And then we heard the report itself, which suggested that the very best way to get people out of poverty is to put them to work. And then Ben Campbell began to talk about how we could get poor people to the places where entry-level jobs could be found.

He talked about the need for a “Transportation Revival,” and started with a picture of a streetcar. He said that in 1887 Richmond was famous for being the first city in the world to have a large electric street railway system. Until 1955, metro Richmond’s public transportation system was excellent. But today Richmond ranks in the bottom 10 percent of America’s top 100 cities when it comes to access to jobs by public transportation. What happened? Ben explains it like this:

In 1951 Richmond’s authorities commissioned a plan that drove a commuter road through nearly every black neighborhood in town. Interstate 95 and the Downtown Expressway together destroyed more than 2,000 homes. Other roads mutilated Fulton, Shockoe Bottom, Jackson Ward. Many of the displaced residents moved to the near white suburbs. And the displaced white residents moved across the county lines to new suburbs in the three surrounding counties. The new highways enabled them to come in and out of town, but Richmond’s bus system stopped at the county lines.

But in the 1950s, most of the jobs were inside the city limits. Now 75 percent of the jobs are in the surrounding counties. At that time, most of the retail was downtown; but today it’s in suburban shopping centers. Sixty years ago, few people in the counties needed public transportation. Today there are many who don’t have cars.

Ben introduced a proposal that would put Richmond in the top 10 percent of American cities when it comes to access to jobs by public transportation, and it’s simple: extending the bus lines on Routes 1, 60, 250, and 360 would double the number of jobs accessible to more than 50 percent of the region’s population. And not only that, but the whole region would benefit. I could get to Short Pump on the bus and catch up on my reading along the way. I could take the Airport Express and save money on parking when I travel. My neighbor could take the bus to his job at the new Amazon.com facility in Chesterfield. And the whole project could be financed by adding a half cent to the sales tax.

Why haven’t we done it already? Ben puts it bluntly:

You could say that the absence of public transportation in metro Richmond is a brutal artifact of Virginia’s segregationist government in the middle of the 20th century. And you’d be right. The buses were stopped at the city line to keep the black population in the center city. Segregation by transportation.

But today, since we have renounced segregation and the heritage of racism, that could not be the reason we haven’t done this good thing. Today, when we know that metropolitan Richmond wants to be known for a decent life, economic health and racial justice, that cannot be the reason. Today, when we have a chance to show the world that Virginia is about liberty, not bigotry, that will not be the reason.

It is just possible that we’ll do the right thing; that we’ll all profit from it; and that, for once, we’ll have a right to be truly proud of what we’ve done. We will show ourselves that we can reverse course and surmount this alleged impossibility; that we can act as one people, as we have always known we were meant to be. We will have the power and wherewithal to build an excellent public transportation system — today.

So why not?


You can read Ben’s article in its entirety by clicking HERE

KOH2RVA: Day 10

I went to a worship service at Richmond Hill last night, where they always have worship at 5:30 on Monday evenings and where the worship is always a mix of Episcopal liturgy and Gospel music that makes you want to clap your hands, throw your head back, and sing.

I went as part of KOH2RVA: First Baptist’s year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

I went because the good people of Richmond Hill have been praying for Metropolitan Richmond for as long as anyone can remember, a tradition that started just after the Civil War when some Catholic nuns came to pray over the smoking remains of our city. While Richmond Hill is no longer a convent, it is a place of spiritual retreat where a resident community continues the work begun by those dear sisters in 1865.

I like to go up there from time to time to study, pray, read, and reflect, to look out over the city and ask God to bless it, and to worship with the gathered saints on Monday evenings.

Last night during prayer the liturgist asked us to pray for the City of Richmond, and for the counties of Henrico, Hanover, Chesterfield, Charles City, New Kent, Powhatan, and Goochland. We did, and as we did we joined that great cloud of witnesses who have been saying prayers in that place–for this place–for more than a century now. It felt right to find myself in that number last night, and to remember that although we can do our part in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, in the end it is only God who can make it so. That’s why, in addition to doing the Lord’s work, we pray the Lord’s prayer:

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

“I Love the City”

FE_PR_richmond-vaI was invited to a retreat at Richmond Hill recently where area pastors were going to be talking about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.  Well, how could I resist?  That’s what I’ve been talking about since I got to Richmond!

So we gathered for worship in that beautiful old chapel, and then had a delicious meal in the refectory, and then moved on into a meeting room that looks out over the city, a place where people have been praying for Richmond since 1866 and still do.  Pastoral Director Ben Campbell got us started with prayer and then invited each of us to share our vision for ministry.

There were about twelve of us around the table, from Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Christian, and Pentecostal churches.  We took our time, talking about the work we do and the neighborhoods in which we do it.  But as we talked it became clear that our primary concern was for the churches we have been called to serve, about how to make them bigger, stronger, happier, healthier.  When we finally got back around to Ben he said, simply, “I love the city more than I love the churches.”

I suppose I should have expected that.  Ben is not the pastor of a local church; he’s the director of a spiritual community that has as its mission praying for the city of Richmond.  But something about the way he said it made me realize that we pastors have a tendency to focus on what is happening within the walls of the church rather than what is happening in the neighborhood, the city, the nation, or the world.  We could easily end up with glittering edifices perched on top of garbage dumps. 

But not Ben.

I pictured Ben driving around Richmond jotting down notes about the people and things his community needs to pray for:  sanitation workers, educational institutions, police officers, and prisoners.  He has lifted his sights above the concerns of a single church to take in the concerns of the whole city.

But here’s the thing: God’s sights are even higher.  Not only does he love and care for Richmond, he loves and cares for the world.  That’s his mission, and he’s looking for churches that will help him do that.  So, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we’ve been asking not, “Does the church have a mission?” but “Does the mission have a church?”  In other words, does God’s mission have a church?  Will First Baptist, Richmond, help him love the world? 

Well, we want to, of course.  We want to do whatever God asks.  But it will require lifting our sights a little higher.  Instead of seeing only the beautiful buildings and grounds of First Baptist Church we will have to start seeing the whole city, even the parts that aren’t so beautiful.  And then we’ll have to lift our sights even higher, to see the world God loves and to think about how we might share his love with that world.  That’s not easy for us, or for anyone.  It goes against the grain of our human nature.  But it does seem to be essential to the divine nature, and part of what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples. 

In him the love of God dropped into the world like a stone into a pond, and began to ripple outward.  As we follow his example may that same love ripple outward from the church to the neighborhood to the city to the state to the nation and, finally, fully,

to the world God loves.