KOH2RVA: Day 263

AlkulanaSometimes the best way to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, is to get out of town. At least, that was the thinking of a few bold women who started “a little camp for city kids” nearly a hundred years ago.

Last night Beth Reddish Wright told us the story of Camp Alkulana, a year round mission of the Richmond Baptist Association with a targeted summer ministry to inner city children. Here’s what the web site says:

The camp has been in continuous operation since it began in 1915. The kerosene lanterns, which shone from the windows of the first cottage, appeared as bright eyes shining through the forest. Thus, the Indian word, “Alkulana,” meaning “bright eyes” became the official camp name.

Camp Alkulana is located in Millboro Springs, Va, deep in the Alleghenies. The proximity of the camp to the George Washington National Forest provides it with boundless space and endless program resources. Some of the activities offered during the summer are hiking, cave exploring, camping out, cooking out, rock climbing, rappelling, ropes course, swimming, crafts, Bible study and worship.

Though the camp is in Millboro Springs, we consider our ministry in Richmond because we serve the children and youth of Central Virginia. Throughout the year in Alkulana offers ongoing supports in Richmond to its campers through large group gatherings, a mentoring program for older campers, and a targeted leadership program for its junior counselors.

Camp Alkulana’s Mission is to reveal God’s love to low-income and at-risk children and youth of Central Virginia so that they might realize the intrinsic value in themselves and others.

Beth told us the story of a girl named Jo-Jo who was afraid to join the other campers in jumping off a rock into the river. The rock was high, and when she looked down she thought, “Uh-uh. I like my life, and I love to live.” She was scared. But everybody else was jumping and splashing into the water and coming up laughing. Finally her counselor yelled, “Scary things make good memories!” And so she did it; she jumped.

It was so much fun she did it all afternoon. And later? She remembered what her counselor said: “Scary things make good memories.”

Maybe we should say it like this: some kinds of scary things make good memories. Jo-Jo was from Gilpin Court, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Richmond. Drug deals go down in that neighborhood all the time. People sometimes get shot and killed. But for a little while last summer she got away from all that. She went to a place where she could see the beauty of God’s creation all around her, where people were kind to her and shared the love of Christ with her, and where the only scary thing was the idea of jumping off a rock into the river. I can almost picture her asking: “Is this heaven?” and I can almost hear someone answering,

“No, it’s Camp Alkulana.”

Every year at First Baptist we take up a special offering for Camp Alkulana. This year, as we continue our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, you might think of your offering as a way to do that: as a way of getting kids like Jo-Jo out of the city long enough to experience heaven on earth.

I’m planning to double my offering this year. I hope you will do the same.

KOH2RVA:Day 233

confusion4I got a call from Mary Ann Delano yesterday telling me that people had been “confused” by Sunday’s sermon. Mary Ann is the chair of the deacons at First Baptist. When she calls I listen. But I did wonder what people were confused about. I thought the sermon had flown like an arrow through the air toward its crystal-clear conclusion, which was this:

Bless my heart, every time I hear this story (about Peter and Cornelius) it forces me to deal with the possibility that God is willing to accept people I am not, and every time I hear it I need to ask, “Lord, am I calling something ‘unclean’ that you have made clean? And if so, would you show me?”

But I did refer to gay people in the sermon, as an example of those we might have difficulty accepting, and that reference came just a few weeks after I spoke up for a church in the Richmond Baptist Association that ordained an openly gay man. Put those two together and you might jump to the conclusion that the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church was on a crusade of some kind.

Let me be clear: I am not.

But every time I preach from Acts 11:1-18 (the lectionary text for the day, selected months and years before the recent meeting of the Richmond Baptist Association) I seem to get in trouble, and it’s because the text forces us to consider those people we think of as “unclean.” In fact, someone sent me a copy of (Pastor Emeritus) Jim Flamming’s sermon on this same text from 2004—“Who Is Unacceptable to You?”—where he talked about the sheet that came down out of heaven in Peter’s vision, the one with all those unclean animals in it. He said it becomes quickly evident that the point of this vision is not animals but people. “Which people or groups of people do you consider ‘unclean’?” Dr. Flamming asked. “Who would be at the center of your sheet?”

But he didn’t preach that sermon a month after the Richmond Baptist Association had voted to maintain fellowship with a church that ordained an openly gay man, and he didn’t speak up for that church in that meeting. I did, and I can see how some people would make a connection, and think that I was on some sort of crusade.

Let me be clear: I am not.

I don’t think the two are unrelated, but when I spoke up for Ginter Park Baptist Church I was speaking up for the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association. I was trying to say, “Let’s not let the action of one church derail our mission.” Baptist churches are autonomous. We can’t tell them who to ordain and they can’t tell us. But we can work together in spite of our differences for the greater good and that’s what I was arguing for. I was thinking about Camp Alkulana and the three Baptist centers in Richmond that do such good work. I was hoping we wouldn’t lose Ginter Park’s contribution to that mission.

But now I understand some 15 churches are considering leaving the Association because we voted not to kick Ginter Park out. I called the pastor of one of those churches last week—a big church—and asked, “Is it true? Are you going to let the action of one small church cause you to abandon your long-term commitment to the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association? Isn’t that like the tail wagging the dog?”

I tried to imagine why his church would even consider such a thing and in the end decided that it must be fear. The churches that are thinking of pulling out are afraid that if they don’t they will become guilty by association—quite literally—and that everyone will assume they affirm gay ordination. They are afraid that by working with a church they consider “unclean” they, themselves, will become unclean.

That fear of contamination was the same fear that kept the early church from having anything to do with Gentiles until that day on a rooftop in Joppa when God told Peter not to call unclean what he had made clean. Suppose Peter hadn’t gone to the home of Cornelius? Suppose he had been too afraid? God’s mission could have stalled out right there, the Richmond Baptist Association would have never existed, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

I don’t want God’s mission to stall out, and I certainly don’t want it to stall out because of fear, but I also don’t want it to stall out because of confusion. I’ve tried to be clear about why I preached what I preached and why I did what I did. If you have questions or comments please post them below.  In the meantime, let’s get on with our mission.  This is Day 233 of KOH2RVA:

There is good work waiting to be done.