KOH2RVA: Day 247

Observation DeckI prayed for the City Council last night.

I don’t know who’s on the selection committee, or how the selection is made, but several months ago I was asked if I would be willing to say the opening prayer at the City Council meeting at 6:00 p.m. on Monday, May 13.

Often I say no to those kinds of invitations. I had an embarrassing experience with the invocation at a football game once that has made me reluctant to say yes ever since. But this was the Richmond City Council, and First Baptist Church is on this year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and so I swallowed hard and agreed to come.

I got there well before 6:00, since I wasn’t sure about the parking arrangements. There was something in the invitation about parking in the underground lot at City Hall but when I showed up at 5:25 the parking attendant didn’t seem to know any more about it than I did. He asked my name and called upstairs but nobody seemed to be expecting a Jim Somerville. I began to wonder if I had come on the right night. Finally he suggested that I just park in the loading dock, especially since I wasn’t going to be there long.

I made my way into the building and since it was still only 5:30 I took the elevator all the way to the observation deck on the 18th floor. It was breezy up there, and cool, but the views were incredible. It was a clear day, and I could see for miles in every direction. And since I had come to pray I began to pray for everything I could see: the city of Richmond there at my feet but then, looking up and away, the counties of Chesterfield, Henrico, and Hanover. I could see even farther than that, and so I prayed for all of Central Virginia, asking God to pour out his blessing upon it. It looked as if he already had, with the distant landscape and the downtown buildings all bathed in the golden light of the late afternoon sun.

At 5:45 I headed down to the second floor and the council chamber where I found my seat and waited to be introduced. There wasn’t a big crowd in the room. People were still gathering. I saw a Boy Scout troop file in; policemen chatting with each other near the back wall. I looked over the prayer I had written and made a few edits. It was short. It wasn’t supposed to be more than sixty seconds long. Mine was going to come in well under that. At 6:00 the president called the meeting to order, banged his gavel on the rostrum, and introduced Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, for the invocation. I stood and said, “Let us pray,” and then I said this:

“Lord, you know that the members and friends of First Baptist Church are on a mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. I don’t need to tell you that. But I pray that the City Council might join us on that mission, and that as they deliberate and decide they would consider how their actions might be good news for the poor, how they might set the captives free, how they might open the eyes of the blind and set at liberty those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18), in other words, Lord, how through their deliberations and decisions your kingdom might come, and your will be done, in Richmond, as it is in heaven. Amen.”

And that was it.

I joined the council in the pledge of allegiance to the flag, and then turned and left the podium, walked up the side aisle, and out of the room. I don’t know what happened next. But I have this hope that some of those words fell on good soil, and that some of those council members considered how they might join us on this mission, and that, yes—even in their deliberations over zoning restrictions—they thought about how they might bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and how they might set at liberty those who are oppressed, because really,

What good is power if you don’t use it on behalf of the powerless?

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 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.”