KOH2RVA: Day 325

Rodney2Have you ever listened to a black pastor talk about the challenges his people face?

I did yesterday.

I had lunch with Rodney Waller, pastor of First African Baptist Church; one of his deacons, Booker Jones; and two of my deacons, Mary Ann Delano and Bob Palmer. We were talking about Rodney’s challenge from a previous meeting—that our two churches show Richmond what true racial reconciliation looks like.

I’m not sure how it came up, but Rodney told us that most of the people who live in the ghetto want to get out, “they just don’t know how.” He talked about black men who try to succeed and, for any number of reasons, fail (have you ever wondered who was going to get the job when there were three white men and one black man applying?). And then, because they feel like failures, they leave. And then, out there on their own, they shift into survival mode. And then, because they’re trying to survive, they begin to sell [drugs]. And then, to numb the pain of failure, they begin to use.

Rodney also talked about black women whose men have left them to raise children by themselves, and how it is nearly impossible to find the kind of job that will pay for child care and provide enough for their family to live on. Often they collapse into the safety net of social services and find it almost impossible to get out. And then they take a ride out to Short Pump (though not on the bus: it doesn’t go that far), and they see all these West Enders (“West Endians” Rodney called them) strolling through the mall with shopping bags full of high-end merchandise. “They want that kind of life but they don’t know how to get it and it makes them angry.”

Angry?

Yes, angry. Rodney said we need to acknowledge that there are structures of oppression in society that keep black people down, and that most of these date back to the time of slavery. He said, “I believe that many black people carry with them the hidden wounds of slavery, and those wounds keep getting opened up, and it causes pain.”

You can agree or disagree, but that’s pretty honest talk from the pastor of Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, and a good way to begin honest conversations that will be ongoing between our two churches. By the end of the meeting we had agreed to form a group of deacons called “The Twelve”—six from each church—who will continue to meet and talk and lead us to that place where we can show Richmond what true racial reconciliation looks like.

I summarized it like this: “Jesus told us to love our neighbors and you are our neighbors, but we can’t love what we don’t know so the first step, always, is to get to know each other.”

And that’s what we’re going to do.

As we were leaving I said, “You know what I’ve always dreamed of? An ethnic food festival, like the Greek Festival or the Armenian Festival. Why couldn’t our two churches get together and host a Baptist Food Festival?” We walked out laughing, trying to imagine what Baptist food would be (Fried Chicken? Sweet Potato Pie?), but it wasn’t a bad way to end a meeting.

It left our mouths watering for more.

The Best “Hanging of the Green” Service Ever

30wreath1Lately I’ve been thinking about how the church will have to change to reach a world that seems less and less interested in churchgoing.  That’s part of my job as a pastor, to look down the road a few years, especially if I’m sitting in the driver’s seat: I don’t want to steer the church in the wrong direction.  But I also don’t want to miss the party that’s going on in the back seat.

Last Sunday, for example.

For years Richmond’s First Baptist Church has been celebrating the First Sunday of Advent with an evening service called “The Hanging of the Green” (notice that it’s not “Hanging of the Greens.”  That what we used to call it, apparently, but the Green family was offended and threatened to leave the church if we tried to hang even one of them.  So we started calling it “Hanging of the Green” instead).  I hadn’t been to this service before, not here, and wondered about these cryptic emails that started showing up in my inbox with references to the “H.O.G.” 

But on Sunday evening everybody seemed to know what to expect.  The church was packed, with children, youth, parents, and grandparents filling up the sanctuary and spilling over the balcony.  We opened the sanctuary doors and someone rang the big bell in the courtyard as a call to Advent.  Candi Brown welcomed us to worship and Becky Payne played a beautiful organ prelude.

It was sometime during the singing of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” that things started to come undone.  The youth were hanging fresh pine garland and wreaths around the balcony railing when one of the wreaths slipped off its hook and crashed onto three or four hymn singers below.  No one was injured, and they were all good natured about it, but it was the first of several mishaps that night.

Someone stepped on the power cord that supplied the huge, bass speaker the deaf choir depends on to feel the beat of the song they were supposed to sign (that’s not a typo: the deaf choir doesn’t sing, it signs).  As a result they weren’t sure when to start signing, or when to stop signing, and simply had to do their very best to follow the uncertain lead of their leader, who was feeling the loss of that big, bass speaker.  I think they were all a little embarrassed, but the congregation gave them an enthusiastic ovation, putting their hands in the air and waving wildly to signify loud applause.

And then Matthew Brown stepped to the pulpit to tell us he was not Rick Whittington.  Rick and his family were supposed to light the Advent candle but they were not feeling well and therefore not able to come to church even though their names were in the bulletin.  Matthew gladly offered to fill in but somehow the word didn’t get to his family, so as he stood there he invited them to come forward and join him at the wreath, only…no one came.  He asked again, and again, and finally he said, “Are any of you here?”  That’s when his four-year-old son Jonathan stepped into the aisle and said, “Daddy, I’m right here!” in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear.

And we all laughed out loud.  Why wouldn’t we?  Wreaths were falling, equipment was malfunctioning, and whole families were failing to report for candle duty, but the First Baptist family let out a belly laugh that let everyone know it was OK—OK to be human, OK to make a few mistakes, OK not to be perfect—we were all God’s children in that moment and it was all perfectly OK with Him.

Later I heard someone describe the service as a “comedy of errors,” and in a way it was, but in another way it was a celebration of humanity in all its awkward, adorable imperfection.  I sat there for the rest of the service with a smile on my face, shaking my head and thinking,

“It’s no wonder God loves the world so much.”