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.”

What Happened Last Sunday

1676896-Walking-in-the-Rain-0When I got back from my daughter’s college graduation last Sunday night I found a message in my inbox hinting that “something” had happened during the 11:00 worship service at Richmond’s First Baptist Church that day, but it wasn’t until the next morning that I found out what it was.  Joyce, my secretary, told me that one of our homeless neighbors had come down the aisle in the middle of the service demanding to know why “Amazing Grace” and “It Is Well with My Soul” weren’t in our hymnbook.  He said that he was “a miracle of God,” and wanted to share his testimony.

As I heard the story at staff meeting on Tuesday I learned that Bob Palmer, who was standing at the pulpit when the man came forward, told him very graciously that if he would just have a seat someone would be glad to help him out after the service.  Ralph Starling stepped forward to intervene, but was greeted by a threatening gesture that forced him to consider another approach.  Eventually an off-duty Henrico police officer, who was visiting the church, escorted the man out of the building, but by that time the spirit of worship had been badly broken.  Phil Mitchell stepped to the pulpit afterward and prayed that our scattered thoughts might return to the Lord, and at the close of the service Ralph Starling suggested that in our prayers that week we might offer a prayer for this man, who certainly needed it.

As the story unfolded I realized that the man who had disrupted the service was Daniel, one of our regulars at community missions and someone who has been featured on this blog.  He is still recovering from surgery to remove a life-threatening brain tumor, and most of the time he is gentle and thoughtful and kind.  Knowing him as I do I could almost see him standing there with his hymnbook, wanting to share his testimony and sing a hymn.  And church is a good place for that kind of thing, isn’t it?  If I had been there I might have let him do it. 

But, then again, maybe not. 

He wasn’t entirely sober at the time.  He was loud and belligerent.  He frightened a good many people in the congregation who didn’t know him, and who worried that he might have a gun.  We can thank God for church members and staff who remained calm in that moment.  We can thank God that there was an off-duty police officer to escort him out of the building.  And we can thank God for those who brought us back into His presence through prayer and reminded us to pray for this man. 

Daniel stopped by the church yesterday between services to apologize.  I could tell he had practiced his speech.  He said, “I am truly and humbly and sincerely sorry for what happened last Sunday. ”  I accepted his apology and then asked him what had happened.  I wanted to hear his side of the story.  He said,  “I just wanted to sing that hymn, but I couldn’t find it in the book.”  And so we took a hymbook out of one of the pew racks and looked for “Amazing Grace” and “It Is Well with My Soul.”  As you might guess, they were both in there.  He seemed comforted by that, and thanked me for showing him.  I asked him if he had been drinking and he confessed that he had:  “Just a little to stop the shakes.”  “Well, I’ll need to ask you to leave then,” I said.  He nodded and said,  “I know.”  I showed him to the door and he apologized once more before stepping out into the rain. 

The staff is working to put together a security plan that will help our congregation feel safe in the sanctuary because things might have turned out differently than they did and it might have been someone other than Daniel.  We don’t want anyone to be afraid to come to church.  I am reminded that the word sanctuary means, literally, “a safe place.”  But I’m grateful that this Sunday it turned out to be a safe place for Daniel, a place where he could confess his sin and ask for forgiveness.  He made a mistake and he knew it.  He promised it wouldn’t happen again.  He was so full of genuine remorse that I felt myself moved with pity and heard myself saying, “I love you, Daniel.”  Tears welled up in his eyes and he said, “I love you, too.”

And then I kicked him out.

Love has a tough side, and I’m sure Daniel knows that, but as he walked down the sidewalk in the rain I could almost hear him humming the tune he had come to church to sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”