Yes. This is what I think radical hospitality looks like: a gathering of international students from VCU at the home of Louis and Linda Watts, with other graduates of the Ralph Starling School of Radical Hospitality (including Ralph Himself) proudly present and…having a wonderful time. Who knew bringing heaven to earth could be so much fun?
I love this email from Mark Larson, which describes the experience of one young woman’s encounter with Richmond’s First Baptist Church. I sometimes tell the church, “There must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth.” There must be a dozen ways in this story alone:
Yesterday, a young lady from Munich, Germany had a KOH2RVA experience that I wanted to share with you. When this young lady and others told me about what she had experienced that day, I clearly saw the Holy Spirit at work through a team of FBC friends.
Nina arrived in Richmond as part of a six-week journey to see the east coast of the US—alone. She is “sofa-surfing” from New York to Miami. This is a new way to travel cheap—a time-share for sofas. You agree to let people who sign up stay on your sofa for free in return for your ability to stay on the sofas of others in the network. The system depends on self-policing much like is done at EBay. Unfortunately, on the first day of her sofa-stay in Richmond, Nina encountered an environment of alcohol, drugs, and large dogs. She left this unwelcoming place and opted to stay at a nearby hotel.
Though of a different Christian denomination, one of her desired experiences was to visit a Baptist church. After an Internet search, she located First Baptist and walked 2 ½ miles for the 8:30 AM service this past Sunday morning. This is where the First Baptist folks took over:
• Nina was met at the sidewalk by our front door greeters (including Sharon Brittle and Alena Glembova).
• They took her inside where she sat with Sandra Saunders during the service. Sandra took Ralph’s “Radical Hospitality” class this spring; she, Ralph, Alena, and many others host events to make the VCU International students feel at home in Richmond and at our church. It was this group who served ice cream to RVA United on a recent Tuesday night.
• Nina described the service and sermon as “energetic” and “uplifting” – unlike what she experiences at home.
• During the service, Sandra introduced Nina to Heath and Theresa Coryell who welcomed her into their Bible study class.
• Sandra took Nina to lunch with some of her friends, and let her know of the “International Pot Luck” dinner that Carrie and I were hosting at our house that evening.
• Four of our FBC members shuttled many of the international students who had no means of transportation.
• At the International Pot Luck, Nina met about 25 people from eight countries, tasted food they brought that reminded them of their home country, traded contact information with several, and invited them to stay at her house in Munich (but not on the sofa) if ever traveling to Munich.
• When everyone began leaving, she was offered a ride back to her hotel (or) a visit to Sweet Frog for frozen yogurt with Sandra. No contest.
She is now on her way to Charlotte, but what a contrast in hospitality this young lady experienced in 24 hours!
I think this is one way that KOH2RVA can work: a series of small, friendly gestures by a group of friends come together and bring heaven to our city—for one young lady on an adventure, for college students who are a long way from home, and for those of us who are privileged to be part of their lives.
“I was a stranger,” Jesus said, “and you welcomed me.”
That’s (at least) one way to bring heaven to earth.
A group of International students from VCU had been invited to light the Advent candle. They processed slowly down the aisle as the Youth Girls’ Ensemble sang. They mounted the steps and gathered around the Advent wreath. They held the lit taper to the pink candle and we all watched and waited for the wick to catch flame.
It didn’t happen.
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so much suspense in church. I kept watching, willing the wick to catch. The student who was holding the taper seemed to have it in just the right place, but even so another student reached up to help. They adjusted the flame, moved it ever so slightly back and forth, but no matter what they did they couldn’t seem to get it to work. Finally, the song ended, and they had to step down from the chancel, the pink candle still unlit.
It seemed shockingly symbolic, that on a day when most of us were still grieving over the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the candle of joy wouldn’t stay lit, almost as if God himself were saying, “How can the flame of joy dance on its wick on a day like this?”
Maybe those students didn’t fail. Maybe they lit the candle over and over again and God kept snuffing it out, whispering, “No, not today.”
You can’t really schedule joy, and unfortunately you can’t really schedule grief. It comes when it comes. And it came today:
The Third Sunday of Advent.
Yesterday was an amazing day at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. At the 8:30 service six new members came down the aisle, and at the 11:00 service I had the joy of baptizing Dennis Danaeue, a formerly homeless man who has found a home at First Baptist, and who is as sincere in his desire to follow Jesus as anyone I have ever met. Between services I went to the dining hall for a children’s Sunday school event and laughed out loud at “Fannie Firstchurch” (Minister of Music Phil Mitchell wearing a towering blonde wig) exhorting children to “memorize the entire Bible, all 166 books!”* After the 11:00 service I walked across Park Avenue to the Pusey House for the International Friendship Luncheon, where I spent some time chatting with Nathan from Zambia, Kanae from Japan, and a tiny girl from Bangladesh whose name is Dighi but who likes to be called “Doctor Pinky.” I was thrilled to see people from all over the world finding a place at First Baptist Church, and walked home in a state of exhilaration.
After my (mandatory) Sunday afternoon nap I drove downtown to savor the last few hours of the Richmond Folk Festival. The weather couldn’t have been any more beautiful, and when I walked across the pedestrian bridge to Brown’s Island, and looked down on those huge, white festival tents, the crowds of people milling around, the sound of music filling the air, and the smell of ethnic food wafting on the afternoon breeze, well…it made me glad to live in Richmond. I strolled from tent to tent admiring the funny hats people were wearing, watching children turn cartwheels on the lawn, and striking up conversations with church members (like Brenda and Charlie Finley) and complete strangers (like the woman from Jamaica who insisted I visit her Seventh Day Adventist church).
One of the visitors to this blog site has asked if I will share my views on Heaven. I probably will at some point, but on Sunday I think I was as close to Heaven as we can come on earth. And if I get to Heaven someday and find that there is no ethnic food, or honest laughter, or children turning cartwheels on the lawn, it won’t be Heaven at all, will it?
*Extra credit to anyone who knows there are only 66 books in the Bible.