KOH2RVA: Day 242

Choice of tomato, pepper, begoniaRecently Len Morrow forwarded some pictures of the sixth graders from the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School in the Children’s Garden at First Baptist Church. The sixth graders have been making occasional trips to the church to read to the children in our preschool, their “Book Buddies.”  It’s been a heart-warming partnership, and the pictures from the Children’s Garden were touching, but I didn’t know the story. So, I asked FBC member Melissa Brooks (our primary connection to AJCES) what happened. This is what she told me:

Hi Jim,

Thanks for asking! We celebrated our last “Book Buddy” meet up of the year with a Garden Party hosted by Dr. Potato Head (A.K.A. Len Morrow). We had to miss the month of April because of Spring Break and Coach G (teacher at AJCES) told me on the bus ride over that the kids had been asking her when they were coming to see their Lil’ Buddies again. When the 6th graders filed into the preschool classrooms it was electric! We did a little reading/play time in the classroom to catch up on life and then headed out to the garden for some planting with Len. He taught the Cooper kids a few things about planting while the little ones played. It was great to see the Cooper kids get their hands dirty and every so often look to Dr. Potato Head for affirmation that they were doing things correctly. Some planted vegetables, some planted perennials. Some of the kids were already thinking of family members or loved ones they could give them to. They were proud to put their names on the little stick and call it their own. It was their parting gift.

Book BuddyThen the Cooper kids and the FBC kids had a good ole fashioned playdate—and in the warm sunshine they were sliding down the slides together, and climbing on the monkey bars, and at one point I witnessed four very dainty little girls in the middle of at least 8 big 6th graders on the large teeter totter while the 6th graders rocked it wildly from side to side. My motherly instinct kicked in and I approached them to suggest that maybe the big kids should cool it a little bit as to not “scare” the little ones. Very quickly I was corrected by Miss Virginia Dean who insisted she wasn’t scared at all. In fact, the other three little girls quickly chimed in, “We’re not scared, either, we’re having so much funnn!” (their blonde bobs whipping and smocked dresses flying around as they rocked from side to side). Message received. I shut my mouth and stepped back and let it be. Powerful lesson learned, courtesy of a 5 year old.

We ended with a Popsicle.

Mary Hiteman has an AMAZING picture that she posted on her Facebook page and I insist that you use it. It literally brought me to tears. It’s a picture of one of those precious little blondes I mentioned embracing her Book Buddy. It’s powerful. You can probably nab it from Mary’s FB wall.


Thank you, Melissa, and thanks for going ahead and nabbing the picture.  It’s precious.

KOH2RVA: Day 238

Here you are, friends: a 21-second glimpse of yesterday’s Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School “Spring Bash,” a festival conceived and executed mostly by First Baptist member Melissa Brooks, with lots of help from Joyce Clemmons and the FBC Generosity Team.

I talked with head of school Mike Maruca briefly who confessed that he had done almost nothing to bring about the “Bash.” “This is our first one,” he said, “but it seems to be going beautifully. Thank you so much First Baptist Church!”

Thanks to the 30+volunteers who showed up to help with games and prizes.  This was one of those days when it really did feel like we were on a mission trip, and everybody was helping to make it a success.  I am so proud of First Baptist right now, I’m about to start dancing like the girl in the yellow shirt, above.


KOH2RVA: Day 179

robbie and justin

Robbie Dalton and his Book Buddy Justin enjoyed Dr. Seuss’s birthday

When Melissa Brooks was deciding what her way of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, would be, she looked at the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School not far from where she lives on Church Hill.  This school is dedicated to educating bright young people from the neighborhood and helping to break the cycle of poverty that keeps so many of them down.  Melissa began to volunteer at AJCES, and eventually had the idea of bringing sixth graders from that school to read to preschoolers at the Weekday school at First Baptist, where her own son is a student.  I blogged about the Book Buddy program once before, when I got to drive the bus, but last Friday I saw Melissa at church with a big grin on her face.  It was Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and the Book Buddies had come to read Dr. Seuss books to our preschoolers (all of them wearing “Cat in the Hat” hats they had made themselves).  I asked Melissa why she hadn’t asked me to drive the bus and she said she had recruited a church member—someone still looking for his way to bring the KOH2RVA—to help.  I loved that.  In fact, I loved everything about the event.  I asked Melissa to send pictures and stories and this is what I got.


Dear Jim:

I put together a few words because my heart was full after today’s Dr. Seuss celebration. Please don’t feel like you need to use these words for anything, but I wanted to offer them up because “my cup runneth over.” Thanks.



If you’re still thinking about how to get off the mission bus and bring the kingdom of heaven to Richmond, Virginia, let me offer some insight from a few overheard conversations by the 6th graders at the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School. Since the beginning of 2013, the “Cooper kids” have been picked up by two FBC volunteers on the first Friday of every month. We make the bumpy trip from their east end school nestled in between two of the largest housing projects in the city to the towering mansions that line our beloved Monument Avenue. It’s like traveling to another country and the kids know that. For two hours the entire 6th grade class of AJCES fill the First Baptist Weekday Preschool classrooms with their smiles and love of books. We pray together, read together, laugh together and eat together. When it’s time to load the shuttles back to the “other” side of town we say goodbye with sincere hugs and high-fives—the way good friends do. For me, one of the most rewarding moments is the ride back to the Cooper school. I love hearing the candid chatter from the back of the shuttle. Here are a few of the things I’ve heard:

“I like that the kids don’t even know us, but are respectful.” Respect is powerful in all cultures. Sometimes respect can be offered for the wrong reasons, especially in the neighborhood that AJCES serves. Showing unconditional respect for your neighbor is a lot like loving your neighbor. I’m pretty sure Jesus was big on that.

“They always have the best snacks.” Food brings people together, and it’s also a basic necessity. You’d be surprised at what a bag of pretzels and a cup of juice can do.

“I wish we could stay longer.” Time is free, but it’s priceless. Slow down and spend a little more time on people.

Every month when Book Buddy Day rolls around Mary Hiteman and I giggle with excitement and think to ourselves why on earth we haven’t been doing something like this sooner. We run from classroom to classroom snapping pictures and observing the beauty of budding friendships. We pray about how God can work through us to the benefit of both FBC Weekday Preschool and the Cooper kids. We remind ourselves to stay out of the way and to let His will be done. So far, he’s been exceeding any and all expectations. Only the Lord of sea and sky could take two groups of kids separated by age, race, geographic location, socioeconomic class, and faith denomination and weave them together through the common denominator of his love.

That’s KOH2RVA.

KOH2RVA: Day 146

book buddies

Yesterday was a cold and windy day in Richmond, Virginia, but I had promised to drive a church bus to the East End and that’s what I did. There was a lot of play in the steering wheel, and when a gust of wind caught the side of the bus on an interstate bridge I had a hard time holding it in the road. But I did, and eventually made it to the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School where Melissa Brooks and I picked up a load of sixth graders and brought them back to First Baptist Church. The idea was that these sixth graders from a poor neighborhood would come and read books with preschoolers from a rich neighborhood.

And that’s what happened.

I can’t tell you how much I love this picture, not only because of the way the sunlight is coming through the window and falling on the floor, but because of the way this sixth-grade boy is reading to this preschool girl, and the way the book is helping them forget—for the moment at least—that they come from different worlds. They are in the world of the story, together, and it is a world of perfect equality.

When I asked our staff six months ago how we would measure the success of this year-long, every-member mission trip, David Powers said we would measure it with “pictures and stories.” Well, here’s a picture that spells success. And the story behind it is remarkable, too.

So often when I look at pictures of mission trips I see affluent, educated people helping people who are poor and uneducated. And that’s not a bad thing; to whom much is given, much is required. But I love the way Melissa Brooks and Mary Hiteman partnered to turn that around. Melissa lives on Church Hill and has been volunteering at the Anna Julia Cooper School, a school for students of limited resources primarily from Richmond’s East End neighborhood. Mary is the director of our preschool at First Baptist, which draws most of its students from the historic (and affluent) Fan District. “Why not get the two schools together?” they thought, and this was the result: a day of learning, laughing, reading, praying, dancing, storytelling, and baking enough gingerbread for everybody to take some home (it smelled so good on the bus back to the East End!)

Is KOH2RVA a success?

Well, yesterday it was. And I’ve got pictures and stories to prove it.


Photo by Melissa Brooks

KOH2RVA: Day 143

Here’s a terrific article by Nancy Mairs about how First Baptist brought the KOH2RVA on Martin Luther King Day.  I couldn’t have said it better myself. –Jim


Martin Luther King Day of Service – Bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond VA

January 29, 2013 by Richmond’s First Baptist Church online magazine

By Nancy Mairs. Photos by Susan Brown.

Martin Luther King day of serviceWhile most folks were looking forward to a day off from school and maybe even work, a group from Richmond’s First Baptist Church decided to use that day to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond Virginia (KOH2RVA). It all started with one member’s question to the administrator of the Anna Julia Cooper School a few months ago. The school, located in Church Hill, is an independent, tuition-free, faith-based middle school for students of limited resources.

Melissa Brooks, a member at First Baptist since 2009, discovered the school through an article in a community newspaper. Wanting to be part of the church-wide effort to bring the KOH2RVA, Melissa decided to ask if there was anything she could do for them. As Melissa puts it, “This is a great question to ask when you’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, VA, or at least it’s a great place to start.” Melissa began helping out each week at the school. As she explains, “I fell in love with the mission and vision of the school, the kids, their stories, and the faculty.”

As Melissa was dropping off her son, Sawyer, at his class in the FBC Weekday Preschool, she approached Mary Hiteman, Minister of Weekday School, with the idea of the preschool sponsoring the Anna Julia Cooper School as one of its monthly community mission projects. From this conversation, FBC’s involvement in the Martin Luther King Day of Service Project began.

Martin Luther King day of serviceWhy was Martin Luther King Day selected? Dr. King spoke often about love being the way to overcome the problems of the world. What better way to honor Dr. King’s vision than to help a school that is committed to the academic, social and spiritual development of children who might otherwise live a life unfulfilled and in despair? And as the school’s namesake, Anna Julia Cooper, said, “Jesus believed in the infinite possibilities of an individual soul.”

Mary Hiteman facilitated the FBC Staff’s involvement. Others heard about the project and by the third Monday in January, not only had most of the First Baptist ministers agreed to participate, but other members of the church and several of the families of children who attend the FBC preschool had joined in. Their work started in the morning at the Anna Julia Cooper School with painting; putting up bulletin boards where more than 500 photographs were displayed; sanitizing tables, chairs, and door knobs; and even climbing up on the roof to sweep out the gutters.

Martin Luther King day of serviceThe group then traveled to the Essex Village Apartments, a public housing project in the East End of Richmond, for the second part of their King Day Service Project. Through an invitation from FBC member Len Morrow, a special guest provided a dramatic portrayal of Dr. King. This guest, Rev. James D. Daniely, a dynamic and inspirational speaker who is also the Director of the Pace Center for Campus Ministry at VCU, helped bring Dr. King to life for the children.

As Mary Hiteman explained, “Most of the children do not know why they have the day off – our intent was to change that through Dr. Daniely, and then follow-up with art activities and, of course, birthday cake to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday.” The final activity of the day was picking up trash throughout the area.

And how does Melissa, whose question started this project day at First Baptist, sum up the activities? “My hope is always to continue to shine the bright light of Jesus to our community so that others will see good and glorify God. It’s not a ‘me’ thing or a ‘First Baptist Church thing’ or even a ‘Martin Luther King Day thing’. This is a God thing. All we have to do is show up!”


Nancy MairsNancy Mairs joined Richmond’s First Baptist Church more than 20 years ago and is a member of the Disciples class. She works in the Regulatory Affairs group at Dominion Virginia Power, and enjoys hiking, canoeing, traveling, and spending time with her husband, Jim, and son, Jack.

KOH2RVA: Day 135

R0916_FLR_MIKE2Today the entire staff of First Baptist Church is going to the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School in Richmond’s East End to see if we can bring a little heaven to earth.

This may have started a few years ago, when I asked why the church offices were open on Martin Luther King Day. I had just come from Washington, DC, where the church offices were always closed on national holidays and this was a national holiday, but there we were, tallying up the previous day’s offerings and recording attendance as if it were just another day.

So, we started talking, but instead of talking about taking a day off we talked about taking a day on, about doing something on that day that would honor Dr. King’s dream of a nation where children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School shares that dream.

The school is an independent, tuition-free, faith-based middle school for students of limited resources primarily from Richmond’s East End neighborhood. It started with 25 students in September of 2009, operating out of a house owned by the Peter Paul Development Center. In 2011 it moved into a school building on N. 29th Street, and now has 62 students enrolled in 6th-8th grades.

It also has a dog.

I hope you will visit the website to learn a little more about the school and about Anna Julia Cooper herself, who was a remarkable woman. Our involvement has come about mostly because of Melissa Ansley Brooks, one of our members, who lives on Church Hill and who is, herself, a remarkable woman. She and her husband, Justin, made a very deliberate decision to live in a part of the city that needs some love, and as they have gotten to know their neighbors and their neighborhood they have found a number of ways to bring heaven to earth.

Loving the Anna Julia Cooper School is one of them.

I’m not ready to write about it yet, but I’m thinking about the difference between doing a service project and being on mission. Today the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church will do a service project, but tomorrow Melissa will still be on a mission, because she’s not only trying to do some good,

She’s trying to change the world.

KOH2RVA: Day 23

Part of the Gospel lesson from Sunday was the story of John coming to Jesus like the tattletale you remember from elementary school, saying, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he wasn’t following us.”

I can almost see the look on Jesus’ face.

“Really? I sent you out to do this huge job–to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out demons–and when somebody tries to lend a hand you stop him? Listen, whoever is not against us is for us!”

I was still thinking about that yesterday evening when I went to a progressive dinner hosted by the Richmond Christian Leadership Institute. RCLI’s mission is “Biblical and civic education for emerging Christian leaders.” In practice, select students meet once a month for eight months to learn about issues facing Richmond and to hear from civic and religious leaders about how those issues are being addressed. The goal is to create a network of informed Christian leaders here in the city who will work together to make a difference. FBC member Sally Ann Smith is a 2010 graduate of RCLI, and it was her parents, John and Shirley Seibert, who encouraged me to attend this event.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but like Hanna Zhu and Melissa Brooks who also attended, I was “pleasantly surprised.” First of all, the food was delicious, with appetizers under a big, white tent at First Tee, the main course served up in a luxury suite at Richmond International Raceway, and dessert from a “candy bar” at the Diamond (where you scoop up different kinds of candy and fill a little bag with your favorites). But at each stop we also heard something about the mission of RCLI from graduates and other Christians who care about the city of Richmond. At the end of the evening Don Coleman, a Richmond pastor, prayed, “Lord, may your kingdom come, and may your will be done, right here in Richmond as it is in heaven.”

It sounded almost exactly like something I would pray.

And that’s when I looked around and realized that all these people–Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, and Non-Denoms–were doing their part to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. And that’s when I thought about John, the tattletale, running back to tell Jesus that they had found somebody doing the work of the kingdom who wasn’t one of them.

“Whoever is not against us is for us,” Jesus said, which seemed to be his way of reminding John that bringing in the Kingdom is an enormous job. There is no way we can do it by ourselves. We need all the help we can get.

Can I just tell you that it was a comfort to me to look around last night at all the help God has given us, all the people who are trying to figure out how to bring the KOH2RVA? I’m not going to try to stop them. In fact, I’m going to encourage them to keep it up. This is an enormous job. There is no way we can do it by ourselves.

We need all the help we can get.