KOH2RVA Day 298: Hello, New Americans!

monticello-naturalizationI’m up early on this Independence Day, getting ready to drive to Charlottesville for a naturalization ceremony at Monticello. According to the website:

There is no more inspirational place to celebrate the Fourth of July than Monticello, the home of the author of the Declaration of Independence. Since 1963, more than 3,000 people from every corner of the globe have taken the oath of citizenship at the annual Monticello Independence Day Celebration and Naturalization Ceremony. It is the oldest continuous naturalization ceremony in the United States outside of a courtroom.

I wouldn’t have known about this ceremony were it not for my mother-in-law, Lu Treadwell, a retired history professor and a huge fan of Thomas Jefferson’s. But I probably wouldn’t have been as interested in going were it not for all those New Americans who have come through First Baptist Church in the last few years as part of a refugee resettlement program. I’ve met people from Bhutan, Iran, Nepal, and Afghanistan, who were trying to make a new life in this country, and who were getting help from people like FBC members Warren and Julie Pierce. Some of those New Americans are still with us at First Baptist.

Some of them have become new believers.

I love the picture of Kanchi Monger’s baptism on our website. There she is, this beautiful young Bhutanese woman who grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal, standing waist deep in the James, the most American of all rivers, holding on to the tiny gold cross around her neck as she prepares to be dipped under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a picture of one of those moments when the Kingdom of God is just about to come to Richmond, Virginia, and a moment later…it did.

If the Apostle Paul had been standing on the bank to hand Kanchi a towel when she came up out of the river he might have said to her what he wrote in Galatians 5: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

That’s a good thing to remember on this Independence Day.

One Cup of Tea

For weeks now—months, really—I’ve been seeing these beautiful, smiling refugees from Nepal in the hallways of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I’ve learned how to press my palms together and say “Namaste” in greeting.  I’ve welcomed three new members and dedicated the child of a Christian couple.  I’ve even sung “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in English with three of the older adults (where did they learn that song?).  But on Sunday night I spent an hour having tea with some of the young people from this group, and I started with a game I learned when I was a youth minister.

I took a pen from my pocket, turned to the young man on the right, and said, “My name is Jim and this is my friend Lucy,” and then I handed the pen to him.  He turned to the girl on his right and said, “My name is Rom, and Jim told me to tell you that this is Lucy.”  She took the pen and turned to the boy on her right: “My name is Bimela, and Jim told Rom to tell me to tell you that this is Lucy.”  And so on around the room until all of us had been introduced to Lucy, but by repeating the names each time we also began to learn them: Rom, Bimela, Indra, Rupa, and Bhola (I’m guessing at the spelling). 

And then we just started talking.

These kids spoke excellent English, which helped.  They told me that back in Nepal all their classes were in English except one.  They also watched American television and movies to help them learn the language.  I sang some songs for them in English; they sang some for me in Nepali.  We talked about the kinds of food we liked.  We talked about family relationships, and that’s where it got interesting.

Rom told me that Bimela and Rupa were his sisters.  Indra told me that Bhola was his brother.  I told them that Dot Smith (who had served us tea and pie) was my sister.  They didn’t believe me.  I said, “Dot and I are Christians.  Christians are part of God’s family.  We call each other brother and sister.”  And then their eyes lit up with understanding.  Ah, yes.  They had heard this before.  “My Uncle is a Christian,” Rom said.  “I used to go to church with him in Nepal.”  They all made it clear how much they enjoy coming to First Baptist Church, and some of them even began to hint that they would like to join.  But then Bhola said that in their culture Christians were shunned, and that if they became Christians they might be rejected by their community. 

“Did that happen to your uncle?” I asked Rom.  “Did he get ‘put out’ of the community?”  Rom nodded thoughtfully.  “He must be very brave,” I said.  “Yes,” Rom answered.  “Very brave.”

I didn’t have to say another word.  I could see that they were counting the cost of discipleship, and wondering if it would be worth it to become Christians.  I hope they will decide that it is worth it, but it will take at least one more cup of tea to have that conversation, and maybe another one after that.  Maybe Greg Mortenson is right, that it takes “Three Cups of Tea” to forge life-giving and life-changing relationships with people from other cultures.

I’m looking forward to my next one.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

coffecupGood morning, Campers!

It’s 7:30 on a Saturday morning.  The front page of the newspaper is still scratching its head over the bloody massacre at Fort Hood on Thursday, wondering what would motivate a man to open fire on his fellow soldiers.  Just below that on the page is the shocking news that U.S. unemployment is above 10 percent for the first time since 1983 (Yikes!).  But there’s good news, too: the Jefferson Hotel has managed to hold on to its five diamond rating, Thomas Dale High School beat Meadowbrook 35-34 (which is good news if you’re from Thomas Dale; not so good if you’re from Meadowbrook), and today is going to be a gorgeous, sunny day with a high of 59 degrees.

So, what should we do with a day like today?

We could begin by praying for those who have suffered the loss of loved ones in the Fort Hood shooting, and for those who have lost jobs in the recession.  I’m going to follow that up with a hot breakfast (most important meal of the day) and then get on with sermon writing, which is my usual all-day-Saturday occupation.  This week I’m well ahead of schedule, thanks in part to the difficulty I had getting the sermon together last week.  I’ve been working overtime this week, and although the sermon is not ready to preach yet, it’s close, which opens up the possibilities for the rest of the day.

I’d love to get in a run if I could, although I’ll have to bundle up.  It’s cold out there!  And then, at 10:00, I’m hoping to stop by the Community Outreach Center at 2944 W. Marshall Street (just a few blocks from the church) to help out with the Refugee Outreach Work Day.  Have you met these refugees from Nepal?  They’re precious, and even the children press their palms together in greeting and say, “Namaste.”  I’ll have to be finished in time to get a shower, get dressed, and go to a cookout hosted by one of our church families, and then I’ll need to leave early to get back to church in time for the Dennis Swanberg concert at 7:00. 

It looks like it’s going to be a busy day.  So, what am I doing still sitting at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and blogging?  I need to get up and get on with it!  If you’re in the area I’d love to see you at the Refugee Outreach Work Day, and if you can’t make that maybe I’ll see you in church tomorrow, either in person or through the lens of the camera as you participate in our live webcast, at 8:30 or 11:00. 

And whatever you choose to do with this day:

May the Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
     and be gracious unto you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
     and give you peace.


Best Day of the Trip

bhutani_refugee_usThe staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church has been on an in-town mission trip this week, doing our part to see that God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done “in Richmond as it is in Heaven.”  One of the ways we have approached that mission is by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matt. 22:39), and that’s why on Thursday most of the staff spent most of the day scrubbing down the walls and floors of Fox Elementary School right here in the Fan.  I had a previous commitment that day and wasn’t able to participate, but the staff let me know (over and over again) that I had missed the hardest work day of the week.  It didn’t go without notice, however.  The two custodians at Fox Elementary were extremely grateful, and acknowledged that there was no way they would have been ready for opening day without the help of First Baptist Church.  I hope that story will get around, and secure our reputation as “a good neighbor in a great neighborhood.” 

I was back on Friday.  That’s when we went out to Colonial Apartments to visit with the refugees.  Jenny Minor (financial secretary) and I went together to visit a refugee from Nepal named Som and his sister Tulasa.  Som was an English teacher in Nepal and carried the conversation effortlessly, telling us about his adjustment to the American way of life.  It hasn’t been easy.  He spends nearly two hours each day riding the bus to his job at a fast food restaurant where he works five hours and then turns around to come home.  His sister Tulasa has not been able to find a job (even though she’s really good with children), and so the few dollars he earns are all they have in a household that also includes his mother.  She came in near the end of our visit and sat silently in a chair in the corner.  Tulasa sat on the daybed in the living room throughout our visit, smiling shyly and getting up only once to offer us sliced apples and glasses of soda.  Som is worried that if she doesn’t find a job soon they will lose their apartment.  Still, he is hopeful.  “I have big dreams,” he said, smiling as if he were letting us in on a secret.  “I want to be a filmmaker some day.”

Before leaving I asked for permission to say a prayer.  I explained that Jenny and I were Christians, that we believed in God and believed that God had power to do things we couldn’t do.  “Do you mind,” I said, “if we ask God to help you and your family?”  No, Som said.  He didn’t mind at all.  And so I said a prayer that included every member of the family, asking God to bless them with life and health and work, and when I finished they all seemed grateful.

Jesus told his followers to go into all the world and make disciples (Matt. 28:19).  It’s one of the ways we are trying to bring heaven to earth at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  But how wonderful it is when the world comes to us, when we can sit in an apartment less than five miles from Monument and the Boulevard and make friends with people from Nepal, when we can offer prayers for them and ask God to bless them in every way. 

I missed the work day on Thursday and I’m sorry about that.  I would have loved to help out at Fox Elementary School.  But on Friday at Colonial Apartments I was doing some Great Commission work, and that’s why, for me,

It was the best day of the trip.

We Are on a Mission Trip

15062127That’s what I’ve been telling people these days when they ask me to explain the concept of the “missional church”: I say, “If you’ve ever been on a mission trip then you know.  It’s like that.  It’s like all of us at First Baptist Church are on a mission trip right now, right here.  The bus has just come to a stop at our mission site on the corner of Monument and Boulevard and it’s time to get off the bus.”

It came to mind a few weeks ago when I was sitting in the sanctuary, listening to our children sing at their end-of-the-year program.  They did a beautiful job; I was feeling a good bit of pastoral pride; and then it hit me: if we were on a mission trip, would we be doing this?  If we had loaded those kids up on a bus and driven to Arkansas, would they have stood at the front of the bus and sung for us?  No.  They would have sung at a nursing home or a hospital.  They would have worked all week at a trailer park, teaching other children to sing the same songs.  In other words their singing would have been shared with the world in some way, and not only with their proud pastor, parents, and grandparents at First Baptist Church. 

According to missional activist Alan Hirsch, it is this awareness of the world around us, and this understanding that we are on a mission—God’s mission—that makes a church “missional.”  When we really “get it,” it begins to affect everything we do, and some of us really are beginning to get it. 

I had a talk yesterday with someone who wondered if we could find some land to plant a garden and then donate the food to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.  As we talked we thought about the refugees from Nepal who have been coming to our Wednesday night dinners.  Could they tend the garden, use the food, sell the surplus at the 17th Street Market?  Suddenly, instead of only talking about taking up an offering and sending missionaries to Nepal, we were talking about how we could be missionaries to the Nepalese right here in Richmond. 

Or what about one of our members who is talking with other churches in the city to see if each church could provide an apartment for someone who has a job but not a home: the “working homeless”?  He’s doing it because when I asked him to help Jesus bring heaven to earth by looking around for anything that didn’t look like heaven and then rolling up his sleeves and going to work there, that’s where he went—to the homeless.  He seems to understand that we are on a mission trip, and the First Baptist bus has rolled to a stop, and it’s time to get off the bus.

As we remember and celebrate the Day of Pentecost, please pray that God’s Holy Spirit would fall on us as it fell on those first believers, and that like them we would find that we cannot keep the good news about Jesus to ourselves, that we have to live it, and breathe it, and tell it, and share it in every way imaginable with the world around us.  

Maybe we can learn to sing God’s song in other places, and not only in the church sanctuary.