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.”


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.

KOH2RVA: Day 324

PovertyToday’s guest blogger is Dwight C. Jones, Mayor of Richmond. He’s got some things to say about poverty in our city and what we can do about it.

I have to believe that part of his concern for the poor comes from his years of ministry (most recently as pastor of the First Baptist Church of South Richmond), from years of preaching the gospel, in which Jesus says things like, “I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me.” This much is certain: when the Kingdom of Heaven comes to Richmond, Virginia, nobody will be in need.

Until then, we’ve got work to do.


In March 2011, I decided to make good on a promise I made to myself when I decided to run for mayor. Approximately a quarter of our city’s residents live in poverty. Nearly half are poor or near poor. In a city that is growing like ours, that is thriving in so many ways, this is unacceptable. We have unlimited opportunities if you are a student, have a great idea for a new business, or even want to run for office, for example. But opportunities are just out of reach for too many of our neighbors.

This is why I decided that, for the first time, we were not going to take the approach that we needed a program here or there to take a stab at the problem of concentrated poverty, but that we needed a comprehensive approach. Poverty stems not just from one or two social obstructions, but from decades of policies and institutions that have made it hard for those working to get into the middle class to realize their dreams. Many of these problems were decided and put into place or forced upon us long before we got here. Richmond has a past with much to be proud of, but also much to learn from. I refuse to believe that our history, though painful at times, can keep us from becoming the city that I know we can be.

MAYOR RICHMONDWhile the problems that create concentrated poverty touch many pillars of our city, the good news is, so do the solutions. When I announced the Anti-Poverty Commission’s formation, it was the beginning of a conversation that I hoped would touch every corner of our city. We had representatives on the commission from every sector. There were business leaders, civic and community leaders, elected officials from the city and surrounding counties, folks who lived in and worked in communities of concentrated poverty, representatives from my administration, and professors from our higher education institutions. They looked at the root causes of this problem from every angle. Whether it was transportation, education, housing, health or job creation, there was something that needed fixing, but also, something we could do about it.

This past January, I was presented the report and wasted no time in dispatching representatives from my senior staff to work with Councilwoman Ellen Robertson and Thad Williamson, a professor at the University of Richmond, to get to work on an implementation strategy for the report’s recommendations. While we cannot wave a magic wand and all of a sudden make these pockets of poverty go away, there are many things that we can do together both in the short term and in the long term to bring down our poverty rate and empower Richmonders to realize their dreams.

As we are moving into another phase of this effort, I am naming our anti-poverty work after one of my personal heroes, Maggie L. Walker. The Maggie L. Walker Initiative will honor the social and entrepreneurial legacy that she left behind.

Our work will be spurred by task forces on education, housing, economic development and transportation that will submit detailed implementation plans so that we are ready for the next round of the budget cycle. I have also named individuals to a Citizens Advisory Board, which will consist of civic and business leaders — but half its membership will be residents living in or working in neighborhoods of poverty. It is critically important that those who would be most affected have a strong voice in the process. I have asked Williamson and Robertson to continue to co-chair this effort.

I firmly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that we cannot become the best Richmond unless all Richmonders are along for the ride. I was recently asked by a local blog, “What does community mean to you?” I answered, “To me, community means that we care about one another. We care about education even if we don’t have kids in the school system. We want small businesses to succeed even if we’re not the ones making a profit. We want a clean and sustainable James River even if we’re not the ones out on the rapids. In good times, we celebrate together as a community and in tough times, we fight back together as a community.”

I don’t believe that things will remain the same years from now, simply because that’s the way things have always been. I don’t believe that the block you grow up on will determine your journey in life. And, I don’t believe there is anything we cannot achieve if we go at it together.

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Click HERE to read it online and access related links.

KOH2RVA: Day 289

Essex Bible SchoolI didn’t make it to Bible school yesterday and it was my loss. Appointments and commitments that started early in the morning kept me busy until just before lunch. But I heard great things about the opening day of “Camp 2” at Richmond’s First Baptist Church and after lunch I drove out to Essex Village Apartments to see what happens when Bible school goes on the road.

In yesterday’s post I talked about the partnership between First Baptist and Park Meadows Baptist Church in Waxahachie, Texas, and how the two were collaborating to bring Bible school not only to First Baptist Church, but also to Essex Village Apartments, where there are 544 children, many of whom live in single-parent homes.

I got there early, before the afternoon session of Bible school began, but in time for a pick-up game of kickball. And once again I got to watch that old miracle occur, where people who don’t know each other overcome their initial awkwardness through some silly game, and then begin to laugh and play together, so that by the end of the day they are BFF’s (Best Friends Forever). What breaks my heart is that the kids at Essex Village are so hungry for attention Essex Bible School3they will accept it from almost anybody, even a youth group from Waxahachie, Texas. What fills my heart is the way those youth discover that they can make a difference in someone’s life, and how much joy it gives them. By the end of the week they won’t want to leave their new friends at Essex Village, and their new friends at Essex Village won’t want to let them go.

I predict tearful farewells.

But today is only Day Two of Bible school, and the end of the week seems a long way away. So, if you’re looking for a little joy in your life, and for a way to make a difference in someone else’s, then come on out to Essex Village around two o’ clock this afternoon. Bring your sunglasses and bottled water and big, floppy hat, because it’s going to be hot, but wear your kickball shoes, because it’s going to be fun. I predict that by the end of the day miracles will have occurred at Essex Village, and the Kingdom of Heaven will have come a tiny bit closer to Richmond, Virginia.

KOH2RVA: Day 281

DadYesterday was Father’s Day. Today is my dad’s birthday. He had the misfortune of being born so close to Father’s Day that when he became a father he often received one gift or card for both. “Happy Birth-Father’s-Day!” my brothers and I would write on the tags of our poorly wrapped homemade gifts. But Dad didn’t seem to mind.

He wasn’t in it for the glory.

I talked about him at last night’s vesper service at Westminster-Canterbury and read some excerpts from the little book I once put together for him: Seventy Things I Remember about My Dad (in Honor of His Seventieth Birthday). I talked about the time he rolled naked in the snow just to prove to his sons that it wasn’t too cold to walk to school; about the way his eyes used to light up when he challenged us to a game of Monopoly; about the way he taught us that when you had something hard to do it was best to just get it over with, as soon as possible.

I didn’t talk about the 25 years my dad spent trying to end poverty as a Presbyterian missionary in Boone County, West Virginia—one of the poorest counties in America—but as I sit here this morning thinking about how to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I can see where some of my inspiration comes from. I got a glimpse of it during last night’s introduction.

Ginna Lavender, a resident of Westminster-Canterbury and a member of First Baptist Church, told the group who had come for vespers that our church is on a year-long, every-member mission trip. She said, “Dr. Somerville tells us to look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up our sleeves and go to work.” It was just after that that I stood up to talk about my dad, and as I reflect on it this morning it occurs to me that that’s what my dad was doing: looking around for anything that didn’t look like heaven and then rolling up his sleeves and going to work.

John Denver sang that West Virginia is “almost heaven,” but he wasn’t singing about Boone County. The poverty there was bone-crushing. Dad once took us to Thanksgiving dinner with a family that was one generation removed from living under a rock cliff. The house they were in wasn’t much of an improvement. But Dad had seen that house as he was driving up Joe’s Creek Hollow one day—with the rusted-out hulks of old cars in the front yard and the bags and piles of trash in the back—and he had gotten out to meet the family that lived there, to talk to them, and get to know them, and see if he could do anything to help. That initial meeting turned into a friendship that lasted for years, and I would guess that Dad got as much from the Dotsons as they got from him.

It wouldn’t have happened if Dad hadn’t been “looking around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven,” but he was, and he found it, and he rolled up his sleeves and tried to make a difference. God only knows if he did, but that’s OK.

He wasn’t in it for the glory.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you. I’m inspired by your life and ministry. And when I go out to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, today,

I’ll be thinking of you.

KOH2RVA: Day 134

R1013_JONS2The Kingdom of Heaven is coming to Richmond, Virginia.

I wasn’t sure until yesterday, but after reading the Saturday edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch there can be no doubt.

In the top right corner of the front page it said, “Virginia Jobless Rate is Lowest Since Dec. ’08.” That’s a sign, isn’t it? Apparently Virginia’s rate is the 11th best in the U. S., which means that people in this area have a better chance than most of getting and keeping a job.

Just below that item was an inch-high headline that read: “Plan Offered to Cut Richmond Poverty.” For years I’ve been saying that if you want to bring heaven to earth all you have to do is look around for something that doesn’t look like heaven and go to work. Well, poverty doesn’t look like heaven. In fact, it looks like the other place. And since September 9, when we began this year-long, every-member mission trip, we have been confronted by the evils of poverty again and again. How good it is to know that First Baptist is not alone in its efforts to do something about it!

Robert Zullo writes: “Capping nearly two years of work, the Anti-Poverty Commission assembled by Mayor Dwight C. Jones said Friday that Richmond should battle inner-city poverty by improving transportation options, workforce development, job creation, education and legislation and policy initiatives, among other recommendations” (read the full article by clicking HERE).

25 percent of the citizens of Richmond live below the poverty line. I’m glad to see that our mayor—a Baptist minister—is committed to making a difference for “the least of these,” Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

And then, in the top left corner of the front page, an item about eight outstanding women in Richmond. How delighted I was to turn to page B7 and discover that one of those women was our own Nancy Chewning! Look at what they said about her:

[Honored in the category of] Human Relations & Faith in Action: Nancy Chewning, who has filled many roles at Massey Cancer Center and First Baptist Church. At the church, she has been a deacon, choir member, mentor, lay reader and teacher. For the cancer center, she has been on the advisory board since 2008 and has worked for 18 years to increase funding for breast cancer research through Pink Ribbons of Hope. Through Circle of Friends, she has worked with more than 24 nonprofit organizations in the community. She has served on the boards of The Pregnancy Resource Center of Richmond, Virginia Baptist Homes and Elijah House Academy.

Now, there’s a woman who has been bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, for a long time. It’s wonderful to see her honored for it. Way to go, Nancy!

You can see why I was encouraged by what I read in yesterday’s paper.

It wasn’t all good news. The kingdom hasn’t come yet. But after reading the paper yesterday I felt more certain than I have in a while…

It’s coming!