KOH2RVA: Day 349

AJCES Melissa BrooksSomehow I got myself on the Mustard Seed mailing list, which means I get the e-mailed prayer requests of the Mustard Seed Sunday school class. It’s been a good way for me to keep up with the concerns of this large, vibrant class, and to pray along with them for the needs of their classmates, family, and friends. But on Monday I got this announcement from class member Mark Roane:

Good afternoon ‘Seeds,

As many of you know, our church has been helping out at the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, located at 2124 N 29th Street in Richmond’s Church Hill Area. This coming Friday, August 23, 2013 a group will be doing some interior painting at the school from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm. If anyone is interested in participating, please contact Chuck Dean.

Thanks

When I got that email I put it on my calendar to drop by the Cooper School on Friday to see how the work was going, but when I got to the office yesterday things were even more piled up than usual. I wasn’t able to get away. And then at 3:57 p.m. I got this email from Mike Maruca, Head of School.

Jim:

I’m going to recommend that Our Lord put your congregation in charge of housekeeping and hospitality in heaven.

A small group was over here today and what they did was really something else. A lot of seemingly small stuff that makes all the difference and makes us look good—in the best sense. My debt to [First Baptist Church] only grows.

Blessings,

Mike

I don’t know that any of the members of that “small group” were members of the Mustard Seed Sunday school class, but I wouldn’t be surprised, because this is how it often happens:

1. One person becomes aware of a need and lets others know about it.
2. One of more of those others is moved to do something about that need.
3. The need is met in a way that makes a difference in the lives of still others.

There are kids from the housing projects in the East End who will come to the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School on the first day of school not knowing that Mark Roane sent out an email to the Mustard Seed Class, not knowing that some of those “Seeds” responded, not knowing how much time they spent at the school or exactly what they did—knowing only that when they walk into that building they feel special, as if someone cares about them and their future, a feeling they may not have anywhere else.

Thank you, Mark. Thank you, Mustard Seeds. Thank you for the ways you allow yourselves to be used to make things on earth a little more like they are in heaven. We cannot know how far these simple acts of kindness will reach, but Jesus said the Kingdom is like a mustard seed:

It starts small and grows.

KOH2RVA: Day 254

YosselinPray for the people of Oklahoma today, friends. The headline of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reads: “Massive Tornado Pummels Oklahoma.” The sub-heads carry the grim news that at least 51 people are dead and more than 140 injured; that a school was devastated and children, some dead, were pulled from the debris; that it was a powerful storm—a half-mile wide—packing 200 mph winds.

It’s that image of children being pulled from the debris of a school that gets me. There’s something about their innocence and vulnerability that makes that scene especially tragic. And even though I don’t believe this tornado was God’s judgment on the people of Oklahoma I still want to know why:

Why do children have to suffer?

I was asking that question on Sunday afternoon as I watched a documentary about modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Often it is children, some of them very young, who are the victims of traders and traffickers. Little boys forced to work in rock quarries or make bricks day after day in India. Little girls prostituted in brothels in Cambodia and hotel rooms in Richmond. It’s their faces that break your heart.

There is no joy there.

On the table in front of me on Sunday was the face of a boy from Africa. He was up for “adoption” through Compassion International. And even though I might never meet this boy face to face Compassion International assures me that for a little more than a dollar a day he can receive food, clothing, shelter, and education. In other words, he can be rescued from a life of suffering.

I already sponsor a child through Compassion (Yosselin, from Mexico, in the picture above), but on Sunday I thought about sponsoring at least one more. I like what Tony Campolo says, that “every Christian should have a kid’s picture on their refrigerator.” If we did that—all two billion of us around the globe who call ourselves Christians—it would make a difference. And beyond that we could support the work of the International Justice Mission abroad and the Richmond Justice Initiative here at home, both organizations working to set children free from slavery and the sex trade.

There’s not much we can do about tornadoes, but we can do something about this. We can do our best to bring people to justice who trade and traffic in human flesh, and we can give children a chance to live a different kind of life. Our efforts may not make a difference to all the children in the world, but as I look at Yosselin’s picture, above, I’m hoping they will make a difference to her.

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.

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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.

Melissa

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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.

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Photo by Melissa Brooks

KOH2RVA: Day 144

View from a Sports CarOn Tuesday I asked our staff to think about the relationship between “mission” and “institution.”

I was still working on the question of how we measure success and it occurred to me that institutional success might look different than missional success. In other words, you could have a church full of people and offering plates full of money without ever doing the things Jesus told you to do. The institution would be successful, but the mission would not.

On the other hand, you could have a church so radically committed to the mission that its members never came to church or put their money in the plates. They would all be out there on the mission field, bringing heaven to earth. The mission would be successful but the institution would not.

Ideally, there would be a balance between institutional and missional success: the church would be full of people who came gladly, gave generously, and then went out onto the mission field to do what Jesus told them to do.

So I said to the staff, “See if you can fill in the blanks: ‘Mission is to institution as _____________ is to _____________.’” And then I let them think about it. Let me ask you to think about it for a minute before reading any further. What is the proper relationship between the mission and the institution?

(sound of ticking clock)

Got it? OK. Please post your answer below by clicking on the word “comments.” And then consider some of these responses:

“Mission is to institution as education is to school.”

“Mission is to institution as transportation is to car.”

“Mission is to institution as baking is to oven.”

“Mission is to institution as fun is to games.”

So, can you imagine a big, beautiful school where nobody ever learned anything? Or a shiny new car that simply sat in the garage? Or a $10,000 oven that never baked a cake? Or a game that felt like more work than fun?

Ideally, there would be a perfectly balanced relationship between the mission and the institution. So you would have a big, beautiful school where lots of learning went on. A shiny new car that would get you where you were going. A $10,000 oven that baked the best cakes in town. A game that left you panting and sweating and laughing out loud.

And, ideally, a church full of happy, healthy people, who came together to worship, love, and learn, and then went out to turn the world upside down.

KOH2RVA: Day 142

Kim and KarenDo you remember Karen, the woman who was looking for a way to “get off the bus” and onto the mission field?  After the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, she made up her mind to do whatever she could for a local elementary school, and chose the school First Baptist has partnered with this year: Glen Lea Elementary.  Karen took the principal, Kim Lee, a small gift bag that included some Shenandoah Valley apples (that’s where Karen grew up), and made a promise to visit the school once a month and pray for the school every day.  Apparently she is making good on that promise: I got this email from Karen while I was in Arizona last week.

Hi, Jim. I hope you are having a nice trip. It is cold and snowy here. But I’m not complaining. I visited Kim Lee today. I took her a pretty mug and hot chocolate. Future visits include having lunch together, reading to a lower level classroom, and helping at a game night sponsored by the PTA. She enthusiastically told me about the success of a behavioral cart and a similar initiative dealing with homework all to encourage and build model students. Not sure who felt more blessed as I left. Regards Karen

I’m really proud of Karen.  Even though it hasn’t come easily or naturally for her she is finding her way onto the mission field, step by step.  The last time she wrote to me I told her:

Karen, this is wonderful news. But be careful (smile). These things have a way of getting into your heart and then you know what happens…

I think she’s about to find out.

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.