Prayer Walking with the Police

2013-10-08 16.13.35Yesterday I went on a community walk with the Richmond Police Department in Whitcomb Court, one of the housing projects in the East End. This is part of an ongoing partnership between the police department and the city’s faith leaders.

I was accompanied by a police officer and the associate pastor of a sister church, Rev. Sharon, who had done this before. She knocked on the first door boldly, and when nobody answered the police officer knocked again. Someone inside said, “Who is it?” and he said, “Police!” By the time this woman got to the door, pulling on her clothes and adjusting her wig, she was terrified. She had been taking a nap and had no idea what was going on.

We tried to calm her down. We told her we were just there to ask people how they were doing and if they felt safe in their neighborhood. I said, “The police are smart enough to know they can’t do this job alone, and so they’ve recruited members of the faith community to help out. They provide the presence and we provide the prayers.”

That comforted her some, but you could tell her heart was still pounding, and that she might have been glad if the police and the faith leaders had simply left her alone. Rev. Sharon offered to pray for her and she nodded her head, and then Rev. Sharon said a prayer for her, her family, her home, and her future.

By the time we left I think she was feeling better.

We must have knocked on a dozen different doors yesterday, and behind almost every one was a mother who was concerned for her children. One woman told us she had a son, 27, who was “out there” day after day, doing who knows what. She was terrified that one day he would be shot and killed. We prayed for her as well, and specifically for her son.

Another woman had grown up in St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, but then moved to Miami and eventually to Richmond. A beautiful little girl peeked out shyly from behind her legs and another one, the baby, was upstairs taking a nap. We prayed for that mother and those children as well.

Nobody turned us away, and everyone allowed us to pray. It seems that everyone has something to pray about, and these people had more than most. I prayed that God’s love would fill up those apartments in Whitcomb Court and overflow onto the streets and sidewalks, that people would be able to feel it wherever they went, to breathe it in, to live it out.

As we were leaving a school bus turned into the neighborhood and began to drop children off. Some of them came running toward us, curious about who we were and what we were doing. We invited them to join us in our closing circle and just before we prayed one little boy looked up at me and said, “Do I close my eyes now?” “Yes,” I said.  And he did.

At least, I think he did.  I had my eyes closed, too.

We said one more heartfelt prayer for Whitcomb Court and then began to head to our cars to drive home, most of us to comfortable homes far away from the East End. Ray Tarasovic, the Police Chief, stopped to talk with some of the boys before he left and I asked if he would let me take a picture. That’s the one at the top of this post.

Take a good look at it before you move on, click on it so you can see the faces more clearly, and then say a prayer for those boys. Pray that they would grow up into strong, smart, handsome men who never have a reason be afraid of the police, and never miss an opportunity to pray for the peace of their neighborhood. And then say a prayer for Chief Tarasovic.

He’s got a big job.

There was another shooting in Whitcomb Court last week, and all over that neighborhood, mothers held their children a little tighter.

KOH2RVA: Day 220

sunriseI’m sitting in my room at Graves Mountain Lodge, in Syria, Virginia, watching the sky getting gradually lighter in the east. It’s the last day of a three-day staff retreat, and I’m almost sorry to see it end.

We’ve taken the time in these days to share our stories, to tell each other how things are going for us and what we’re struggling with. It always amazes me, when you take time for such things, how much there is to share. It seems that everybody is dealing with far more than you would know, which means that everybody is pretty good at keeping most of those things to themselves, most of the time. But the Bible tells us to “bear one another’s burdens” and that’s one of the things we’ve focused on during this retreat.

It’s been holy.

We’ve also been talking about the missional understanding of church, and I’ve tried to sum it up by using a phrase I learned from Alan Hirsch, one of the leading voices in the missional church movement. He says: “The church is not the goal of God’s mission, but the tool of God’s mission.”

That’s profound, and it represents a profound change in thinking. If Hirsch is right about that it means, first of all, that the church doesn’t have a mission, God has a mission, so that instead of asking, “What should we do?” we begin to ask, “What does God want us to do?”

Yesterday I said that I think God made the world and everything in it, that he loves the world and everything in it, and that it breaks his heart to see the world so lost and in such ruin. I said that I think God’s mission is to redeem all of creation. That’s why he sent his Son, but as Alan Hirsch and others add, that’s also why he and the Son sent the Spirit, and why he, the Son, and the Spirit sent the church.

If that’s true, then I can almost picture God—like a patient gardener—using Richmond’s First Baptist Church as a tool to redeem this part of his creation.

Do you see how different that is from thinking of the church as the goal of God’s mission? If it’s the goal then our job is to get everybody out there in here—get them into the baptistry, into a good Sunday school class, and into the habit of regular worship—and if we could do that we could probably do it while the world around us was going to hell. But what we learn from the story of Jesus is that God loves the whole world; he doesn’t want any part of it to go to hell. Paul says that the whole creation groans, awaiting its redemption (Rom. 8:21-22).

This morning, from where I’m sitting, the creation is not groaning, it’s singing. The sun has just come up over the mountains and the birds, the budding trees, and the gurgling brooks are rejoicing. But this afternoon I’ll be back in Richmond, beautiful Richmond, where there is still much work to be done, and where God may need a tool just like First Baptist Church to do it.

And where he may need all of us to help.

KOH2RVA: Day 156

On MissionOn Sunday I spent three hours with the Ministry Planning Team at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. We were trying to draft a mission, vision, and values statement for the church, something we’ve been working on for a while.

We were stuck on the “mission” piece.

What is it that we, as a church, are trying to do? Are we trying to bring heaven to earth? Are we trying to make disciples of every nation? Are we trying to be Jesus’ witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth? Are we trying to save people from eternal damnation?

We looked at mission statements from Coca-Cola (“To refresh the world, to inspire moments of happiness and optimism, to create value and make a difference”) and Starbucks Coffee (“To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time”). We talked about “aspiration” and wondered if our mission statement could be about something people really want, rather than just about something they ought to do. We thought we were getting close at one point, and then our conversation ricocheted off in another direction.

We’ve still got work to do.

But I woke up Monday morning thinking about our mission, and ended up writing the litany that’s printed below. It’s not our mission statement. It’s just Jim’s thoughts on a Monday morning. But I hope you will read it and let me know your thoughts. Does any part of it refresh you, or inspire you…or make you want a Coke? (smile).


Leader: Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s Kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

People: Richmond’s First Baptist Church wants to be an answer to that prayer.

Leader: Jesus knew what a big job that would be. He told his followers to go, make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that he had commanded.

People: Let us never be content with making converts alone.

Leader: Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit; as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

People: We are sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves.

Leader: Let us go in the grace of God, the love of the Lord Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

People: Amen.

How Trust Is Like Humpty Dumpty

It was my foster brother’s fault.

We were walking to the bus stop one morning after a heavy rain.  It was a long walk, and there were puddles everywhere, and somewhere along the way Bill stamped his foot down hard in a puddle and splashed my leg.  And then I splashed him.  And then he splashed me again.  And just when I was getting ready to splash him back he stopped me.

“Hey!” he said, with a mischievous grin on his face.  “If we get wet enough maybe we won’t have to go to school!”

And that was how we both ended up back at home, dripping wet and explaining to my mother that we had “accidentally” fallen into a puddle.

“I guess it’s too late to go to school now, huh?” I said, hopefully.

“Change your clothes,” my mother said, firmly.  “I’ll drive you.”

That was not what we had hoped for.  Bill and I trudged wetly up the stairs to our room where he made a last, desperate, suggestion:

“Let’s hide our shoes!”


“Let’s hide our dry shoes.  And then we’ll only have these wet ones.  And your mom won’t make us go to school in wet shoes.”

It didn’t seem like much of a plan, but it was all we had. We hid our only dry shoes and then spent the next half hour frantically “looking” for them.  I began to feel uneasy about it, and when my mother interrupted the search long enough to pray that God would help us find our shoes I felt even worse.  finally she just told us to put on our wet ones, and drove us to school in stony silence. 

It was a few days later that I needed my other shoes.  I went straight to the spot where I had hidden them, dragged them out into the middle of the floor, and began to put them on.

“Jim?” my mother said, from behind a half-closed door.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Did you find your shoes?”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“I saw you,” she said, coolly.  “You went right to them.”

“Right!  I said, thinking quickly.  “I remembered where I left them!”

“No,” she said, with a mother’s unquestionable authority, “you remembered where you hid them.”


“You lied to me,” she said at last.  “And now, how will I ever be able to trust you again?”


Here is the truth:  Trust, once it has been broken, is nearly impossible to mend.  Like Humpty Dumpty it lies in a pile of pieces that no one can put together again, at least not anytime soon.  I’m pleased to tell you that my mother learned to trust me again, but it didn’t happen overnight.  It took years of unblinking honesty, years of proving myself trustworthy, to overcome that one miserable lie.

So, this is my advice to you: don’t do it.  Don’t tip the fragile trust of a loved one—or anyone—over a wall.  Once it is broken it is broken.

And all the king’s horses,
And all the king’s men,
Can’t put Trust
Back together again.

Yes, We’ll Gather at the River

Last Sunday afternoon I got to baptize thirteen people in the James River in our Second Annual River Baptism.  There’s something very special about wading out into that water while the gathered church watches from the shore; something very special about dipping those candidates beneath the surface in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit; something very special about seeing them wipe the water from their eyes and break into a joyful grin as the congregation applauds.  Jesus must have known how special all this could be when he commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples of every nation.  I can almost hear him saying, “Oh, and by the way…baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  It will mean the world to them.”

In this photo: Jim Somerville prepares to baptize Doug Duke as Buddy Burgess signs for the deaf congregation.

Little Jimmy

untitled-2I don’t know how it is for you, but I am often harder on myself than on anyone else.  I can counsel with others and no matter what they have done I can usually nod my head sympathetically and show some understanding.  But not with myself.  Where I would forgive the shortcomings of others I often scold myself, wag my finger, and say, “How could you?!”  I tend to hold on to sins that God has forgiven long ago, sifting through them from time to time to remind myself just how wretched I really am.

And that’s where this picture comes in handy.

This is a picture of me when I was two years old.  I find that when I look at it I feel tender toward this little boy and far more forgiving than I might be otherwise.  I begin to understand that my inability to forgive myself can be crippling, in the same way Jesus understood that we cannot love our neighbors as ourselves if we cannot love ourselves.  It’s not that I use this picture to excuse my behavior, not that I look the other way and let “Little Jimmy” do whatever he wants.  It’s just that I begin to confront his behavior with love instead of anger, like someone who could be redeemed rather than someone who should be condemned.

I have a feeling that God is able to see what is most lovable about us even in our worst moments.  I have a feeling that’s what keeps him from blasting us straight to hell on most days, and instead keeps him opening his arms to receive all his prodigal sons and daughters.

Even Little Jimmy.