A Night to Remember

Nigerians2It’s 7:35 p.m. on Tuesday, January 20, 2015.

Exactly 50 years ago, at this time, somewhere between 1,400 and 1,800 people packed themselves into the sanctuary of Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the annual business meeting. Why so many? Because two weeks earlier two Nigerian students from Virginia Union University had presented themselves for membership, and the church was voting on whether or not to let them in.

Fred Anderson writes: “To understand the scene in January 1965 and to sense something of the charged emotions, it is necessary to review the turbulent era. A scant ten years before, in 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that separate but equal was not to be allowed in reference to the public schools. Led by powerful politicians and fed by the fears of the white citizenry, especially in the rural areas, Virginia employed “massive resistance.” In some localities, the public schools closed. Although Virginia avoided the kind of ugly racial confrontations experienced in much of the Deep South, there were deep-set social customs, segregation laws, and spirits of defiance. The areas of public transportation, public accommodations, and voting rights were prime aspects of society about to undergo change.”

On Wednesday evening, January 20, all the conflicting emotions—the rights and the wrongs—from centuries of Southern living had a place of exposure in a meeting that stretched on for four hours. The staff and leadership had prepared carefully. 3,000 ballots had been printed. Tally sheets had been designed to make the proceedings smooth. News reporters were barred from the church grounds. This was strictly a “family meeting.”

The pastor, Dr. Ted Adams, began the meeting with a statement of his personal convictions. “In his calm and gentle manner characterized by extreme patience and understanding, the gentle Adams laid out the concern for open doors and open hearts. He appealed, as he had before, that the church should receive into its membership ‘anyone who came professing faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.’”

And then it was up to the church.

The main motion on the floor was that “an exception to the established church policy be made to accept under the watch care of our church the two Nigerian students.” Chesley Decker, the son of missionaries and an appealing young member, called for a change from watch care to full membership. In the time for discussion there were numerous speakers pro and con. Someone reckoned that between forty and fifty members spoke at some point in the long deliberations.

Some speaking against the motion argued that “If God had wanted the races to amalgamate…” etc., fearful that integration would lead to intermarriage between the races. Others worried that immediate admission would “split the membership,” and urged a deferral for at least six months. But the young people in the room, who felt differently, spoke with the courage of their convictions. One young woman stood at the podium and pointed her finger at some of her former Sunday school teachers. “You taught me to believe that Jesus loves ALL the little children—red and yellow BLACK and white! Was that a lie?”

It would be impossible to document the emotion in the crowded church sanctuary that night, but in the end, the (amended) recommendation to receive the Nigerian students as full members carried 773 to 540.

The word spread like wildfire.

The next day the story showed up in newspapers in Gainesville, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, DC. Some of the articles were supportive; others were simply surprised that a historic Baptist church in the “Capital of the Confederacy” would vote to admit black members.

It would be another two months before Martin Luther King led the march from Selma to Montgomery (dramatized in the recent film, “Selma”). Some have wondered how the publicity and policy changes surrounding that march would have affected the outcome of the First Baptist vote, had it been it held at a later time. We will never know.

But we do know this:

Fifty years ago tonight the people of Richmond’s First Baptist Church came down on the right side of history. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to carry the vote. They heard something of the gospel in Dr. Adams’ gentle request that “anyone professing faith in Jesus Christ should be admitted as a member.” They remembered that they were not only citizens of the American South, but also of God’s Kingdom. Ronald Howell, a member of the church, was quoted in the Richmond News Leader as saying, “The value of what we believe and profess is seen in what we do. By opening our church doors, we can prove to the watching world that we are sincere about our belief in the One God who is the Father of us all.”

It’s 8:35 now. Fifty years ago that church business meeting was just getting warmed up. It would be another three hours before the gavel came down and the few remaining members could go home. But what happened then defined who we are now. The “open door” policy of First Baptist Church had been tested and the door had remained open.

It was truly a night to remember.

_______________________
Much of the information in this post comes from Fred Anderson’s excellent reporting in The Open Door: A History of First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia, published by the church in 2006 (pp. 261-279).

Radical Hospitality

Radical Hospitality

Yes. This is what I think radical hospitality looks like: a gathering of international students from VCU at the home of Louis and Linda Watts, with other graduates of the Ralph Starling School of Radical Hospitality (including Ralph Himself) proudly present and…having a wonderful time. Who knew bringing heaven to earth could be so much fun?

KOH2RVA: Day 346

SONY DSCI love this email from Mark Larson, which describes the experience of one young woman’s encounter with Richmond’s First Baptist Church. I sometimes tell the church, “There must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth.” There must be a dozen ways in this story alone:

Jim:

Yesterday, a young lady from Munich, Germany had a KOH2RVA experience that I wanted to share with you. When this young lady and others told me about what she had experienced that day, I clearly saw the Holy Spirit at work through a team of FBC friends.

Nina arrived in Richmond as part of a six-week journey to see the east coast of the US—alone. She is “sofa-surfing” from New York to Miami. This is a new way to travel cheap—a time-share for sofas. You agree to let people who sign up stay on your sofa for free in return for your ability to stay on the sofas of others in the network. The system depends on self-policing much like is done at EBay. Unfortunately, on the first day of her sofa-stay in Richmond, Nina encountered an environment of alcohol, drugs, and large dogs. She left this unwelcoming place and opted to stay at a nearby hotel.

Though of a different Christian denomination, one of her desired experiences was to visit a Baptist church. After an Internet search, she located First Baptist and walked 2 ½ miles for the 8:30 AM service this past Sunday morning. This is where the First Baptist folks took over:

• Nina was met at the sidewalk by our front door greeters (including Sharon Brittle and Alena Glembova).
• They took her inside where she sat with Sandra Saunders during the service. Sandra took Ralph’s “Radical Hospitality” class this spring; she, Ralph, Alena, and many others host events to make the VCU International students feel at home in Richmond and at our church. It was this group who served ice cream to RVA United on a recent Tuesday night.
• Nina described the service and sermon as “energetic” and “uplifting” – unlike what she experiences at home.
• During the service, Sandra introduced Nina to Heath and Theresa Coryell who welcomed her into their Bible study class.
• Sandra took Nina to lunch with some of her friends, and let her know of the “International Pot Luck” dinner that Carrie and I were hosting at our house that evening.
• Four of our FBC members shuttled many of the international students who had no means of transportation.
• At the International Pot Luck, Nina met about 25 people from eight countries, tasted food they brought that reminded them of their home country, traded contact information with several, and invited them to stay at her house in Munich (but not on the sofa) if ever traveling to Munich.
• When everyone began leaving, she was offered a ride back to her hotel (or) a visit to Sweet Frog for frozen yogurt with Sandra. No contest.

She is now on her way to Charlotte, but what a contrast in hospitality this young lady experienced in 24 hours!

I think this is one way that KOH2RVA can work: a series of small, friendly gestures by a group of friends come together and bring heaven to our city—for one young lady on an adventure, for college students who are a long way from home, and for those of us who are privileged to be part of their lives.

Mark

“I was a stranger,” Jesus said, “and you welcomed me.”

That’s (at least) one way to bring heaven to earth.

KOH2RVA: Day 297

Linda and Louis

Let me tell you about Linda and Louis Watts (at left in the photo above).

If I’m remembering correctly it was Linda who baked mountains of pumpkin bread at Thanksgiving and took it to the teachers at Glen Lea Elementary School. She and Louis were back for the faculty luncheon last month, serving up heaping plates of goodness for the teachers and letting them know just how much they are appreciated. Kimberly Lee, Principal, was so moved by that kind of generosity that she presented a plaque to Steve Blanchard thanking all the members and friends of First Baptist who have made a difference at Glen Lea during this year-long, every-member mission trip. But if I were giving out plaques, I would want to give one to Louis and Linda.

I found them in the waiting room at VCU Medical Center at 5:45 on Monday morning when I went by to pray for a young woman who was having surgery that day. They had brought her to the hospital because her parents were out of town and she didn’t know who else to ask. So she asked Louis and Linda, her “adopted” parents, and they were glad to help. They had brought books and snacks and were planning to stay until the surgery was over.

While I was sitting with them they told me about the big adventure they’d had the previous weekend, when Louis ended up driving the church bus to Short Pump so 25 international students from VCU could do some shopping. I’ve driven that bus before. It’s a little intimidating. But Louis got everybody to Short Pump and back while Linda took a “cute little Egyptian family” in her car because they had a baby and needed to use the car seat.

And then they told me about the surprise birthday party they threw for one of those international students, a young woman from Iran who has no family here in the States, one of their other “adopted” daughters. She thought she was having a quiet birthday dinner at their home, but when they opened the door—surprise!—a room full of people was waiting to wish her well and sing the birthday song. Louis and Linda were afraid that she might be overwhelmed by all the attention but she blushed with pleasure and called her mother later to tell her all about it. Think how pleased her mother was to know that her daughter had friends in the States.

So, that’s a little about Louis and Linda, who seem to be working every day to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, even if it means baking mountains of pumpkin bread, or getting up really early in the morning, or driving a big, intimidating, church bus. They remind me of those servants in Luke 17 who, when they have done everything they were told to do, say, “We are unworthy servants: we have only done our duty.”

Good for you, Louis and Linda. May your tribe increase.

KOH2RVA: Day 230

Glen Lea Artists

Steve Blanchard, our Minister of Christian Compassion, is recovering nicely from his recent hospitalization and surgery (to relieve swelling and pressure on the brain following a fall from an eight-foot ladder). I can tell because on Thursday I got about twelve emails from him, all work-related. One of them was an update on the partnership between Richmond’s First Baptist Church and Glen Lea Elementary School in this year-long, every-member mission trip we call KOH2RVA.

I’ve told you about Karen, who finally got off the bus and discovered what a joy it is to read to second-graders at Glen Lea. And I’ve told you about Brenda, the artist, who was inspired to invite Glen Lea students to participate in the church’s recent art show (I love the photo above). Yesterday I learned that Raylene is helping out once a week in a kindergarten class, so that an exhausted teacher can get a few minutes’ rest.  Karen and Brenda and Raylene are heroes, but if you take a look at the list below you will see that lots of people have been doing lots of things to bring heaven to earth at Glen Lea. You will also see that there are some opportunities coming up for those who are still looking for a way to get involved. If that’s you, let Steve know you’d like to help by sending email to: Blanchard@fbcrichmond.org. He’s feeling better. He’ll help you get off the bus. He may even hold your hand and tell you to watch your step.

Participation at Glen Lea through KOH2RVA

• October 15 Teacher Appreciation (done by Ruth Szucs and 11th grade girls)
• November 5 Provided dinner to teachers and staff during Parent/Teacher Conferences
• November 10 Sponsored cake walk and book giveaway table at fall festival
• November 19 Provided shuttle service to Community Workshop
• February 14 Sponsored Love To Read book collection
• April 15 Sponsored essay contest. Essays picked up May 6 with winner receiving Chuck E. Cheese package.
• May 7 Provide 70 gifts to teachers for Teacher Appreciation Day
• June 12 Provide Appreciation Dinner for staff
• Approximately twenty volunteers giving time and gifts to the school
• Provided school supplies for students and teachers
• Sponsored homework club prizes for various classes
• Art students presenting their art at FBC Art Show

KOH2RVA: Day 198

student artI spoke with someone yesterday whose brother belongs to an evangelical church and who sometimes goes from door-to-door with members of his congregation to talk to people about Jesus. Their approach is to knock on the door and ask whoever answers some version of this question: “If you died tonight do you know where you would spend eternity?” (I tried to imagine how it would feel to open my door to a stranger whose first words had to do with my death. I’m pretty sure it would get my attention and I’m pretty sure that’s the point). At any rate, he had called her recently to tell her about it and about the kind of results they were having.

“We had five conversions the other night,” he said.

“Were they real conversions, or were people just trying to get you to leave them alone?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

And that’s part of the problem: we don’t know. We don’t know if those kinds of efforts bring people closer to Christ or push them further away, but we do know we have been commanded to “go, make disciples,” and this is one of the ways Christians try to do it.

But let me tell you about another way.

I had a talk recently with a woman named Brenda who has been visiting First Baptist for the past two years. Brenda is an artist, and a good one; I’ve seen some of her work. She was telling me how much she has enjoyed coming to church and how she has wanted to get involved in our mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, but she didn’t really know where to start. She mentioned the elementary school we are partnering with this year—Glen Lea—but she also talked about the exhibit the Fine Arts Team is putting on in April. As we talked, the two began to come together.

I can’t remember if it was my idea or hers but somewhere in that conversation we began to talk about putting some student artwork in the exhibit, and the more we talked the more excited we got. “I think that’s a great idea,” I said. “Really?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “I think you should get in your car and drive over to Glen Lea Elementary right now and ask the art teacher if she has some students whose work could go in our show.” “Really?!” she asked again. “Yes,” I said, and she got up from her chair right then, and put on her coat, and headed out the door. We were nowhere close to the end of our appointment, but she couldn’t wait.

She was that excited.

Now, the door-to-door evangelist might say that hanging student artwork in an exhibit doesn’t bring those kids one step closer to salvation and he might be right, but he might be wrong. As with door-to-door evangelism it’s hard to know what happens in the human heart. We have to leave that part up to God. But here’s what I was thinking about as Brenda left my office:

  • I was thinking about how excited she was, and how different that is from the way we sometimes do evangelism, as it were a chore.
  • I was thinking about how excited those kids would be to find out their artwork had been chosen for display.
  • I was thinking that they might beg their moms and dads to take them to First Baptist Church for the exhibit.
  • I was thinking about fifty or sixty students and parents from Glen Lea Elementary showing up at our church.
  • I was thinking what a wonderful opportunity that would be to greet them, visit with them, brag on their artwork, and make them feel special.
  • I was thinking how they would go home from that experience, smiling.
  • I was thinking how that might make Jesus smile.

I believe that Brenda was thinking all those same things, and that’s why she couldn’t wait to get in her car and drive over to Glen Lea Elementary that day. There is something about this kind of work—about bringing heaven to earth—that fills people with joy.  I’ve got to believe it is the joy of the Lord, and that the Lord will know just how to use it to accomplish his eternal purposes.

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.