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.”

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 141

bus-off-cliff-259x300I’m back from Arizona, and a meeting with pastors of other large churches who were interested in this whole “bringing heaven to earth” thing. I got a chance to explain what we were up to in Richmond, and I saw some of them taking notes. But they did want to know a couple of things in particular:

1. Have you seen an increase in attendance?
2. Have you seen an increase in giving?

Because this is how we’ve learned to measure success.

Pastors of large churches are considered successful because their churches are large, and if they want to stay successful they have to think about how to keep them that way. I don’t blame them for asking if our year-long, every-member mission trip has stimulated growth and giving.

But the answer is no.

In the 141 days that we’ve been working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I’ve actually noticed a significant drop in attendance. And at the end of last year we were nearly $200,000 behind in our giving. If our KOH2RVA mission bus keeps heading in that direction someone may start screaming, “Abort! Abort! We’re headed over a cliff!”

But we’re only 141 days into this mission.  Anything could happen.  We could begin to see a huge surge in attendance and giving.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we do.  But just in case we don’t I’ve been searching the instruction manual for that place where Jesus says success is measured by how many people come to church on Sunday morning and how much money they give.

I can’t find it anywhere.

I’ll keep looking, but so far I’m finding things like loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; things like loving our neighbors as ourselves; things like caring for “the least of these”—Jesus’ brothers and sisters. That’s how success is measured in the Kingdom, and it shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus told us a long time ago that in God’s Kingdom the yardstick is turned upside-down—the last are first and the least are great.

As that Kingdom comes closer and closer to Richmond, Virginia, we may have to start measuring success in a whole new way.