Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, Indeed!

Old friends, two happy senior women talking in parkGuest blogger Becky Payne, church organist and friend of the elderly, shares a story about a recent event that truly brought heaven to earth.

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When our pastor, Jim Somerville, challenged our church to “bring the kingdom”, one of our members at Lakewood Manor, Bernice Rodgerson, was a bit puzzled about what she might do to participate in the challenge. At that time Bernice was not well and didn’t get out much. She and I talked about the possibilities and decided she could write notes and make phone calls to other senior adults who are homebound. I gave her several names of ladies in other retirement facilities and she began her “ministry” of encouragement.

Earlier in this year we were discussing one of her ladies and Bernice expressed a desire to visit her. I assured her I could make that happen. On a Wednesday afternoon mid-August Bernice and I went to visit Anne Poindexter. I watched with great joy as these friends greeted each other and talked non-stop for a lengthy time. Anne was happy to share refreshments with us as we talked about our church, our families and Anne’s upcoming 99th birthday. The excitement of these ladies and the sweetness of that visit is etched in my mind.

As we drove back to Lakewood Manor Bernice and I talked a bit about the other ladies she had been writing. You guessed it: this Friday Bernice and I will make the short trip to Gayton Terrace to visit with Betty Grubb!

KOH2RVA: Day 225

jail barsI went to jail last Friday.

It’s the fourth time I’ve done it on this year-long, every-member mission trip. I do it because I’m haunted by that verse from Matthew 25 where Jesus says, “I was in prison and you didn’t visit me.” So I go to jail to see Jesus, or at least some of his brothers. I went on Friday, and I took Tyler Forrest with me.

Tyler is a relatively new member of First Baptist Church. He’s a young man, a strong man; he works as a personal trainer at a fitness center. I saw him up in the balcony one Sunday morning at the 8:30 service and the next thing I know he was coming forward, saying he’d like to join the church. He said (and I quote): “This is the first church where I felt the Spirit.”

So, last Sunday I challenged the church once again to “get off the bus” and onto the mission field and as I was standing at the back door, shaking hands, Tyler came by and asked, “How do I do that?” I said, “Why don’t you come to jail with me on Friday?” and he said he would be glad to.

I knew I’d found the right man for the job.

Turns out Tyler knew somebody in the Richmond Jail. “Not a bad guy,” he said. “Just somebody who got busted for selling drugs.” So we drove down together on Friday, made our way through security, and ended up in the chaplain’s office, where we were greeted by Father Alonzo Pruitt, an Episcopal priest, and my friend Mike Kelly, “Michael Patrick Kelly,” he reminds me, a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic who works out at the same place I do: the Jewish Community Center.

It’s in interesting world we live in.

Mike led us up to a cell block on the second floor where “his” guys were waiting. They seem to be in some sort of program where you get special treatment for good behavior, because they were exceptionally well-behaved. They applauded as I came into the room, which made me feel a little embarrassed. I’m not a hero. If I were a hero I would be there every day, like my friend Mike, and not just when the guilt gets the best of me.

I didn’t want to be “preachy,” so I told them that funny story about the time I set the outhouse on fire while my brother Ed was still in it. When I was finished I told them that if they wanted to hear me preach they could tune in to Channel 8 at 11:00 on Sunday mornings. And then I asked if I could say a prayer.

I prayed that they would know the love of God, that they would feel it in their bones, that they would be reminded daily how precious they were to him, and that there was nothing they had ever done or ever could do that would put them beyond the reach of his love. And then I said “Amen” and was getting ready to say goodbye when Mike asked the men if they had any questions. They had a few, mostly about the story I had told, but then one of the men on the front row looked up at me and said, “Thank you for the prayer.”

And that was the moment. That’s when heaven came to earth. I could tell that something in that prayer had touched him and I imagined that it had been a long time since anyone told him he was loved. And maybe that’s why Jesus shamed me into visiting the Richmond Jail, because he knew that man was in there, and needed to know God’s love.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

On the way back to church Tyler and I had plenty to talk about. I don’t know if he will make jail ministry his “way” of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, but he might. I saw him bump fists with the guy he knew in there, and in his own way he reminded him that he, too, was loved by God.

That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Going down to the city jail and pouring out a bucket full of God’s love? I’m not sure I would have done that if we hadn’t been on this mission trip, but I’m glad I did.

I’m really glad.

KOH2RVA: Day 199

hospital visitMuch of our focus for this year-long, every-member mission trip has been outside the walls of the church, but I don’t mind admitting that much of the time, perhaps even most of the time, the members of First Baptist Church bring heaven to earth for those who are inside the walls.

For example: at last month’s deacons’ meeting I led a training session on how to make a hospital visit, thinking especially about those times our own members are in the hospital. I emphasized that the word deacon literally means “minister,” and then I led them through these ten steps:

Making a hospital visit: suggestions for deacons

1. Park in the visitor’s parking lot. Go in the front entrance. Ask about the person at the information desk. Get a room number and follow directions to the floor.

2. Ask at the nurse’s station about visiting Mr. Jones in Room 555. If they ask about your relationship to the patient say, “I’m his minister” (the literal meaning of the word deacon).

3. Sanitize your hands before going in. If the doctor or nurse is in the room, wait in the hallway while they do their work.

4. When you enter the room, say, “Hello, Mr. Jones. I’m a deacon at First Baptist Church. I’ve come by for a visit.”

5. Be considerate. Don’t bounce on the bed. Don’t come in with the smell of gas on your hands or strong perfume that may be unsettling. Don’t say to the person, “My uncle died of what you have” (that suggestion from Bob Higgins).

6. Limit your visit to 5-10 minutes. The person is not there to entertain visitors, but to try to get well. A five minute visit will feel longer if you take off your topcoat, pull up a chair and sit down.

7. Try not to ask, “So, how are you?” Instead let them lead the conversation. If they need to talk about something, they will. If they don’t, they’ll talk about the food in the hospital.

8. Say, “I’d like to pray with you before I go. Is there anything in particular I could pray for?” Hold a hand if you can and then gather up the things they have mentioned and offer them up to God in a short, simple prayer. Leave a moment of silence after the “Amen.” Let them be the first to speak.

9. When you have finished the visit stand up and say something like, “I’ve enjoyed the visit. I hope to see you in church soon.” If that’s not appropriate, simply say a sincere goodbye and leave.

10. Sanitize your hands on your way out of the hospital.

The training session was well received, in fact, Lynn Turner and I got this email message from Clark Norton, one of our newest deacons, the next day.

Jim and Lynn,

Sign me up and give me some tough cookies! I live just down the street from St Francis in Midlothian but I’ll go anywhere.

Thanks again for inviting us to serve more.

Clark

Now, that’s the spirit, isn’t it? There’s a deacon who knows what the word means and who can’t wait to do some ministry. After all, if deacons aren’t going to do ministry, why ordain them?

May your tribe increase, Clark, and maybe on one of those hospital visits you will not only visit our members, but ask at the nurse’s station if there is anybody else on the floor who could use some cheering up.

Then you really will be bringing the KOH2RVA!

KOH2RVA: Day 118

like-meI spent at least part of the day yesterday feeling guilty because I never did get back to my blog, even though I  promised you I would.

This is something you need to know about ministers: they are inveterate “pleasers.” They want people to like them, and this is at least part of what’s going on in their heads as they prepare their sermons, or visit the sick, or show up at parties, or post on their blogs.

So what did I do yesterday? I posted an end-of-the-year report showing that more people visited my blog in 2012 than came to a Jay-Z concert, and then I promised that I would bring you an update on KOH2RVA, and then I didn’t.

And I spent part of the day feeling guilty about that.

But I also spent a few minutes in prayer as I was driving to a meeting yesterday morning, and this is what I said: “Lord, we ministers are inveterate pleasers. We want to please everybody. But what if I focused most of my time and energy on pleasing you? What would that be like?”

There’s a story in Luke’s Gospel about the time Jesus sent out the Seventy (or seventy-two, depending on which ancient manuscript you follow). He tells them to carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, but when they come into a town to cure the sick who are there and tell them, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you!” (in Matthew’s Gospel he adds, “cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out demons”).

The Seventy returned with joy saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” (vs. 17). And then Jesus rejoiced and thanked the Father for these who had done what he told them to do.

They pleased him, in other words, and it gave them joy.

Suppose we do, one day, stand before the Lord. What will we say to him? That we did everything we could to please others, or that we did everything we could to please him?

As an inveterate “pleaser” it helps me to think there’s only one person I have to please today.  I’m going to try to do that.  I don’t know how many demons I will cast out or how many sick I will cure.  Probably not many.  But I’m going to try to bring the Kingdom of Heaven an inch closer to Richmond, Virginia today.  In other words, I’m going to try to do the things that will please Jesus.

And not worry so much about everybody else.

KOH2RVA: Day 112

snow-covered-fieldDo you know that song, “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go”? Yesterday that’s what I did with my family, except we went over the mountain and through the woods to grandmother’s nursing home.

On a good day it’s about a three-hour drive from Richmond to Franklin, West Virginia, and yesterday was a good day. My daughter Ellie is visiting from New York and Catherine is home for her winter break. We all piled into the car yesterday morning (along with Ellie’s two dogs) and headed for the hills.

We had plenty to talk about on the way, and as we got off the Interstate and into the country there was plenty to see. There was snow on the ground! The roads were clear but the fields on both sides were glazed like a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Ellie saw a horse-drawn Amish buggy whizzing down the road. Catherine saw a deer head hanging from a tree (yikes!). We went over Shenandoah mountain through so many hairpin curves that everybody began to feel a little queasy, but from the top the views were breathtaking.

When we finally got to Franklin we were dismayed to learn that the entire nursing home was under quarantine because of the flu, and were told at the front desk that we wouldn’t be able to visit my parents. I said, “But I called yesterday! But we just drove three hours! But my daughter has come from New York!” And while I was protesting the director of nursing happened along and said that my mother, at least, wasn’t showing any symptoms and could come to the family room for a visit.

So, that’s what we had: a two-hour visit with my mother, who entertained us the whole time. She had us laughing like a stand-up comedian. When it was time to go I asked if we could walk around to the side of the building and at least wave to my dad through the window. One of the nurses said she would go to his room and open the curtain. So, off we went, hiking around the side of the nursing home through ankle-deep snow.

As we went Christy reminded the girls of those days when they used to visit the nursing home in Wingate, North Carolina, where we lived at the time. She would take them to be “spirit lifters,” and Ellie, at least, spent a lot of time painting fingernails, which the ladies there seemed to love.

I thought about how that was one more way of bringing heaven to earth. Long before our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, Christy and the girls were figuring out that when one person shares the love of Christ with another heaven touches down—however briefly–wherever you are.

And that’s what we had with my dad yesterday: a very brief moment.

The nurse pulled back the curtain and the four of us stood at the window to see Dad, lying in his bed, smiling up at us. Just because it seemed like the thing to do I began to sing, “We wish you a merry Christmas,” and the family joined in, and then, to our surprise, we could see Dad joining in, singing along with us. The nurse opened his window just a crack so we could hear him and he could hear us, and when we were finished singing we told him that we loved him and blew kisses and waved goodbye.

That was it.

That was all the nurse had time for but probably all my dad had strength for. He’s very weak these days. And to leave him with the image of four impromptu carolers wishing him a merry Christmas and a happy new year was probably about the best we could have done.

And so we drove back to Richmond, satisfied by the visit, having brought the Kingdom of Heaven a little closer to Franklin, West Virginia.

Today, I’m back in this city I love, wondering how I can be a “spirit lifter” here. What about you? Is there somebody whose spirit you can lift, even if you have to go over the river and through the woods to do it?

KOH2RVA: Day 86

hands on barsYesterday was a great day at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Attendance was up, giving was up, the “mood” was up (even though I preached a sermon called “The End of the World as We Know It”), and last night’s Hanging of the Green service was a joyful example of what Pastor Emeritus Jim Flamming later called “organized chaos.”

But that’s not what I want to talk about:

Last week I was writing about the Richmond Jail and what First Baptist Church could do to bring a little heaven to earth there, where it is so badly needed. I said that jail ministry isn’t for everyone, and a few days later I was reminded why.

Someone who had read my blog asked if I could visit a friend in jail. I said yes, of course; it felt like an answer to my prayer of wanting to get more involved. But a few hours later there I was, asking for permission at the front desk to visit someone I had never met before.

It made a difference that I was a pastor. If I had only been a friend or a family member I probably would have had to schedule an appointment first. But I gave them my name and title and told them I had come to visit and a few minutes later I was buzzed in through the heavy steel doors. I took a seat on my side of the bulletproof glass and waited for the person I was visiting to arrive.

I can’t tell you why he’d been locked up. I can only tell you that he was pretty sure he was going to be locked up for a long, long time. He has small children at home, and he was afraid that by the time he got out they would be grown and gone. He was afraid he wasn’t going to be much good to anybody—not his children, not his wife. He said he didn’t see much reason to go on living.

I asked, “Are you thinking about suicide?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Let me tell you why that’s a bad idea,” and even as I said it I hoped that God would fill in the blank with a good answer. This is what came to my mind: I said, “One thing most fathers don’t give their children enough of is time, but you are going to have nothing but time. You can use that time to write letters to your children, to pray for them, to call them on the phone, to make videos for them. You can be present in their lives even if you are absent physically, and you can be more present than a lot of fathers are.”

And then I was inspired to say this:

“They can lock you up, but they can’t lock up your love. It can go through concrete walls, bulletproof glass, and tempered steel to get to your family, just as God’s love can go through concrete walls, bulletproof glass, and tempered steel to get to you.” It was one of those moments when I thought, “Where did that come from?” because it sounded so much better than anything I could have thought of myself. I have to give credit to the Holy Spirit.  I could tell that it made an impact, that he was thinking those things through and considering the truth of them. In the end I prayed with him, gave him my name and number, and walked out through those heavy steel doors, hearing them clang shut behind me.

“I was in prison,” Jesus said, “and you visited me.” But I couldn’t help thinking about all those others inside who didn’t get a visit that day. What about them? Who will give them a reason to live? I have a feeling that even when we get to the end of this year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA we are going to discover that…

Our work is just beginning.

KOH2RVA: Day 80

I went to jail yesterday.

I wasn’t sent there, thankfully; I went of my own accord, to see what it’s like, and to see how Richmond’s First Baptist Church might get involved during this year-long, every-member mission trip we’re calling KOH2RVA.

I drove downtown on Broad Street, past City Hall, past VCU Medical Center, down the steep hill into the valley that divides “that” part of Richmond from the rest of the city, and then I turned left on 18th Street, went a few blocks more, and there it was: the Richmond City Jail.

I took this picture from across the street. You can see the razor wire around the perimeter fence, the old jail building, the new construction going up to relieve the severe overcrowding inside (I’ve heard that as many as seven or eight inmates are sleeping in cells built for four). I parked in the parking lot and went in the front door where I was greeted by a friendly security guard and an imposing metal detector.

“Do you have a cell phone?” he said.

“Yes sir.”

“You have to leave it in your car.”

I walked back out to the parking lot thinking, “Next time, leave cell phone in car. Check.” And then I walked back in again. The friendly security guard didn’t make me remove the contents of my pockets. He just waved me through the metal detector and then asked me to stand with my feet apart and my arms outstretched as he “wanded” me. Eventually I was buzzed inside where I waited my turn to talk to the receptionist, who was sitting behind a wall of bulletproof glass.

I looked around. There were heavy iron bars blocking the hallway to my right. To my left was a kind of waiting area, with chairs that looked like molded plastic cubes. Straight ahead was another hallway, more bars, and behind the bars a long line of inmates on their way to lunch. They wore bright yellow jumpsuits. Some wore jumpsuits with broad, horizontal stripes of orange and white like you might see on a highway safety barrel.  Both seemed designed to keep the inmates in their place, literally and figuratively.

When I got to the window I asked for Father Alonzo Pruitt, the Chaplain. He’s really the only person I know at the jail. The receptionist said that he wasn’t in and I didn’t know what else to say. I thanked her, turned, and walked away.

Was my trip to the jail a failure? I don’t think so. I think it was an “orientation tour.” I plan to go back again, maybe many times. You see, I’m haunted by that verse from Matthew 25, where Jesus says,

“I was in prison, and you didn’t visit me.”

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Click HERE to see Eva Russo’s pictures from inside the jail.  I need to warn you: the pictures are graphic and disturbing, but they also make it clear why some kind of jail or prison ministry is so important.  These people, too, are the children of God, and they might go days or weeks in such a place without being reminded of that.