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).

KOH2RVA: Day 67

Can you bring heaven to earth by making a motion at a Baptist meeting?

Well, no, apparently not.

I went to the microphone yesterday during the miscellaneous business portion of the BGAV annual meeting to ask if we could amend a recent decision made by the Executive Committee of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. You see, the BGAV—the Baptist General Association of Virginia—meets only once each year, and when we are not in session the Executive Committee of the VBMB makes our decisions for us. Recently the Executive Committee decided to sever ties with Richmond’s Ginter Park Baptist Church for ordaining an openly gay man.

I know, I know…that’s way outside the “norm” for Baptist churches. But when I stood to make my motion I simply asked if we could appoint a study committee to look into the matter and bring back a report at next year’s annual meeting. I said, “I don’t want to open the floor for a discussion of how we all feel about homosexuality, because we would be here for the rest of the week, maybe the rest of the year. And I don’t want to talk about whether this church had the right to do what it did. Of course it did. Baptist churches are autonomous. No, what’s at stake here is the question of whether or not we can maintain fellowship with a church that has taken such action.”

And that got things started.

Part of what I was hoping for was that our annual meeting would not devolve into a shouting match about homosexuality, and I think my motion accomplished that. While most of the people who spoke to the motion were passionate, there was no shouting, and we mostly stayed on the subject. The subject was whether or not a church that had done such a thing could stay in the BGAV “family.” In the end, the answer was no. My motion was defeated 426-164.

The decision of the Executive Committee stands.

I learned only later that the BGAV, in its 190-year history, has never before severed ties with a church, not for welcoming blacks, not for ordaining women. And while I’m sure the Bible was quoted in those instances, and Scriptural reasons given for why such churches could not remain in the family, they did, and maybe that’s only because our sense of family is strong.

I talked with someone at this meeting who has a gay daughter. She said that the news came as a shock to her when she first heard it, but that there was never any thought of kicking her out of the family. “She’s my daughter!” she said, as if that explained everything.

For many people it does; our sense of family is strong. I’ve told my own daughters there is nothing they can do or say—nothing—that will keep me from loving them. But after yesterday I’m wondering how some of our sons and daughters will feel about their place in the BGAV family, and it’s one of the reasons I made my motion: if we’ve never kicked a church out for any reason, don’t you think we could take some time to consider this one? And even if we did end up in the same place, can’t heaven come to earth through respectful talking and listening?

I wonder.

KOH2RVA: Day 59

How do you bring heaven to earth on Election Day?  You start by voting.

I got in line at 6:00 this morning, a long line, where I stood shivering in the cold with my neighbors. It was good to see them, actually. We often talk about loving our neighbors but on Election Day there they were, all standing in line with me. I could see who they were and what they looked like.

The one standing right in front of me lived a block away from the polling place. He had left his wife and children sleeping when he walked over to vote. He was wearing a VCU sweatshirt and holding a VCU travel mug which gave me an easy “in”: I asked, “Did you go to VCU or do you just advertise their products?”

That got the ball rolling.

He asked me where I went to school and I told him that I had graduated from Georgetown College in Kentucky. “Oh!” he said. “My dad went to UK” (the University of Kentucky, that is, in Lexington, just twelve miles away from Georgetown). That helped to establish some common ground, which was something I was thinking about just yesterday.

This campaign season has been so bitter and divisive; Democrats and Republicans growl at each other openly and threaten to tear down each other’s campaign signs. But we are all Americans, aren’t we? And at some level we all want the same thing—to live in a great nation. We just have very different ideas about how to get there.

So I was thinking about how we could build “islands” of common ground with our neighbors by talking about all the things we have in common. This guy who was in line with me, for instance: He lives in Richmond’s Museum District. So do I. He’s married. So am I. He’s the father of two children. So am I. He has to go to work today. So do I. Now, he doesn’t look like I do; it turns out he was born in Nepal.  But by the time we parted ways to cast our votes we had almost become friends. I was this close to inviting him over for dinner sometime. And all of this without asking him who he was voting for, because, the truth is, if I had asked him, and if he had said he was voting for the other guy, that might have ended our conversation right there.

Isn’t that a shame? That we would let something like our political differences keep us from being friends? On this Election Day maybe we could bring heaven to earth by remembering how much we have in common even with those people who are voting for “the other guy,” and not let partisan politics come between us.

I’m not sure about this but I believe that when you look at Earth from Heaven you can’t even see the lines of division between countries, much less people. All you see is this beautiful, blue-green planet, and on it all the beautiful children who make up the family of God.

My neighbor, for instance.

This Is How We Do It

I got e-mail from a church member recently telling me how disappointed she had been in the way I handled the vote on the 2011 budget at the end of the 8:30 worship service last Sunday.  She said, “You told everybody that it was a done deal, that we had already voted on it, and that we were just giving our affirmation to a previous decision.  You asked for a show of hands if we were for the budget, but not if we were against it.  It made me feel like I don’t really have a voice in the decisions that are made at First Baptist Church. ”

I wrote back immediately, saying: “Please forgive me.  I was confused.  I thought we had already voted on the budget at our last quarterly business meeting, and that we didn’t really need to vote on Sunday.  Then I looked down at my bulletin and it said, ‘Vote on the Budget.’  So I asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to affirm the budget but didn’t give them a way to oppose it.  I blew it in almost every possible way at 8:30, but got it right at 11:00.  I’m very sorry.”

She wrote back to me and said:  “Thanks for the explanation.  That’s a very good explanation.”

The explanation of course is that I messed up.  I made a mistake.  I didn’t deprive her of her voice intentionally; I did it unintentionally.  But what she did was a perfect illustration of the sermon I had preached that morning.  I had said that if someone in the church does you wrong you should confront him, just as in says in Matthew 18:15: “If another member of the church sins against you, go to him and tell him his fault when it is just the two of you alone.  If he listens to you, you’ve won your brother back.” 

I wrote back to her, congratulating her on the way she had handled things.  “This is what you did,” I told her.  “I sinned against you.  You confronted me and made me aware of what I had done.  I listened to you, apologized for my mistake, and you forgave me.  That’s just what Jesus was talking about!  And,” I added, “I hope you’ve won your brother back” (smile).

“Absolutely!” she replied, and went on to tell me that she had appreciated the sermon very much, but after the vote she hadn’t been able to think about anything else.  Once we got that cleared up, we were free to move on to other things.

I wanted to share that story here, because it seems like a perfect illustration of how to make peace with someone who has offended you.  You don’t talk about that person: you talk to him.  You tell him what it was that offended you and why.  You give him a chance to explain, and perhaps even apologize.  If he does, then you forgive him and move on to other things. 

Doesn’t that seem like a better way than fuming about it quietly for days or even weeks, holding a grudge against the offending party until you can’t even stand the sight of him anymore?  Jesus understood: if you don’t go to your brother when he sins against you, if you don’t tell him his fault and give him a chance to apologize, then you lose your brother—not because of his feelings toward you but because of your feelings toward him. 

I don’t know about you, but I need all the brothers and sisters I can get these days, and for that reason I’m thankful that one of my sisters was brave enough to write to me and tell me my fault.  It’s not easy to hear such things, but believe me, it’s a whole lot better than not hearing them.

The Sneetches

My friend Jane, who has commented on this blog in recent days, shared with me Dr. Seuss’s story of the Sneetches, which I had never heard before.  I think it’s a perfect parable of unity, and one that is especially helpful in these days when the congregation of Richmond’s First Baptist Church is feeling somewhat divided by our September 19 vote on membership.

I’d like to add to this story my own appreciation for those who are able to voice their views and vote their conscience even when their views are different from mine.  One of those came by my office this week to tell me he’d been hurt by some who said he wasn’t supporting the pastor just because he didn’t agree with him.  “Poppycock!” I said (or something like it).  You don’t have to agree with the pastor to be a good and faithful member of the church.  In fact, you probably ought to disagree from time to time as a matter of principle.  As the Sneeches will teach us, it’s not wrong to be different;

It’s only wrong to think it is.

————————————————–

Now the Star-bellied Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-bellied Sneetches had none upon thars.
The stars weren’t so big; they were really quite small.
You would think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But because they had stars, all the Star-bellied Sneetches
would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”

With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort, ”
We’ll have nothing to do with the plain-bellied sort.”
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
they’d hike right on past them without even talking.

When the Star-bellied children went out to play ball,
could the Plain-bellies join in their game? Not at all!
You could only play ball if your bellies had stars,
and the Plain-bellied children had none upon thars.

When the Star-bellied Sneetches had frankfurter roasts,
or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts,
they never invited the Plain-bellied Sneetches.
Left them out cold in the dark of the beaches.
Kept them away; never let them come near,
and that’s how they treated them year after year.

Then one day, it seems, while the Plain-bellied Sneetches
were moping, just moping alone on the beaches,
sitting there, wishing their bellies had stars,
up zipped a stranger in the strangest of cars.

“My friends, ” he announced in a voice clear and keen,
“My name is Sylvester McMonkey McBean.
I’ve heard of your troubles; I’ve heard you’re unhappy.
But I can fix that; I’m the fix-it-up chappie.
I’ve come here to help you; I have what you need.
My prices are low, and I work with great speed,
and my work is one hundred per cent guaranteed.”

Then quickly, Sylvester McMonkey McBean
put together a very peculiar machine.
Then he said, “You want stars like a Star-bellied Sneetch?
My friends, you can have them . . . . for three dollars each.
Just hand me your money and climb on aboard.”

They clambered inside and the big machine roared.
It bonked. It clonked. It jerked. It berked.
It bopped them around, but the thing really worked.
When the Plain-bellied Sneetches popped out, they had stars!
They actually did, they had stars upon thars!

Then they yelled at the ones who had stars from the start,
“We’re exactly like you; you can’t tell us apart.
We’re all just the same now, you snooty old smarties.
Now we can come to your frankfurter parties!”

“Good grief!” groaned the one who had stars from the first.
“We’re still the best Sneetches, and they are the worst.
But how in the world will we know,” they all frowned,
“if which kind is what or the other way ’round?”

Then up stepped McBean with a very sly wink, and he said,
“Things are not quite as bad as you think.
You don’t know who’s who, that is perfectly true.
But come with me, friends, do you know what I’ll do?
I’ll make you again the best Sneetches on beaches,
and all it will cost you is ten dollars eaches.

Belly stars are no longer in style, ” said McBean.
“What you need is a trip through my stars-off machine.
This wondrous contraption will take off your stars,
so you won’t look like Sneetches who have them on thars.”

That handy machine, working very precisely,
removed all the stars from their bellies quite nicely.
Then, with snoots in the air, they paraded about.
They opened their beaks and proceeded to shout,
“We now know who’s who, and there isn’t a doubt,
the best kind of Sneetches are Sneetches without.”

Then, of course those with stars all got frightfully mad.
To be wearing a star now was frightfully bad.
Then, of course old Sylvester McMonkey McBean
invited them into his stars-off machine.
Then, of course from then on, you can probably guess,
things really got into a horrible mess.

All the rest of the day on those wild screaming beaches,
the Fix-it-up-Chappie was fixing up Sneetches.
Off again, on again, in again, out again,
through the machine and back round about again,
still paying money, still running through,
changing their stars every minute or two,
until neither the Plain- nor the Star-bellies knew
whether this one was that one or that one was this one
or which one was what one or what one was who!

Then, when every last cent of their money was spent,
the Fix-It-Up-Chappie packed up and he went.
And he laughed as he drove in his car up the beach,
“They never will learn; no, you can’t teach a Sneetch!”

But McBean was quite wrong, I’m quite happy to say,
the Sneetches got quite a bit smarter that day.
That day, they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches,
and no kind of Sneetch is the BEST on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars,
and whether they had one or not upon thars.
—Dr. Seuss

157 yes, 6 no

When I was a pastor in Wingate, NC, we took a vote on building a new fellowship hall.  Our old hall was a 40 X 40 foot room, and the new program we had started on Wednesday nights was bringing in well over a hundred people for supper.  There just wasn’t room for them all.  I can still remember the day somebody came into the church office and slapped down a check “for the new fellowship hall.”  “What new fellowship hall?” I asked.  “The one we need!” she said.

And so we started talking about it.

Just a few months later the church voted on a new fellowship hall estimated at $492,940, a staggering amount of money for that congregation.  But with the architect’s rendering on an easel at the front of the sanctuary and a surge of optimism sweeping through the pews the recommendation passed, 157 to 6.  The chairman of the deacons stepped down from the platform triumphant, the victory had been overwhelming, but all I could think about was those 6 people. 

I stepped up to the microphone and tried to say something comforting.  I don’t think I did a very good job.  When I stepped back down the deacon chairman said, “Jim, you don’t need to apologize.  The vote was 157 to 6!”  As if those six didn’t matter.  But they did matter, and I went looking for them.

I found one of them in the church annex as the crowd was dispersing.  He approached me and said, “Jim, don’t worry about it too much.  I voted against it, but only because I moved my membership here from a church that had just finished building a new fellowship hall.  It took us three years, and it was all anybody could talk about, and so, when my wife and I came here we were happy to be done with all that.  Now it looks like we’re right back in it.  But it’s all right,” he said, smiling.  “We supported that effort and we will support this one, too.”

“Now that’s the right spirit,” I thought, and frankly that’s my hope for Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  691 people voted on Sunday, and while 464 were in favor of the change in our membership policy, 221 were against it—a solid third of the voters.  Today it’s those 221 I’m thinking about.  They came and cast their ballots.  They did it on the strength of their convictions.  And yet the thing they didn’t want to happen happened: the motion carried.

I’m hoping that they will be able to see they weren’t alone in their views, not by a long shot.  But I’m also hoping that they will be able to accept the outcome of this vote, and recognize that some of the people they respect most in the church may have voted the other way.  Jesus didn’t tell us we all had to think the same way, he only told us that we had to love one another (John 13:35).

Today, even though we don’t all agree, I’m hoping we can all do that.

The Motion Carries

On Sunday, September 19, the members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church voted to change their membership policy to allow committed Christians from other denominations to become full members of the church without having to be re-baptized.  The meeting took place during the Sunday school hour.  One amendment (requiring believer’s baptism but not immersion) was considered but not approved.  691 people voted on the main motion by secret ballot.  464 of those (67.15%) were in favor of the change,  221 (31.98%) were opposed, and 6 ballots could not be determined either way.

Senior Pastor Jim Somerville commented:

For Baptists, membership is a matter of local church autonomy.  No pope, or bishop, or even the pastor gets to decide who can be a member of a local Baptist church.  And although the deacons can make a recommendation, in the end it is the congregation that gets to decide.

Today the congregation of Richmond’s First Baptist Church did just that.  The answer to the question of whether committed Christians from other denominations could become full members without having to be re-baptized was yes.

At the beginning of this process I expressed my hope that, no matter what the outcome, we would spend some time thinking deeply about what it means to be baptized and what it means to be a member.  We have certainly done that.  Now it is my hope that we will be the kind of members who can accept the outcome of this vote and go forward together.  While a two-thirds majority is decisive, it is not a landslide.  We were closer to the same mind on this matter than we knew.  Now it is my hope that we can share the same heart, and get on with the crucial work of putting God’s love into action. 

I am grateful for the spirit in which this decision was made, and for the remarkable body of believers that is Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I learned today that there are Baptists in the world who can disagree without being disagreeable—who can speak their mind, vote their conscience, and move on to more important things.

God bless them, every one.

—September 19, 2010