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 172

Ralph in the Philippines

Ralph Starling is Minister of Christian Invitation at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and one of those people who genuinely loves others and wants them to know the life-giving and life-changing love of Christ.  I want you to read what he says about radical hospitality, and his plans to teach a class this spring that will train ordinary people to offer the extraordinary welcome of Christ to others.  Ralph never wants to hear Jesus say, “I was a stranger, and you didn’t welcome me” (Matt. 25:43). 

—————————–

Welcome to The School of Radical Hospitality!

You may have noticed that Spring is just around the corner. Major League baseball players have already gathered to practice: batting, catching pop-flies, fielding ground balls, throwing, and running the bases. Players that repeat these fundamental practices know that these exercises will help improve their game. The same is true for congregations. Growing churches are constantly learning.

This Spring our church is offering our own version of spring training–The School of Radical Hospitality. This four-week class offers basic spiritual practices for everyone: pastors and staff, leaders and volunteers, members, and even guests. The School of Radical Hospitality will challenge us to be shaped and formed in the image of Christ. We practice hospitality by seeing the good in other people and accepting them just as Christ has accepted us. St. Augustine challenges all followers of Christ by saying, “Have Christian eyes.” He admonishes us to see others through the eyes of Christ. Amazing things will happen if we become available to others, radically available.

So, what is radical hospitality? Writer and pastor Robert Schnase expresses it this way: “Radical means ‘arising from the source’ and describes practices that are rooted in the life of Christ and that radiate into the lives of others. By radical, don’t think wild-eyed, out of control, or in your face. Instead, imagine people offering the absolute utmost of themselves, their creativity, their abilities, and their energy to offer the gracious invitation and reception of Christ to others.”

The School of Radical Hospitality is inviting our people to open their hearts and minds to new learning and possibilities for our church. It is our desire to love the people Jesus loves. Imagine what would happen if people took Jesus’ words seriously. We would change our behavior toward strangers if we lived as if we really believed this!

Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).

“Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

The disciples often drew boundaries and distinctions that kept people at a distance from Jesus, reminding Jesus that some of those people were too young, too sick, too sinful, too old, too Roman, too blind, or too Gentile to deserve his attention. Jesus teaches, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:3). In every instance, Jesus radically challenges the disciples’ expectations by over-stepping the boundaries to invite people in. Hospitality has us seeing people as Jesus sees them and seeing Jesus in the people God brings before us.

There are a thousand ways to practice hospitality. We show hospitality to others when we receive them as guests. We can receive people in this way everyday, every hour, and wherever we are. Early Church Father Benedict of Nursia (6th century) believed that the key to hospitality is the recognition of Christ in each guest or visitor. “See Christ in others, be Christ to others.”

If you are ready for a new adventure in learning to love people like Jesus, then join us for spring training in the School of Radical Hospitality. Let’s welcome all God’s children to the body of Christ!

To register for this class contact Ralph Starling at 804-358-5458 ext.134, or email him at Starling@fbcrichmond.org.

Welcome to the School of Radical Hospitality!

Ralph Starling

———————————————————

About The School:

• Classes begin at 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 7 through Sunday, April 28
• Resource book: Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love, by Lonni Collins & Father Daniel Homan, Paraclete Press (books available one week before classes)
• Special weekly Hospitality homework assignments
• Special guests
• Brochures available at the kiosks at First Baptist Church, or can be mailed to you upon request.

KOH2RVA: Day 145

handshakeThanks for your good feedback on yesterday’s mission/institution analogy quiz. I got some excellent responses. The one I was thinking about during my run this morning was Douglas Johnson’s, which I remembered as: “Mission is to institution as electrical current is to electrical cord.” That wasn’t it, exactly, but it was enough to remind me how important the mission is to the institution. Without an electrical current an electrical cord is useless (except maybe to tie a mattress and box springs onto the top of your car). Without an electrical cord the electrical current can’t flow.

So, the church needs an institution that can carry the mission, and the question every church may need to ask is: “Do we have one?” Do we have a mission, that is, and do we have an institution that can carry it?

After our meeting on Tuesday one staff member asked, “So…congregational care…is that part of the mission or part of the institution?” I answered quickly, “It’s part of the mission. It’s that part where Jesus says, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ It’s one of the clear commands of Christ.” And even as I said it I remembered the experience I had on Sunday.

I didn’t preach last Sunday. Knowing that I would be flying in from Arizona late the night before I had asked Bart Dalton, our minister to students, to preach in my place (Bart did an outstanding job, by the way, and if you haven’t heard his sermon yet click HERE when you have time to give it a listen). But I woke up in time to make it to the 8:30 service and found a place on the pew just before Ralph Starling’s welcome. Ralph always asks us to stand and say hello to the people around us, and I was pleased to find Jerry Michael on my pew. I’ve written about Jerry before. He’s the one who comes to the 8:30 service and then goes home to cook breakfast for his “Microchurch,” which includes his whole family and a few others he invites. They watch the 11:00 service on television and Jerry does his best to help them “be church” to each other.

So, I greeted Jerry, and told him how nice it was to just sit in church for a change and worship with everyone else. It was nice. I loved it. And I loved the message I got from Jerry that afternoon:

Hi Jim,

Today I felt even closer to FBC than ever. I was sitting and reading the bulletin before service when I heard “Hello Jerry!” My initial thought was who knows me here…especially by name. I can name many from seeing them on TV but who knows me? To my delight it was you, Jim. When Ralph did the stand up and greet people thing I started to cringe as usual but then I thought…Jim is in my pew. I know someone to say hi to. Furthermore, Bart’s sermon spoke to me. He said all are welcome, all have a blessing they can pass on. I felt at home today at FBC.

I first chose to physically attend FBC to give thanks and praise to our Lord for everything he has blessed me with. I had an epiphany last summer. God healed me and I thought I can do better to praise him than TV church and our micro church. That’s why I come every Sunday. I’m working on getting the micro church to just show up one Sunday. When they do there will be no room for you in my pew, you’ll have to take the pulpit that Sunday.

God Bless You Jim!

Your friend,

Jerry

Is making people feel welcome at church a way of loving one another, of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia?

You bet it is.

KOH2RVA: Day 130

singing-in-the-rain1I don’t know how many 20-30somethings were at Richmond’s First Baptist Church last night, but it seemed like a lot, especially under the circumstances.

It was cold and rainy outside, but as I stood in the hallway to greet people they kept coming in, shaking the rain off their coats, folding up their umbrellas—some of them looking a little confused about what to do next.

“Are you looking for RVA United?” I would ask (the big, flashy worship service for 20-30somethings in the sanctuary, complete with wailing guitars and thundering drums).

Some were, some weren’t.

“Are you looking for the Bible study?” I would ask (the Capstone Community Bible Study on Genesis, offered to 20-30somethings, which meets in the youth suite up on the third floor and includes a snack supper. Yum!).

Some were, some weren’t.

“Are you looking for the food truck?” I would ask (the old, pink school bus parked in front of the church, where Ed Edge, a friendly vegan with interesting tattoos, was selling tacos and cupcakes to 20-30somethings or anyone else who could come up with $2, including me).

Some were, some weren’t.

And, finally, “Are you looking for the Boy Scouts?” (the regular Tuesday night meeting of Troop 443).  The scouts were not looking for their meeting. They knew exactly where to find it. And if not they could pull out their maps and compasses and locate it in about two seconds flat.

That’s just how they are.

I went up to the youth suite eventually to see what the Capstone Bible Study looked like. It looked like fun, with two “core leaders” serving up supper and about twenty young adults catching up with each other after a busy day at work.

I went to the sanctuary for most of the RVA United worship service and it was spectacular, with a worship band put together from six or seven different churches in the area and a message from Dave Allam about how the ancient words of the Bible can speak to us in ways that are astonishingly fresh and relevant. I didn’t count how many people were there, but I was surprised by the number on such a cold, rainy night, and fairly certain that those who came were glad they did. I was.

So, the Kingdom of Heaven came to Richmond, Virginia, last night, right there at “Mission Central”—2709 Monument Avenue. Stop by and visit sometime, on a Tuesday night or even on a Sunday morning. The food truck may not be there, but I believe you’ll find something on the inside that will nourish your soul.

Yum!

KOH2RVA: Day 90

SONY DSCI had lunch with Ralph Starling on Tuesday, and we talked about an idea that’s been brewing between us in the last few months.

Ralph is Associate Pastor for Christian Invitation at First Baptist Church. In the old days his position might have been called, “Minister of Outreach and Evangelism,” and we might have expected him to stand on the corner of Monument and Boulevard handing out gospel tracts and doing anything else he could to convert people to Christianity.

But that’s not really Ralph’s way.

More than 20 years ago Ralph pioneered the hugely successful Divorce Recovery Workshop here at First Baptist Church, which opens its doors to people going through unimaginable pain and helps them take the first steps toward “a future with hope.” Many of those people were so moved by the welcome they found here that they have made First Baptist their permanent church home. In his role as Minister of Christian Invitation Ralph has been going out into the community seeking the least, the last, and the lost, and bringing them back to church with him. It makes an enormous difference if those people get a warm welcome when they come, if they experience the love of Christ for themselves instead of only hearing someone else talk about it, and that’s why Ralph finds himself thinking so much about hospitality.

On Tuesday we talked about a “school of hospitality” that would function much like the Divorce Recovery Workshop—a series of Sunday night sessions where people from the Richmond area would learn how to share the love of Christ in their homes and in their churches. I suggested we call it, “The Ralph Starling School of Radical Hospitality,” and I was only half joking; there is something about the way he does it that the rest of us need to learn.

So, we talked about a session where we would focus on showing hospitality to the generations—how do you make people who are young, old, and in-between feel welcome? We talked about a session focused on people with disabilities. Two of our newest members at First Baptist are blind, and we’re having to learn how to anticipate and accommodate the needs they might have (I’ve been delighted to see Bill and Ruth Hodge taking Tammy and Stephanie around on the regular new member tour of the church facilities, arm-in-arm, narrating every step of the way). We talked about a session focused on “welcoming the stranger” (as Jesus puts it), thinking especially about refugees, international students, and people of other religions.

We were just getting warmed up when we had to head back to church for a meeting, but I hope you will keep your eyes and ears open for news about the Ralph Starling School of Radical Hospitality (or whatever we choose to call it) coming sometime this spring, while we are still on this year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA.

Can you imagine how heaven might come to earth for someone who visits our church or one of our homes and experiences the welcome of Christ himself?

KOH2RVA: Day 54

Today is All Saints’ Day, and I’m thinking about that song: “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching in.” Do you remember the part that says, “Oh, Lord, I want to be in that number,” meaning the number of saints who go marching in? Well, how could you be sure that you would be in that number?

As a Christian pastor I can tell you that the very best way to be sure is to put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John assures us in various ways that Jesus is the way to life abundant, overflowing, and eternal. “For God so loved the world,” John says, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). At the Last Supper Jesus prays to the Father, “Now this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). And when Thomas asked the way to the Father’s house Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6).

So, if you want to be in that number, put your faith and trust in Jesus. I know of no better “Way.” But this morning I’m thinking about that parable in Matthew’s Gospel where the Son of Man separates the sheep from the goats. It’s in Matthew 25, and it’s not so much about believing in Jesus as it is about showing compassion.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

While some of us at First Baptist Church are trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, by leading people to believe in Jesus, many of us are doing it by showing acts of compassion—by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and welcoming the stranger. We believe that it’s not enough to help people find life in the next world; we have to help them find life in this one, too. We can’t leave off that first part (otherwise we become just a bunch of secular “do-gooders”), but we can’t leave off that second part, and Jesus tells us why:

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

Ouch.

On All Saints’ Day, if I want to be sure that I’m going to be in that number, I’m going to put my faith and trust in Jesus and then get out there and do the kinds of things he did: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and welcome the stranger. Because as surely as I do it for the least of these brothers and sisters of his,

I do it for him.

Full Disclosure

At the end of Sunday’s sermon, the one about Jesus cleansing a leper, I referred to my tenth grade yearbook picture. Several people have asked to see it, and although it pains me to post it (I’ve saved it under the file name “Yikes!”) here it is, along with the last few paragraphs of the sermon. Be gentle.

—————————-

Last week some of my old classmates from Sherman High School in Seth, West Virginia, caught up with me on Facebook.  They were happy to find me.  They didn’t know what had happened to me.  And they have been very, very kind.  But as I looked through some of the yearbook pictures they had posted on that site I began to realize why they hadn’t heard from me: those two years at Sherman were some of the most painful in my memory. 

My dad, as I’ve told you, was a kind of missionary to the desperately poor in that county and I felt like a missionary kid.  We lived in a house with no running water and no indoor plumbing, which meant that I went to school most days looking kind of rumpled and smelling sort of…unwashed.  And I was a little kid!  I went to high school a year early and didn’t get my growth spurt until two years later.  I was about five feet two with teeth that seemed way too big for my mouth and the worst haircut I’ve ever had in my life.  When I looked through those yearbook pictures I remembered those tall, handsome, confident boys, and those pretty, outgoing, giggly girls, and suddenly there I was, looking like a scared rabbit, trying to hide my face under my crooked bangs when the photographer took the picture.     

When I look closely I can almost see the pain in those eyes. 

But I would guess that I’m not the only one in this room who had that kind of experience in high school.  In fact, there may be a third of you who don’t have your yearbook picture hanging on the wall at home.  Those are such vulnerable years, and we feel so tender; one unkind word can cut us to the quick.  “If you want to you can make me clean,” the leper says to Jesus, and maybe all he really means is, “If you want to you can save me from being a social outcast, you can bring me into the community, you can help me find a place.”  And Jesus says, “I want to,” and then he reaches out and touches the leper.  Who knows how long it had been since anyone offered to do that?  But in that moment, in that action, his leprosy is cured.  He is made clean.  Jesus told him not to say anything about it but he couldn’t help himself. 

It was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Think about those people, not only in high school but in every church, who have trouble fitting in, who are almost terrified to visit a Sunday school class where everybody already knows everybody, and where there aren’t any available seats.  Think about how hard it is for some people to walk up the front steps of this church for the first time, not knowing if they will be made to feel welcome or turned away at the door.  Think about those people who have failed at life, who have lost a job, who have been divorced; people who are struggling hard and who need a home; people who have been pushed to the fringes of society because in one way or another they have become “unclean.” In this first chapter of his Gospel I think Mark is being very deliberate in showing us three different things that have no place in God’s kingdom: 1) evil, 2) illness, and 3) exclusion.  Jesus takes his stand against all of these.  He drives out the unclean spirits (vss. 21-28), he cures those who are sick (vss. 29-39), and he welcomes the outcasts (vss. 40-45).  And when he does those things God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done,

On earth as it is in heaven.