Archive for June, 2011

Green, Not Concrete

By Hannah Ramsey and Elizabeth Ygartua. Photos by Jeannie Dortch.

On Saturday, June 18, forty-eight Bhutanese mothers and daughters gathered with FBC volunteers for a day of fun and food at Jeff and Jeannie Dortch’s house.

“As we entered the driveway towards the Dortches’ house, I could hear the women talking excitedly,” Julie Pierce, one of the FBC volunteers, said. “One of them translated that it looked like home, green and not concrete.”

The Bhutanese women are all refugees who lived for many years in camps in Nepal before immigrating to the United States.

“I moved to a camp when I was young with my parents because of the wars in Bhutan, and lived there for 18 years,” Geeta Gurang said. “I’ve lived in Richmond two years now.”


Women swim in the pond.

Volunteers and women swam in the pond behind the Dortches’ house. According to Lindsey McClintock, most of the women did not know how to swim and were nervous at first.

“They thought the water was dirty and wouldn’t get in,” Lindsey said. “I’d forgotten my bathing suit and borrowed one from Jeannie. As soon as I put on the suit and got in, many joined me.”

The women swam in shorts and T-shirts borrowed from the Dortches, clinging to inner tubes and swimming noodles, while Sebastian McClintock took others for rides in a rowboat. The rest watched from the shade nearby.

“We did this last year with the men, and they had a blast and were running around everywhere,” Julie said. “The women are typically a little more reserved.”

After swimming, everyone gathered for prayer led by Jeff, with Gurung translating. Then came a potluck lunch of Bhutanese dishes, salad and grilled chicken. Jeannie cut up and passed out watermelon for dessert.


Volunteers help launch water balloons.

After lunch Jeff and Sebastian led a water balloon launch. Women lined up to pull back the slingshot while others ran around trying to catch them, getting very wet in the process.

From there everyone congregated near the house to take turns shooting a water-filled bottle rocket.

“Planning activities and knowing what they’d enjoy was difficult,” Julie said. “I suggested a Ladies Tea and was skeptical of the water balloon toss and bottle rockets for the older ladies, but their response proved me wrong – they had a great time!”

Elizabeth Ygartua and Hannah Ramsey

Hannah Ramsey (right) and Elizabeth Ygartua (left).

Hannah Ramsey is a senior at University of Richmond studying Rhetoric and Communication Studies and Studio Art. She has attended First Baptist for 21 years and been a member since 2004. Recently she has worked with Sunday night Youth One activities.

Elizabeth Ygartua, also a senior at University of Richmond, studies Studio Art and Journalism. She attends St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church where she has taught Sunday school and worshiped since her freshman year.

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By Mary Hiteman. Photo by Paul Bickford.

Through God, we love deeply, so hurt is strong.
When tragedy happens, His tears do fall.
We ask why? And where are You? We are too numb to feel.
We’re shocked & we’re angry & we cry. . .and we heal.
          Suzanne Shonnard

June 28, 1998 – do you remember where you were? I don’t remember, but Suzanne Shonnard does. She attended First Baptist’s first Prayers for Healing Service that afternoon. Her mother was scheduled to have surgery the next day to remove a brain tumor. She remembers praying with desperation—could her mother be healed overnight? She felt glued to the pew, arms tightly crossed, staring at the floor while nervously shaking one foot. She didn’t want to be disruptive, so she did not shed one tear because she knew she would end by sobbing. Something happened to Suzanne that night during the Healing Service. The message of hope inspired her, the music comforted her, candles were lit, and most importantly, there were prayers for healing. She did not want to leave the service—she felt a bit strengthened and closer to God, and she was finally able to take a deep breath.

Suzanne Shonnard

Suzanne Shonnard during the monthly Prayers for Healing Service at First Baptist.

According to Suzanne, that’s one thing the Prayers for Healing Service does—it gives you a chance to catch your breath. In the midst of a crisis, you are in a place where you don’t need to be strong. Each month someone shares an intimate story of healing. You hear scripture and prayers and feel the presence of God. You find out what others have done when the moments of peace wear off and the anger, loss and fear poke through. It’s a safe place where prayers are offered for others, where others will pray with you and for you.

Suzanne has become the moving force behind this on-going ministry. She recruits speakers and musicians for each Prayers for Healing Service. She arrives two hours ahead to set up the Chapel. She serves as one of the lay readers of scripture. As she participates, her faith is always strengthened by each Healing Service.

Back to June 28, 1998. Her mother died too quickly from the cancer, but Suzanne will tell you that no matter what happens, God is by your side all the time, with His arm around your shoulder – whether you feel His presence or not – He is there and always promising: “It’s OK, I’ll take it from here.”

In January, 2011, Suzanne felt His presence in a new way. She was facing some surgery of her own. At that month’s Prayers for Healing Service, she walked to the kneeler in front of the Chapel and received prayer. On the Wednesday before the surgery, she was prayed over by the Catalyst Prayer group (whose mission is to pray for FBC’s leaders). She was hesitant and a bit embarrassed on both occasions, but the experience of having folks pray with and for her was very humbling and very powerful. She went into surgery surrounded by the peace and calm of God’s presence.

Editor’s Note: Join Suzanne at the next Prayers for Healing Service, July 10 at 5 p.m. in the Chapel.

Mary HitemanAccording to one wise five-year-old, Mary Hiteman, associate minister for the Weekday Preschool at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, “is the boss of the school who tells us Bible stories each Monday after she says good morning to everyone at the front door.” Mary has led the preschool for 29 years, under its motto: “It’s ok to have too much fun!” Her other great blessing is being a grandmother to Hayden. They both enjoy gardening, camping at the “rivah,” vacationing at the beach, and reading.

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By Jim Somerville, Pastor.
June 14, 2011

Editor’s Note: Senior Pastor Jim Somerville met with the deacon fellowship at its June 14 meeting to report on First Baptist’s now two-year-old reorganization into a missional church model. With observations from staff, members and his own experiences, Jim shared what initiated the changes and some of the results to this point. Following his report numerous deacons spoke in affirmation of the new model.

I asked a member of our staff recently how he would describe the state of the church and he said, “Well, we’re still here, and that’s saying something.  We’ve survived the Revolutionary War, the War of Northern Aggression, The Great Depression, and our recent vote on membership.”  He smiled as he said it.  But he went on to say, “I know things might not be what they were back in the fifties and sixties, but on most Sundays we have more than a thousand people in worship and this year those people will give more than three million dollars.  That’s not bad.”

No, that’s not bad at all.

I could add to that the thousands of people who watch our services on TV and the dozens more who tune in by way of our webcast.  I could mention the money we invest in missions or the many ministries supported by our Endowment Board.  Put all those things together and you have a church that is making an impact not only on this city, but on the region, the nation, and the world.  That’s a church any pastor would be proud of, and I am proud to be your pastor.

When people ask me how the church is doing I tend to do what I’ve just done, to talk about the vital signs of attendance and giving, but this morning I asked the staff what other vital signs we might look for in the church.  They said:

  • People in the neighborhood know who we are
  • There are people of all ages in the church
  • You see happy faces in the hallways
  • People feel free to ask questions, even the hard ones
  • Members are involved in missions
  • Almost everybody belongs to a small group of some kind
  • There is an abundance of capable, committed leaders
  • People really seem to love each other
  • The church is resilient—able to handle conflict
  • There is diversity in the membership
  • People have opportunities to tell their stories
  • They can (respectfully) disagree with the pastor
  • They can laugh out loud
  • There’s a lot of hugging on Sundays
  • There’s a lot of prayer through the week
  • It’s OK to get angry, not to stay angry
  • And it’s OK to cry

I hope you would agree that a church with those kinds of vital signs is a healthy church, and I hope you can appreciate a staff that would think to look for such signs.  I believe we’re in a good place.  But let me talk to you for a few minutes about how we got here and where we’re going.

I mentioned in a recent sermon that the fifties and early sixties were the Golden Age of this church, but they were the Golden Age of a lot of churches.  The Baby Boom after World War II brought a lot of children into the nurseries and a lot of parents into the pews.  But in the late sixties and seventies things began to change, those pews began to empty out, and a lot of churches panicked.  In the eighties and nineties they implemented the strategies of the Church Growth Movement, which was simply another name for doing whatever it took to keep people in the pews and money in the plates.  Sunday morning worship began to look more and more like a youth rally in many churches, and, as I said in a recent sermon, these days you almost have to shoot someone out of a cannon to get people into the pews.

Some churches—the ones who are willing to go that route, and who have the money and talent to do it well—have been successful.  But on the whole the church in America is in decline, and it’s not because the preaching or music has gotten so much worse, it’s because the culture is changing.  Listen to this quote from an article by Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler: “Sunday morning is no longer ‘sacred’ time: job responsibilities, sports leagues, family outings, housework and many other things get in the way of traveling to a church building for worship at a scheduled time.  And if you happen to miss church next weekend, will anyone know if you slept in, comforted a sick child, left town on business, or decided to have brunch at the Hyatt?  Church attendance is increasingly a private matter…”[i]  And because it’s a private matter, people are not going to feel any social pressure to come to church.  They’re going to do exactly what they want on Sunday morning, and for more and more people that’s going to mean sleeping in, or mowing the grass, or going to the river.

Maybe this is a good thing.  Maybe it forces us to re-evaluate what we’re doing and make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons.  For the last couple of years we have been trying to embrace the “missional” way of doing church, which is almost completely different from the attractional methods of the Church Growth Movement.  That movement is focused primarily on what people want, while the missional church is focused primarily on what God wants.  If you ask, “What do people want?” then you begin to design your programs and worship services around that, and you measure your success by how many people come and how much they give.  But if you ask (and keep on asking), “What does God want?” then you begin to structure everything around that, and measure your success in a different way.

The problem with asking what people want is that the answer is always changing.  People are fickle.  What they wanted last year is not what they want this year.  I remember the day a colleague told me that he had been working for three years to create a contemporary worship service and he’d just heard that what people really want is liturgical worship.  In that moment I thought, “And that’s how it will always be if you try to chase the latest fad.”  But here’s the good news: God is not fickle.  God wants what he has always wanted.  So, what does God want?  Some of the classic answers to that question are that he wants us to: make disciples of every nation, to glorify him and enjoy him forever, and to love him and love our neighbors.  In short, God wants everybody and everything.  He wants the world he made to know him and love him, to do his will and love one another.

He wants heaven on earth.

So, how do we give it to him?  I believe the church of Jesus Christ was called into existence precisely to answer that question, and that’s why, two years ago, we embraced this “missional” way of doing church.  You may remember that we looked at the clear commands of Jesus in the Gospels, specifically the Great Commission, the Great Commandment, and the New Commandment.  If you’ve forgotten what those are let me remind you.  Jesus commissioned his followers to make disciples of every nation by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and by teaching them to obey all that he has commanded us.  He endorsed the commandments to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  And finally he commanded us to love one another as he has loved us.  We classified those five things under the headings of Invitation, Formation, Worship, Compassion, and Community, and then added the two ministry areas of Communication and Support.

From then until now we have been trying to live into this missional way of doing church, and it hasn’t been easy.  Instead of coming to church to enjoy the many programs that are offered we have been trying to work together with Jesus to bring heaven to earth.  I’ve heard complaints.  Some people complain that we seem to be focusing most of our attention outside the building instead of inside the building.  Others complain that they used to have a minister, but now they’re supposed to have a ministry.  Still others want to know if they’re doing all the work these days, then what is the staff here for?  Well, let me tell you.  For two days last month the staff talked about how to move from theory to practice, how to stop talking like a missional church and start acting like one.  They looked at a book by Milfred Manitrea called Shaped by God’s Heart: the Passion and Practices of Missional Churches.  They studied the nine practices of a missional church (below), and tried to assess how First Baptist was doing in each area. 

The Nine Practices of a Missional Church* (click here to download these nine practices as a PDF)

  1. Have a high threshold for membership

Members know what is expected of them, especially in terms of joining, giving, and serving.  They have a high level of commitment to the church and its mission.

  1. Be real, not real religious

Members don’t “wear masks” with one another.  They trust one another and reach out to others.  Unchurched people feel comfortable around them.

  1. Teach to obey rather than to know

Members don’t stop with “head knowledge”; they put their faith into practice by finding concrete, specific ways to love God and others.

  1. Rewrite worship every week

Missional churches focus their worship on “an audience of one.”  They use a team to plan, incorporate all the senses in worship, and welcome innovation.

  1. Live apostolically

Members know that they have been “sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves.”  Every member is a missionary who lives on the mission field.

  1. Expect to change the world

Members believe their church can make a major difference in the world.  The question is not “whether,” but “how.”

  1. Order actions according to purposes

Members are very clear about the church’s purpose, and schedule and budget only those things that help them fulfill it.

  1. Measure growth by capacity to release, not retain

Missional churches are eager to send members out to start new churches, missions, and ministries.

  1. Place kingdom concerns first

Members are more concerned about building up the Kingdom than their church.  They intentionally partner with other Christians and churches.

*From the book, Shaped by God’s Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches, by Milfred Manitrea, Director of the Missional Church Center for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

In that first area our staff agreed that our threshold for membership was higher than ever.  We are requiring new members to meet with the pastor and expecting them to attend all four sessions of the Connection class before we vote on their membership.  During that time we have a number of opportunities to tell them what we expect in terms of joining, giving, and serving.

In area 2 we agreed that we could do a better job of being real without being real religious, admitting that we do sometimes wear masks around each other.  We want to do a better job of being authentic and helping outsiders feel at home among us.  On the positive side, our Divorce Recovery Workshop, Companions in Christ, some of our small groups, and all of our healing services are places where people can “be real.”

In area 3 we struggled with the word “obedience,” but in the end talked about the importance of putting our faith into practice.  Some of our staff suggested the use of spiritual disciplines as a way to move knowing to doing.  Others stressed the need to get our hands dirty from time to time, and not just study the missionary journeys of Paul.

In area 4 we agreed that our worship service is one of the things that draws people to First Baptist, but also agreed that we could be more intentional about “rewriting worship every week.”  Last Sunday’s service was one of those attempts and I hope you can agree that it was extraordinarily successful.

In area 5 we talked about what it would mean if every member of the church believed that he or she was sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves.  We talked about what it would be like to think of the place you lived as your mission field, to map it out and consider how you might get to know the people in those apartments or houses closest to yours.  Think about the way our members are scattered across Metropolitan Richmond.  Imagine what an impact we could have.

We got excited about area 6, and admitted that if a church with our considerable human and material resources didn’t expect to change the world, something was wrong.  We began to talk about how we might do it, and the buzz of excitement got louder and louder.  We eventually cut off discussion believing that these are the kinds of ideas that have to come from our membership, not the staff.  If some eleven-year-old boy could raise his hand in a congregational forum and say, “I know how we can change the world!” it would probably happen.

In area 7 we recognized that we don’t really have a formal purpose statement, that “bringing heaven to earth” is about as close as we come these days.  We thought it would be interesting to ask people in the hallway if they know the church’s purpose, and if they do we’re way ahead.  If not, we probably need to be more intentional about stating our purpose and ordering actions accordingly.

In area 8 we admitted that we don’t want to release anybody.  We want to retain everybody.  But we talked about what would happen if we found a young couple (for example) brave enough to move into a difficult neighborhood and see what they could do to transform it.  We talked about what it would be like to release enough of our members to start a new church.  We still didn’t want to do it, but we could see how the goal is not to see how many people we can pack into our building, but how many ways we can change the world.

In area 9 we acknowledged that we don’t spend much time praying for other churches in our city, and especially churches of other denominations.  But if we can begin to see other churches, agencies, and institutions as sharing in the work of bringing heaven to earth, then maybe we can see them as common partners in a kingdom-sized mission.  Maybe we can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s not all up to us, and work together with them to accomplish our mutual goals.

What is the state of First Baptist Church?  It’s healthy, growing, learning, thriving, exploring all the ways it can be faithful to the call of Christ in a rapidly changing culture.  That’s so much more important than simply counting how many people happen to be in the pews, or how much money happens to be in the plate.  That’s the kind of church God can use to fulfill his mission, to bring heaven to earth.

—Jim Somerville

[i] “Did You Really Go to Church this Week?  Behind the Poll Data,” Christian Century, May 6, 1998, p. 475).

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By Becky Kyle.

Vacation Bible School has changed since I attended in my childhood.

I remember going to VBS every summer and learning about God and the people in the Bible. I remember the daily processional with the salute to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible. I remember being in one classroom all morning with one set of teachers, having in-depth Bible study enhanced by activities, crafts and week-long projects. Music, snack, and recreation were breaks from the classroom.

VBS still happens every summer, but much has changed since my memories were formed.

Vacation Bible School morning assembly in the Sanctuary of First Baptist. Photo by Susan Brown.

The most exciting change is the addition of missions as a component of VBS. FBC offers children participation in mission projects that reach people in our own community, throughout the U.S., and around the world. The children have packed gift bags for the leaders of the Boys & Girls Club of Richmond, for FBC’s Community Missions clients and Grace Fellowship participants, for families at the Ronald McDonald House, for local fire fighters, and for FBC’s neighbors and homebound members. VBS children have sent their pennies to relief work for children in Israel and the Caribbean. Last year they prepared blankets and coloring books to fill backpacks for children in Africa.

FBC and Mount Moriah Baptist Church partner to help transport children to Vacation Bible School. Photo by Anthony M. Nesossis.

VBS has become an outreach ministry in Richmond. We partner with Mount Moriah Baptist Church to offer VBS to children in their congregation. We provide transportation; they provide volunteers. We also provide transportation for children from several community centers and from the New American community. As a result, a growing percentage of participants are from families who are not members of FBC.

First Baptist’s Children’s Ministry leaders carefully study and review about ten VBS curricula each year. Through prayer and discussion, they select the one best fitted to our children. Most of these curricula have a secular, fun-oriented theme with children rotating to different classrooms for each activity (i.e. Bible study, music, crafts, games, recreation, snack, missions).

“Finding Hope: A Field Trip of Faith” is this year’s curriculum. The theme is based on Together For Hope, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s 20 year commitment to the 20 poorest counties in the United States. Each day VBS begins with worship followed by a Bible study that is the foundation for the day’s activities. Children then take a “field trip” to one of the 20 areas to learn through activities how God’s love is shared with the people who live there. One trip is to Helena, Arkansas, where former FBC members Ben and Leonora Newell serve. FBC partners with them through family mission trips each summer.

Children participate in arts and crafts during VBS 2010. Photo by Susan Brown.

VBS is one of FBC’s best opportunities to share God’s love with children and to help them discover God’s hope in the Bible. It teaches them of God’s love for all people and how to reach out in that love to others. That’s a VBS basic that is exactly as I remember it.



Editor’s note: Some volunteers are still needed- childcare givers with babies and toddlers, a preschool and an elementary teacher, and van drivers. Contact: Candi Brown, Brown@FBCRichmond.org, 358-5458 x150.


Becky KyleBecky Kyle has been attending FBC since she was a college student and joined FBC in 1984. Since then, she has served in many FBC ministries, taught children in Sunday school for the last 13 years, and volunteered with VBS most of the last 14 years. She works part-time for Fleet Auto Tag & Title Service. James and Becky have two children, Sarah and Aaron, who are active in the youth ministry.

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Reported by Gwen Tilley.

The congregation of First Baptist Church gives a firm “We will” at every baby dedication. It is a promise of support and encouragement for the children and parents. The intent is to see them through the next 18 or so years.

We watch them grow, give to their mission trip fundraisers, pray for their experiences at retreats and DiscipleNow weekends. On the first Sunday in June we honor graduating seniors. Then we wait for the Christmas Eve services to catch a glimpse of all those youths who have moved to their next stages.

But a glimpse once a year doesn’t tell much of the story. Where are they now? What are they doing? Some have moved far away. Some remain active at FBC; some keep looser ties. Some have found their ways to fulltime Christian service. Hear some of their stories.

Jim-Ed-WillsJim Ed Wills

I’m getting a Masters in Film Production at Florida State University. FBC has given me a solid foundation of faith which guides me in my quest to become a professional film maker by choosing the types of stories that glorify God. Stories bring people together, they provide a common emotional experience that can be shared by multiple people at one time. Christianity thrives on stories, and I believe that I’ve been given a gift to use stories to glorify God in today’s media. I’m still connected to FBC through family and friends.

elizabeth-wells-nortonElizabeth Wells Norton

As a youth I experienced the love and encouragement at FBC to grow in my faith so that there was no question that Jesus would always be number one for the rest of my life. I love being a youth leader (at FBC) because it is awesome seeing these youths come to know Christ and encourage them to pursue Him above all else. I hope to inspire someone the way I was.

Jeff-UkropJeff Ukrop

While I became more involved as an adult than as a youth, I am blessed to have been influenced by the “great cloud of witnesses” that shared time and talent on the third floor every Sunday morning. The consistency of faith presented by these special folks was obvious 25 years ago and flows through my life today. (Jeff is currently Executive Director of First Things First of Greater Richmond, an organization devoted to strengthening families.)

Holly-JesenskyHolly Jesensky

Being a part of youth group at FBC was one of the biggest blessings during high school. It has been a family to me, led me to get plugged into a Christian Fellowship group at the University of Virginia, and allowed me to grow closer to Christ.

Laura-NorvelleLaura Norvelle Purtee

I am living in Nashville, Tennessee, and working at Baptist Global Response, an NGO (non-governmental organization) that does disaster relief and community development around the world. I am also a photographer.

FBC was the biggest part of my life in Richmond. It kept me grounded in faith, led me to a deeper relationship with Christ. I made my life-long and closest relationships in the youth group. I felt my call to missions there; I overcame self esteem issues with the help of mentors and friends. After my sophomore year at the University of Tennessee I came back and served as the youth intern for a summer. I learned more about leading and being a mentor. I made amazing connections with girls who I still keep up with. God used FBC to radically change me and the path of my life for the better. He continually reminds me of where I came from and my foundation in Him that was revealed at FBC!

Kristen-TaylorKristen Taylor

I don’t have a single great memory from growing up that does not include the FBC youth department in some way. The experiences, people and mentoring I received there were instrumental in shaping the woman I am today, and I was so blessed to have had a ministry like that in my life. (Kristen graduated from the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond – BTSR – in May.)

Trey-BeardenTrey Bearden

The Youth Ministry at FBC taught me that at the core of who we are as Christians, we are to love. Simply to love God and love people! Looking back, I always viewed church as the building that sat at the corner of Monument Ave. and the Boulevard, but in actuality the church is its people and because of people like Lynn, Nelson, Robyn, Glen, Todd, Martha S., Martha B., Bob, Nancie, Rick, Roy, Martha -and the list goes on, I am the man that I am today. (Trey serves as minister to youth and young adults at Richmond’s Walnut Grove Baptist Church.) I have been blessed beyond measure and am forever grateful for my time at FBC.

Katie-BoykinKatie Boykin

Being a part of FBC’s youth group was a vital element that had a definite shape on my future calling. I honestly thought that I wanted to be a physician, but it was not until I returned to FBC as a youth intern that I felt an ever deeper and clearer calling into pastoral care (Katie is pursuing a double masters in divinity at BTSR and pastoral counseling at Virginia Commonwealth University). Middle and high school years can, at times, seem unbearable and make it hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Like my youth leaders, I want to assure others that they have at least one person who is committed to their well-being. Plus, it helps that they are absolutely hilarious to work with and continue to impact my life day in and day out.

Saying “We will” is a small commitment compared with the reward of being part of these lives. Perhaps another “We will” of support and encouragement is in order for their next 18 or so years.


Gwen TilleyGwen Tilley’s youth as an MK (Missionary’s Kid) directed her service at FBC: she teaches Acteens for Youth One and Two on Wednesday nights. “It is exciting to teach so many spiritually open youth about missions. I am thankful for the strong relationship between the WMU and the missions classes at FBC. They provide the necessary missions training, encouragement and supplies for our leaders, children and youth to grow.” Gwen and her husband, Charles, have three daughters active in FBC’s Youth Ministry.


Where are today’s youths?

Story and photos by Ann Carter (Youth Associate, Ministry of Formation).

“Where are they now?” gives us a look at the adults our youths have become. Looking at them makes it hard not to look at those who are with us now. What are our youths doing today?

FBC Youth participate in a bake sale to help raise money for the Peter Paul Development Center.

Being teenagers, they’re doing many things. One is supporting the Peter Paul Development Center (PPDC) in Richmond’s East End. On May 21st, Youth One helped set up for a yard sale, hosted a bake sale, and worked in the community garden and classrooms at the PPDC. The yard sale provides an opportunity for people in the community who do not have access to thrift shops and secondhand stores. The bake sale, stocked with goodies made by Youth One and their friends and families, raised $145 for the Center.

The community garden of the Peter Paul Development Center gets tended to by FBC Youths.

The PPDC neighborhood in Church Hill reminded many of their experiences during the Helena, Arkansas, mission trips. They noticed that what is done at the PPDC is very much like the work being done in Helena, and discussed what can be done in their own city to help those who live in poverty.

Today’s youths, like yesterday’s, are serving, growing and building the foundations for their futures.


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Story by Jeannie Dortch.

Now the Lord is the spirit and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17).

Dong, dong, dong rings our church bell each Sunday morning as Dagnachew Eshete pulls the cord in the bell tower calling all to worship.

Dagnachew, an American citizen for ten years and a member of First Baptist’s custodial staff, is Ethiopian by birth. Married and father of five, he served for 29 years, first in that country’s armed forces and later in opposing guerilla groups. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before an agonizing defeat in a civil war made life for his family bitter and uncertain. Unwilling to accept this situation, Gudaye, his wife, seized an opportunity to enter a lottery for those wishing to leave the country, and was one of the winners. Dagnachew’s family was free to begin life anew in the United States.

Dagnachew’s ringing calls all to freely worship Christ on Sunday mornings. Photo by Jeannie Dortch.

Dagnachew and the bell he rings have more in common than he knows, but that story started a long time ago. It continues to reverberate with the clearly identifiable ring of freedom, making Dagnachew’s simple task carry great meaning.

In 1825 John Kerr became FBC’s senior pastor. His power in the pulpit was so strong that cultivated men, unwilling to weep in public, avoided hearing him preach. But a woman’s influence can move even the most stalwart of cultivated men to action. So it was in 1826 when Catherine Thomas announced to her husband, Archibald, that she had decided to follow her Lord in baptism. She was on her way to the river where Reverend Kerr would immerse her, securing her full membership in FBC. Archibald was wary; he considered it unfitting for a lady to be exposed in front of an assemblage of curious and possibly irreverent onlookers. Sensing her determination, however, he reached for his hat, having decided that hecklers might be dissuaded by his presence. As a result of Catherine’s unswerving convictions, Archibald was given an opportunity to hear Kerr deliver an oration on the meaning and symbolism of baptism. He was deeply moved and joined his wife as a candidate for immersion.

Before long Archibald’s younger brother, James, gave his life to the Lord, and he too joined the fellowship of believers. As tobacco merchants, respected deacons and church leaders, their influence brought many friends and associates into the fold, catapulting FBC to great prominence in the city. And the bell sang for the moving of the spirit among so many.

From 1843 to 1862, FBC’s neighbors grew accustomed to the familiar and melodious sounds of the church bell calling them to services. But in 1862, with the Civil War raging, FBC voted to offer the bell to the Confederacy to be melted into cannon. This decision must have weighed heavily on James Thomas because eventually he purchased the bell from the government for its full value in gold. While the church was used as an emergency hospital for soldiers, services were suspended for several months. Having lost its freedom for the time being, the bell was stored away until after the war when it was returned to the steeple at 12th and Broad. Then it added the emancipation of slaves to its repertoire of songs.

Without Catherine, no Archibald. Without Archibald, no James. And without James, no bell. James purchased the church bell to save it, Gudaye Eshete purchased a ticket to save her family, and Dagnachew’s ringing calls all to freely worship Christ on Sunday mornings. His bell is never out of tune and never tires of playing the notes it knows so well, Dong, dong, dong, Let freedom ring.

The memorial bell tower plaque is located in the Prayer Garden of First Baptist Church. Photo by Anthony M. Nesossis.


Jeannie Dortch joined FBC in 1974 after being lovingly mentored by the members of Buddy Hamilton’s Sunday school class. A grandmother of four, Jeannie has served as a deacon, taught in our children’s, youth, international, and adult Sunday school departments, but attends the Journey class presently. Recently retired from 16 years of teaching at Rudlin Torah Academy, Jeannie enjoys exercising, cooking, reading, tutoring New American students at Maybeury Elementary, and writing articles for FTF.

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