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Archive for August, 2011

By Jane Powell. Photographs by Paul Bickford.

Al Astle

“Please use me.” These are the words of Al Astle, an active and vital member of Richmond’s First Baptist Church who celebrated his 95th birthday on August 30, 2011.

Al is a Sunday morning balcony usher, a volunteer for the Community Missions Shower Ministry, and a volunteer at Henrico Doctors Hospital, Forest Campus. In July, Al achieved 7100 hours of volunteer service in the endoscopy unit, transferring patients and making them comfortable. In 2006, he was the recipient of the hospital’s Humanitarian of the Year award.

Al has a heart for service, and for doing God’s work. Having had a distinguished career as a professional percussionist in symphonies from New York to Oklahoma, he had an equally distinguished managerial career in instrument sales. Al spent ten years driving a YMCA bus after his retirement, transporting children to after-school programs.

Al could relate many stories about the people he has helped over the years, but one story in particular is very close to his heart. It involves a dying woman he knew in only the briefest passing, from the building in which they both lived. Al felt the strong urging of the Holy Spirit to minister to this woman in her hospital room. Her capacity to respond to him was severely diminished, but she let him know that she understood. He recited the Lord’s Prayer and read Isaiah 26:3-4, verses suggested by his minister son. Those comforting words about the constancy of the Lord were among the last she ever heard, as she died only a short time after Al’s visit.

Pastor Emeritus Jim Flamming spoke during the “A Life in Ministry” Wednesday evening session in the church’s Dining Hall July 6. He urged the assembled group of retirees and near-retirees to reorder their lives for the Lord’s service when they have finished their careers. Perhaps he had Al in mind, along with some others among the membership who continue to serve the Lord into their eighties and nineties. Dr. Flamming knows, as does Al, that a post-retirement life of meaningful service can be a great and enriching reward and a wonderful way to draw nearer to the Savior.

Al says: “Take one day at a time, and leave it in the Lord’s hands.” From a man who has lived 95 years, including many years of continuing and faithful service, this is good advice.


Jane Powell has been a member of FBC since 2005 and is a member of Journey Bible study class. She has sung in the church choir and volunteered for community mission work, but her current focus is on lobbying the state and federal legislatures to protect the rights and safety of the severely intellectually disabled of Virginia. She has testified publicly, met with members of state government and the U. S. Department of Justice, and penned several letters published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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By Truman S. Smith. Photos by Skyler Cumbia.

Bible study presents challenges for each generation. Those who have grown up with the Bible may hear timeless words as dated or even outdated. Familiar verses are so familiar a switch flips to more entertaining thoughts.

Recently Bart Dalton, Minister to Students, along with the Youth Ministry Team, began a new study approach proposed by Renee and Bryan Smith, teachers of ninth graders. Youth classes are typically grouped by school grades. A student may be with the same classmates until graduation. What if each young person had periodic opportunities to choose a specific Bible study topic regardless of grade? What if each one heard the Bible in a new way?

“What if” has now happened. Four leaders and topics were chosen. Renee said, “From the beginning our priority has been to engage in serious Bible study and the topics to be very application oriented.” Teachers were selected from the congregation. They may have been known by name, but most not regularly involved with youth. Each brought unique gifts and experience. Students chose topics without knowing who the teacher would be.

Senior Pastor Jim Somerville was one of the teachers. He said, “I had a good time talking to the youth about the Bible and Islam. They were wide awake (even at that time of the morning), thoughtful and inquisitive. One of the questions they asked was whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I said yes, since there is only one God, but while Muslims view God through the lens of Muhammad, we view Him through the lens of Jesus, and there’s a huge difference. I think this is partly what Jesus means when He says in John 14, ‘No one comes to the Father but by Me.’ It’s almost as if He is saying, ‘You can get to know God in a lot of different ways, but if you want to know Him as a loving, heavenly Father then I’m the Way.’”

Beverly Carroll appreciated the opportunity to teach in the youth department because her “passion is that young people will fall in love with God’s word, recognizing that it is not boring and that it still applies to their lives today.” Beverly’s topic was “Bad Girls of the Bible”; she used biblical characters to communicate that “we’re all ‘bad girls.’ Our assessment of which sin is ‘bad’ is usually determined by the world’s judgment, not God’s. Nothing we have done puts us out of reach for God’s love and power to not only forgive us, but redeem our past and give us hope and power in our future.”

Bart Dalton reviewed how the Bible came to be with the completion of the canon. He examined the Gospel of Thomas as one example of many documents that did not make the cut. Bart stated, “When we know more about the Bible’s practical origins, it helps us answer questions about God’s word and gives us an opportunity to grow in our faith.”

Carl Johnson discussed “Money, Missionaries and a Big Mac.” With Carl’s experience as treasurer of the International Mission Board, he is qualified to look at money biblically and with a world view. His example of a Big Mac reflected the cost of living where many missionaries serve. Carl said, “I was pleasantly surprised at the interest of the students and the number of questions they had.”

What next? There was enough enthusiasm from students and teachers to repeat the topics six weeks later. Students’ comments included, “I liked the variety.” and “I liked a choice of topics.” Another responded, “Very insightful. I didn’t know the work that went into supporting missionaries.” One said, “It was the best study I have ever had,” then added “I still like my regular teacher.”

The regular teachers were enthusiastic also. Though it gave them a break from teaching, they chose a topic and attended as well. Another round with new teachers and topics is being planned. Students and teachers (both regular and adjunct) find hearing the Bible in a new way a rich opportunity.


Truman and his family joined FBC in 1987. His work in Family Ministry (now Member Care) to missionaries at the International Mission Board has uniquely gifted him as a teacher in the Acts Class, a member of the First Family Team, and with his wife, Gwen, as a support couple for the Young Couples class. He and Gwen have three children and four grandchildren.

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Reported by Len Morrow.

Susan Strickland, member of FBC, single mother of two teens, soldier, entrepreneur, and holder of numerous degrees, is a 21st century success story.

Susan opened a floral business in 1999 in her home. This business allowed her to pay her tuition to J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College (JSRCC). In December 2005, she received a Floral Design Careers Studies Certificate from JSRCC.

She continued her studies, receiving an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Horticulture Technology in the spring of 2008 and an AAS in Culinary Arts in December 2008, both from JSRCC. Susan earned her most recent degree, Bachelor of Individual Studies in Horticultural Management, May 15, 2011 from Virginia State University.

Early in 2009 Susan decided she needed more financial security for her children. She joined the Army Reserve and went to boot camp. Her parents, Ed and Pam Strickland, also members of FBC, cared for her children. Her military training is in establishing liaison with Arab people, particularly women.

Susan continues to set goals, accept challenges and find success. In spite of a difficult economy, she opened a shop, With Love Flowers, in March 2010.

Editor’s note: Len worked with Susan at JSRCC. Her business is located at 9536 Jefferson Davis Highway; for information go to http://www.withloveflowers.com/.
See related gardening video.


FBC member Len Morrow is a native of central Virginia. He holds degrees from the University of Richmond and a PhD from Cornell University. He has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, Randolph-Macon College, and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. Len is a Fellow in the Virginia Academy of Science, and a Gold Medal Award winner of the Professional Grounds Management Society. He instructs Master Gardeners, and is a volunteer gardener with Richmond Public Schools and with FBC.

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A Few Good Women

Story and photos by Jeannie Dortch.

A Few Good Women

Buddy Hamilton (left) and Meredith House were among the early supporters of women deacons.

Sometimes it takes a few good men to recognize the value of a few good women. Ezra Stith (1918-1998), a younger member of the mostly elderly group of deacons, introduced a motion in the mid-1970s to add women to the deacon fellowship. Meredith House and Buddy Hamilton were among those who wholeheartedly supported it. “Women were the rejuvenators that the board needed. These changes were good for everyone,” Meredith remarked recently. Buddy echoed that sentiment: “The addition of women was a massive and profound change.”

Ezra and others lobbied for women deacons, despite controversy and contentiousness. But when the vote finally came up the first time, only five people supported it. It was another few years before it became a reality.

In 1976 the first three women were elected: Ginny Sanders, Betty Allen and Alma Snowa. Meredith said, “Our hesitancy was rooted in differences among the men about the interpretation of scripture related to leadership roles of women in the church. When the motion did carry, it carried substantially. I think the literal interpretation of the verses had been rooted in people for so long that they just needed time to think about it.”

Betty Allen stated that “FBC’s affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention slowed progressive thinking in regards to women even though women were beginning to serve on deacon boards in other denominations across the nation. Many churches had a glass ceiling when it came to women and the last bastion came from those in the South.”

Betty’s joy was to provide flowers in the Esther women’s Sunday school classroom every week, but what spotlighted Betty as a deacon candidate was her work as a teacher with children and youth and as president of the Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU). Initially, Betty was asked what she thought about having women deacons at FBC. “I said that in the Bible the Lord doesn’t distinguish between men and women (Galatians 3:28), and I remember thinking that my grandmother would have been proud of my answer.”

Alma was serving as the supervisor of the baby nursery and beginners’ department when Noralee Stephenson, president of the WMU, and deacon W. Irving Dixon visited her at home. “I was in awe that I was being considered because I was so flattered that they thought I was capable. Irving asked me if I would agree to refrain from imbibing alcoholic beverages during my tenure, and of course I said yes, because I didn’t drink.”

But once the congregation was made aware that women had been nominated as deacons, Alma received a phone call from a friend telling her that she had reservations about Alma’s serving as a deacon because she had short hair. Alma replied, “So do you!” to which her friend retorted, “But I’m not going to be a deacon!” Alma clarified the story by saying, “My friend was referring to 1 Corinthians 11 where it says that a woman’s long hair is her glory and is given to her for a covering.”

Ginny Sanders served as WMU secretary and as Superintendent of the Youth Division, where she continues to take attendance as she has for 57 years. “Incorporating a woman’s viewpoint and influence on the board was a farsighted shift for our church, as it brought women from the kitchen to the boardroom, so to speak.” Ginny remembers drawing straws to determine their committee assignments. “I drew the finance committee and continued to enjoy that placement even after I rotated off of the deacon board.”

A Few Good Women

In 1976 Ginny Sanders, Betty Allen and Alma Snowa (left to right) were the first women ordained as Deacons at Richmond's First Baptist Church.

Betty, Alma and Ginny were told that the older deacons didn’t feel comfortable having them serve communion for the first year. When the acceptable day finally came, Ginny, dressed conservatively in black, was understandably nervous. A sharp, grating sound was heard when Ginny accidentally scraped one communion plate against another, and a female congregant complained that only a woman could mess up communion. Total acceptance was to be an uphill battle.

Buddy shared his strong feelings: “Up to that time, the operation of the church was like a book that required a key and only certain people had that key. Once women had access to the inner workings, it was like a window had been opened to fresh thinking from a different perspective. The environment of the meetings changed from outspoken aggressiveness and sometimes obstreperous behavior to that of civil discourse.”

Alma professed, “We were like trailblazers, and it fills me with pride to be considered a pioneer. It was so much harder for us than for the women today, and it makes me feel so good to know that I played an important part in that outcome.”

Since 1976, more than 75 good women have served on the deacon board.

Editor’s note: The genesis for this article came from page 311 in The Open Door, the history of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, which is available for purchase in First Word, FBC’s library.


icon-dortchJeannie 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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By Richard Szucs. Photos by Win Grant.

A new hymnal is coming to Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Celebrating Grace Hymnal is the result of a collaborative initiative by more than 50 Baptist leaders – pastors, church musicians, composers, scholars, and laity – from the United States and Canada.

The Creative Worship Team (see Editor’s note) works with Phil Mitchell, Minister of Worship, to examine FBC’s worship services and identify changes to make them more meaningful and effective. That process led the Team to search for a new hymnal that would include traditional hymns and gospel songs, as well as some of the hymns, gospel songs and praise songs written since our present hymnal was published.

Allen Brown expressed it well: “Some of you who have had about as many birthdays as I have will remember the hymnal we were using in the 1950s. It was The New Baptist Hymnal, published in 1926. Then a Baptist hymnal with many new songs was published in 1956, and we purchased that one. Nineteen years later, in 1975, the next one was purchased. Then, sixteen years later, in 1991 we secured the Baptist Hymnal we are now using, and it has served us well. Now it is 20 years later. Worship styles and patterns have changed and many new hymns and songs have been written since 1991. A new hymnal will make these available for us to use.”

The Team studied a number of hymnals and unanimously selected Celebrating Grace: A Hymnal for Baptist Worship, released in 2010. They were impressed with its editors’ high standards for music, texts and support materials. Each hymn and song was selected both for its musical contributions and its theological soundness. Interspersed throughout the hymnal are scriptures, responsive readings and litanies that draw from God’s Word and offer opportunities for response from God’s people.

Phil Mitchell summarized the feelings of the Worship Team when he said, “The hymnal is a good fit for our congregation because its core contents are at home in a church that worships in traditional worship expressions. It contains some new, more contemporary hymns/songs as well as new, traditional tunes and texts. It is steeped in doctrine that is thoroughly Baptist and uses fresh and imaginative ways to say what we believe. It provides a number of new ways to express our praise and thanks to God in worship.”

All hymnals will be bought strictly through individual donations; no funds will come from the church budget. Donations in any amount are welcome. An individual or group may purchase one or more hymnals in honor or memory of someone for a donation of $15. A hymnal plate will be placed in the front of the hymnal recognizing the donor and the individual who is being honored or memorialized. Donor cards and envelopes are on the kiosks. For information contact Phil Mitchell or any member of the Creative Worship Team, or visit www.celebrating-grace.com.

Editor’s note: Members of the Creative Worship Team are Richard Szucs, chairperson, Barbara Booth, Allen Brown, David Carter, Janet Hauser, Lindsey McClintock, Jim Norvelle, Becky Payne, Martha Pugh, and Ruth Szucs.


Richard SzucsRichard Szucs is a radiologist with Commonwealth Radiology and Chairman of Radiology at St. Mary’s Hospital. He and his wife, Ruth, met at First Baptist Church. Their daughter, Alexandra, will attend Bridgewater College in the fall and their son, Matthew, will enter the tenth grade at Midlothian High School. Richard is a deacon, teaches 11th grade Sunday school, and sings in the church choir and One Accord. He serves as leader of the Creative Worship Team.

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Music and Controversy

By Virginia Darnell. Photo by Win Grant.

FEATURE-Celebrating-Grace-1

Music plays an important role in our worship services today, but it has not always been that way.

John Courtney, First Baptist’s second pastor (1786-1824), loved the great hymns and was editor of at least two hymn books. But during services at FBC, he found that some were paying more attention to the hymnals than to his sermons. His solution was to line out the hymns without using books. (Lining out is a form of a cappella hymn-singing with a leader calling out each line of a hymn as it is to be sung.)

In the archives there are a number of sheets, 3 ¼” x 11”, used during this time with the hymns for the day printed without music. In addition, at the bottom were listings of events for the next week and the following words: “Strangers are cordially invited to remain after the services and meet the pastor.” This also apparently served as the bulletin for the day.

Printed hymnals finally became part of FBC’s worship. The first one was likely Rippon’s Selection, based on Dr. Isaac Watts’ hymnal. It was first published in 1787. That was later replaced by the Virginia Selection of Hymns compiled by Andrew Broaddus. The third hymnal, Winchell’s and Watts’ Selections, was chosen in the mid-1800s.

Musical instruments also made a slow entrance into worship services. To settle this controversial discussion James Thomas loaned the church an organ from his home in 1861. It remained in service until 1867 when a new organ was purchased for the church.

Choirs were not part of FBC’s early services either. The push to organize one produced controversy, but in 1840 a chorister was finally appointed. The controversy was resolved at least partially by his salary being raised by those “favorable to the choir.” A hundred years later the music life of the church was much enriched and strengthened with the addition of primary, junior, intermediate, and young people’s choirs. The chancel choir was organized in 1952, and the first hand bell choir in 1962, with their first performance at Thanksgiving that year.

Hymnals, organs, choirs – all are assumed parts of today’s worship services. But their places have been earned through differing opinions, patience, experiments, and gifts.


Virginia DarnellVirginia came to FBC in 1946 and helped organize the church’s first young couples class and one of the first in the Southern Baptist Convention. She taught singles for 38 years, served on most church committees, was ordained a deacon in 1978, and served as the first woman deacon chair in 1995-96. She is currently Church Historian. Virginia enjoys gardening, painting, cooking, and reading.

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