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Archive for June, 2014

By Susan Beach. Photos by Philip Delano, Tommy Pusser, Nancy Pettigrew and Susan Beach.

“Closed to pilgrims from 12:30 to 2:00.” It took me a moment to realize the sign on the church door was for me.

I hadn’t thought of pilgrims as 21st century folks – running shoes instead of sandals, windbreakers in place of rope-cinched robes. I certainly hadn’t thought of pilgrimage as part of my trip to Israel.

marketplaceBut if a pilgrim is a seeker, then I qualified. I went seeking connections to Jesus’ earthly life. I also found connections to other Christians, to other faiths, and to my own faith in a fresh way.

In Walking the Bible Bruce Feiler says that what you see is less important than what you experience. I needed that advice. I needed to close my eyes to the build-up of centuries of daily life, politics and war, so I could experience a small part of what Jesus experienced. When I remembered that Jerusalem was probably just as tourist-choked during His visits there at Passover as it was for me in 2014, my view of the Old City completely changed. Men hawking their wares to tourists pushing to get to their next destination – all were distractions. But knowing that Jesus wouldn’t have looked at them with annoyance demanded more of me; I needed to connect to them with His kind of love.

At all the significant places of Jesus’ life, our group read the appropriate scripture and sang hymns. Those mini-worship services became surprising high spots in each day for me – surprising because the familiar verses became fresh, surprising because I felt a new sense of belonging to our group. And surprising because of the joy we all experienced as our worship blended with and connected to that of other Christian groups, also finding high spots in their day.
group worship

hamsaJerusalem means “city of peace,” although that’s certainly not been my image of it. Christians, Jews and Muslims disagree on so much, yet I met some who are seeking peace. And I believe there are many more. The souvenir I most treasure from my trip is a hamsa, a hand-shaped object, once a pagan symbol of protection but now used by all three peoples of The Book as a sign of peace and welcome. It’s a visible reminder to me of my promise to pray for and to connect with people of these faiths that call Jerusalem home.

baptismIn preparation for this trip I prayed I would find a new way of following my faith. I could never have guessed how that would happen. On the first day our guide mentioned the upcoming opportunity to reaffirm our baptism vows. Previously I had only heard about rebaptism, a concept that didn’t connect with me. But reaffirm did connect. My husband looked at me and said, “That’s like reaffirming marriage vows. We can do that!” Doing this together was a deeply moving experience. Although our baptisms had been more than 50 years ago, they remain significant experiences in our lives. But this opportunity added dimensions we’d never thought of – choosing verses that have particular meaning for this part of our lives, renewing our commitment to follow God’s plan, reading each others’ verses as part of the service, eyes on each other as we were dipped in the Jordan. In many ways it reaffirmed both baptism and wedding vows.

Part of the definition of pilgrim should be that itineraries may change and expectations may not be met, yet God answers the deepest prayers of our hearts when we are available for a journey. I will continue to claim the title of pilgrim.

Author’s note:
This is one story; there are 34 others. To hear them, ask any of the following who were on this 2014 trip to Israel: Sarah Bailey, David Beach, Susan Blanchard, Sandra Bollinger, Bev and Jay Carroll, Lyn Cizek, Alice and Joe Cizek, Martha Cloe, Ann Cook, Carol Cremeans, Roberta Damon, Mary Ann and Chip Delano, Philip Delano, Cari Duvall, Effie and John Farmer, Dale Hamilton, Jackie Morsink, Becky Payne, Nancy Pettigrew, Pat Pierson, Jack Pusser, Skylar Pusser, Shearer Pettigrew and Tommy Pusser, Karen Smith, Ruth Szucs, Debbie Tipton, Joy Townsend, Lynn Turner, and Patty Whitfield.

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By Steve Blanchard. Photos by Steve Blanchard and Susan Brown.

Imagine you’re told without warning to leave your home. No time to do more than fill a bag with whatever possessions you can carry. You walk miles, perhaps hundreds of miles, to find a place that will take you in. This new home will likely be in a camp in another country. There will be all sorts of challenges – shortages of food, healthcare, sanitation, and safety. Or, maybe you are fortunate and find a better place but you know few people; you live in fear and worry about what happened to your friends and family back home.

After a while, you are given the chance to uproot again and move to a more permanent home but the problem is the wait can be long, maybe years. Finally, you are accepted by another country you’ve heard about almost all your life, some things positive, others negative. You gather your few belongings, borrow money from your host country to get there, and then land in a place where everything is foreign – the language, the culture, the people – the whole way of life. Now, it’s time to start your life again.

New AmericansThis is the background for most New Americans. Their old lives, professions, culture, and general way of life have been left behind. They find themselves dependent on the kindness and hospitality of a people they don’t know and of a government they don’t understand. Usually they receive three to six months of assistance from the government and resettlement agencies before they are left to fend for themselves. Imagine the worries, fears, obstacles, and isolation these New Americans feel. They have left familiar places, friends and family; they’ve often given up careers or success in school. Starting over is extremely difficult.

Richmond hosts approximately 300 refugees each year. This doesn’t include the hundreds, maybe thousands, of immigrants and international students who also call Richmond home. These immigrants may have been forced to leave home as well, but they journeyed here on their own accord. International students certainly do not have the challenges refugees and many immigrants deal with, but as immigrants, they may face loneliness, culture shock and homesickness.

New AmericansFirst Baptist, through the Ministry of Christian Compassion, reaches out to these refugees, immigrants and students with the love of Jesus Christ by helping them find not only basic necessities to begin their new lives but also support, friendship and guidance. In some cases, our church may be the only lifeline that an individual or family has or trusts. FBC takes this privilege seriously and encourages others to join us as we express our faith in God by loving the stranger in our land (Leviticus 19:33). And we rejoice in knowing that these are no longer strangers but are now our neighbors and friends.

As we celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20, we acknowledge and pray for the more than 10.2 million refugees worldwide. (This figure from the United Nations Refugee Agency does not include a full accounting of those in exile from recent conflicts in Syria and Africa.) At the same time, we give thanks for our new neighbors who bring their rich cultures and diverse backgrounds to our communities, making Richmond look a little more like the Kingdom of Heaven.


Steve BlanchardSteve Blanchard serves as FBC’s Associate Pastor for Compassion. He has a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary and a Master of Arts in Christian Education from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, and has served churches in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. Steve enjoys traveling and watching sports, especially the Duke Blue Devils. Steve and his wife, Susan, have two daughters, Molly and Menley, who are on top of his list of greatest joys and passions.

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By Jim Somerville

Big Bend National Park is a desert.  It is dry and rocky and full of scratchy, prickly, thorny things.  What you don’t expect to see in a place like that is a hundred-foot-tall cottonwood tree, hung with tender, white blooms.

But that’s what I saw.

cottonwood treeOn my first hiking trip to Big Bend I came up over a rise in the trail and there it was, that tall, beautiful tree, looking strangely out of place among all the scraggly, surrounding undergrowth.  When I got closer I found that the ground around the base of the tree was damp from a spring that watered its roots.

Here’s the truth: we live in a time when the church in America is struggling.  Attendance and giving are down in every major denomination.  The religious landscape is looking more and more like a desert.  But I believe that First Baptist Church can be an exception—just like that cottonwood tree—if we will only “water the roots.”

How do we do that?

Frankly, by coming faithfully and giving generously.  And, frankly, by doing it through this summer, when the pastor is on sabbatical, and the sanctuary is being renovated, and we’re worshiping in the gym.  It would be a little too easy, under those circumstances, to take a vacation from church, to come back in September.

To let the tree wither.

It’s not completely up to us.  Paul once said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (I Cor. 3:6).  Somebody else planted this tree called First Baptist Church, and God has given it the growth since then, but let it be said of us when this summer is over,

“They watered.”


Jim SomervilleJim Somerville became RFBC’s 16th Senior Pastor in May 2008, following pastorates in Kentucky, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. He earned the Doctor of Philosophy degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Master of Divinity from Southern Seminary. Jim has used his preaching, teaching, storytelling, and writing skills in many venues throughout the country. In his time off, he enjoys traveling, backpacking, sailing, reading, watching movies, and spending time with his family. Jim met his wife, Christy, at Georgetown College. They have two daughters, Ellie and Catherine.

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By Katie Smith. Photos provided by Anthony Nesossis, Janet Chase and Katie Smith.

Callout-BLOG-belongAs newlyweds in 2008, blindsided by the recession, my husband Van and I began what we call our “grand tour of Virginia,” as we kept chasing our careers around the state. During those years, we identified with a nondenominational church in Williamsburg, an Episcopal church in Charlottesville, a large Anglican church in Northern Virginia, and visited countless others of every denomination. Ironically, we even attended First Baptist Church for five months in 2008, before our careers moved us to Charlottesville.

Smith family

Smith family

Fancying ourselves to be independent thinkers, Van and I were not going to settle easily. Van is an attorney and I have taught college classes in years past—as such, we view most major life decisions through an analytical lens, carefully weighing all options. To commit, we knew, would be to decide on a place that would impact our spiritual growth, our way of serving the world, and our fellowship with other believers. In our decisions, we typically tread carefully. During that phase of our life, denominational differences mattered little—it was the spirit of each church that drew us close.

That spirit drew us back to FBC when we returned to Richmond. But its beauty also played a part. Architecture helps us feel a sense of awe in our humdrum suburban life, and the gorgeous columns and archways of First Baptist remind us of classic buildings. We love that First Baptist is not just located in the city, but it is also focused on being a church for the city, as it seeks to bring the kingdom of heaven to Richmond. And the intergenerational nature of the congregation brings a necessary sense of perspective. At a few churches we visited, we saw hardly a soul over the age of 40; in others, nary a person under 65. A church feels more whole, it seems, when all age groups are represented.

Never before (I cringe to admit) have we committed to a Bible study, but the Young Couples class has us sincerely hooked. And, I’m sure we must have broken some sort of church rule for requesting that our one-year-old be dedicated prior to us formally becoming members last year, but I’m still glad we did. A beautiful picture of Jim Somerville and our daughter Farah sits on our bookshelf and brings me joy. He asked us to join the church at the baby dedication. My husband looked at me and smiled wryly, “Ahh, a twofer!” I look forward to experiencing the new members’ class at some point, and I’m thankful for a church that is patient and accepting of members “right where they are.”

Maybe our journey was not random luck. My hunch is the Good Lord (as my parents refer to God) had a hand in it. Both of my great-grandfathers were Baptist ministers, after all. Perhaps I should have seen the writing on the wall. In any case, I feel a sense that Van and I, (plus an energetic toddler) are all on a faith journey together with First Baptist Church at the steering wheel. When I look around during Sunday services, I see people in plain and fancy clothes, the very young and the very old, and all manner of other folks. And I feel like we belong. Thank the Good Lord.


Katie SmithKatie Smith grew up in Winston-Salem, NC, and met her husband, Van, while studying at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. She served as an academic adviser at several community colleges in Virginia before recently beginning to work part-time for Van’s family law firm, Smith Strong, PLC. Van and Katie are the proud parents of Farah Lee Smith, who was born in September 2012 and dedicated at First Baptist Church. Van and Katie enjoy attending the Young Couples Class.

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