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Archive for July, 2020

Thirty years ago, Ralph Starling began his career at Richmond’s First Baptist Church as Minister of Single Adults. Over the years, he had several roles, but today he is most remembered as Associate Minister of Christian Invitation, and his work as the guidance and facilitation of the Divorce Recovery Ministry and his connecting with international students attending Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). The Ministry of Christian Invitation, which is rooted in the practice of Christian hospitality, is an expression of love we practice within the church and extend to the world around us.

Ralph Starling and leadership staffWe asked several people involved in the singles ministry, the Divorce Recovery ministry and the international student ministry to speak to the power of Christian invitation as shown by Ralph over the years.

Richard Ellis

My first visit to FBC was in the fall of 1994 and when I arrived, I was met by a greeter who introduced me to a gentleman who the greeter said could help me find a Sunday School class to attend. That gentleman was Ralph Starling. We talked all the way to the class and even after I had gone in and began getting settled, I noticed that Ralph had lingered to make sure I was comfortable. I had mentioned to him that I was new to Richmond and he checked in with me frequently to make sure I was okay. He also made sure to introduce me to others in the church so I felt more comfortable and welcome. Ralph made my transition to Richmond much easier and for that I am grateful. In large part because of Ralph, I never visited any other churches in Richmond.

Over the years Ralph “volunteered” or “drafted” me to participate in many activities and committees including driving Mission Teams to and from the airport, participating in leadership teams for Metro Richmond Singles, and leading a mission team to Nicaragua. Because of Ralph I have been introduced to many wonderful people and blessed with many rewarding experiences. My life has been so much richer because of him.

As Ralph’s role changed to one of Christian Invitation and I left the singles group for the married adults’ group, we have remained friends. My wife Bobbie has also become friends with Ralph. We still get together for lunch or a cup of coffee now and then. I still look forward to seeing Ralph each Sunday. Ralph once told me I have the gift of hospitality, but if ANYONE has the gift of hospitality, it is Ralph. He just has a way of making people feel comfortable in his presence. I will miss my friend when he retires.

Steve Booth

In 1990, only months after beginning his service as Minister of Single Adults, Ralph Starling began the Divorce Recovery Workshop (DRW). Over the years, more than 3,000 individuals have found support and encouragement to begin again. DRW has been affirmed by counselors and lawyers as a trusted resource for individuals navigating the devastating and life-changing turmoil of divorce. I know this from personal experience. In 2013, with the encouragement of my counselor, Richard, and the support of my friend and colleague, Ralph, I participated in DRW. It was a welcoming and safe place with a community of mentors and fellow strugglers to experience God’s grace and healing.

I believe that any system – church, ministry, organization or institution – has in its DNA the heart and character of its founder(s). In other words, the values, beliefs and actions of those who birth a ministry imprint and guide the ministry and promote its effectiveness. The guiding objectives of DRW – a ministry dedicated to accompanying wounded and broken individuals, providing a place of radical hospitality and communicating God’s healing love and forgiveness – are truths and reflections of the life and ministry of Ralph Starling.

Thank you, Ralph, for your courage and compassion. Thank you for coming alongside so many walking through dark and fearful times. Thank you, for birthing and shaping DRW into a safe haven for healing and rebirth to take place. Thank you, Ralph, for being a companion, guide and fellow struggler on the journey. Thanks be to God!

Brenda Gibson

Ralph Starling has been a mentor and friend since 2007. He is a man of high moral character, is inclusive and displays grace and love to all. Throughout the DRW ministry, he offers hope, love and community to the participants and volunteers. Recovery is a journey and each participant is encouraged to find healing along the way.

I have participated with Ralph in welcoming the international students at VCU. He believes in the importance of helping them find acceptance and friendship. He has taken these groups on trips and many activities. He is a man with a big heart. God bless Ralph.

Ralph Starling outings

Louis Watts, Linda Watts, Sandra Saunders

I met Ralph in 2010 when Linda and I were searching for a new church and began attending Richmond’s First Baptist Church. He was holding Small Group Bible Studies in his home specifically for “newcomers” to help them get connected. During those studies, Ralph often spoke passionately about his welcoming ministry with international students at VCU. He invited and encouraged us to “come and see” and to join him in this ministry.

Ralph was already connecting with VCU international students through various activities. He regularly attended monthly Global Cafes hosted by the VCU Global Education Office. As he met students and understood some of their needs, he organized shopping trips to Walmart and Short Pump Town Center. Xiaomin Wu from China said the first time she met Ralph at a Global Café he said, “Hi. I’m Ralph. Here’s my phone number. Call me if you need anything!” She knew he was sincere.

To provide breaks from studies, Ralph organized weekend trips to Virginia Beach, Eagle Eyrie (the Baptist Conference Center in Lynchburg, VA) and Washington DC. Semester breaks and holidays were perfect opportunities to plan exciting adventures to New York City and San Francisco. Some students remember having the privilege of travelling to Ralph’s hometown in Georgia to visit his family. I remember when Ralph’s Mother passed away; Alena (Slovakia), Khaled (Egypt), Sanjay (Nepal) and Xiaomin (China) drove from Richmond to Georgia to attend her funeral. That is how much these students loved and cared about Ralph.

Ralph frequently included students in church activities such as One Sunday, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas services as well as Tuesday night volleyball. Over the last year, with the help of Tom and Zena Harvley-Felder, Sandra Saunders, Doug Duke and others, Ralph initiated English language classes at the church on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening. These classes help build their proficiency in the English language which is key to their success.

international student groupsRalph was always disturbed by the statistic that 80% of international students studying in the US are never invited into an American home. To address this concern, he often hosted pot-luck dinners in his home and he encouraged church families to host events in their homes. Mark and Carrie Larson often hosted Thanksgiving dinners, Easter lunches and July 4th celebrations. Linda and I hosted Super Bowl parties as well as Indian, Chinese and Persian dinners prepared by students. Sandra Saunders was especially connected to Sri Lankan students and hosted dinners and birthday celebrations. Rob Reinstein and Jeff and Jeannie Dortch hosted summer cookouts at their farms. Attendance at these gatherings often ranged from 20-60 students providing them a chance to visit in American homes and to experience genuine hospitality and love.

Ralph is a big guy with a big heart who is passionate about this ministry to internationals. He has met thousands of international students over his years of ministry. Those who know him well generally describe Ralph as kind, generous, hospitable, always willing to listen, a true friend and always making those around him feel loved and valued. More specifically, some have said:

“Ralph has been a great help to VCU International students. He will be loved and missed by everyone.”

“It was important to me to have people like Ralph around me. A guy who was always there for us.”

“Ralph helps guide us in the right direction so we can learn and grow from it.”

“Ralph, you have given your life to a great cause. Even though you are retiring, your teaching lives on in us to make our lives better.”

“Ralph, the seeds of service, love, and caring you have sown will continue to bear fruit.”

“Ralph makes God look good in my eyes.”

“You hung out with my parents when they visited Richmond and made them feel comfortable despite the language barrier. That’s how you are with all those who know you.”

“Ralph is one of our best friends in Richmond. We are blessed to know him and have him as part of our Richmond family.”

retirement wishesFor those of us who have served alongside Ralph in this ministry to international students over the years, we thank you for inviting, encouraging and mentoring us in this ministry. It is everything you said it would be and more! The relationships we have developed with people from all over the world have blessed our lives and made us more loving and caring people. This ministry is transformational and radical—the things you have taught us best! Well done good and faithful servant!

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By Sandy Shelton

The score was tied!

Ten seconds left on the clock!

Now, the field goal attempt from the 50-yard line…?
…the final question of Patrick Ian Jackson’s interview for the Pastoral Resident position at First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia!

The Question: “And what if our committee decides upon someone else, Patrick?”

Without hesitation, Patrick replied, “Then, this is not the place to which God is calling me.”

Up! Over! Through the center of the goal posts! Game decision point! No further questions from me.

Our search committee was already impressed with Patrick’s outstanding resume indicating his superior educational and career experiences; undeniably qualified and possessing a wealth of gifts and treasures. Yet, I was even more impressed as Patrick told the committee how God had moved in his life to call him to ministry. During all of Patrick’s successful educational and career experiences there had emerged this tugging—and not letting go—by God on the hem of Patrick’s garments.

Patrick JacksonOver the years it seemed that God had been giving Patrick unique ingredients needed for the servant He was calling Patrick to be. But was First Baptist the place where God wanted Patrick to continue his preparation? Surely with the richness of our staff academically and professionally, FBC was more than capable of enhancing growth in all the areas, and more, listed in the Pastoral Resident’s job description.

However, being a relatively new member to FBC at that time I hadn’t fully come to realize the gentle power and strength that sets apart and elevates our church staff to a level all its own. I hadn’t realized this unmatchable gift and treasure they had to offer Patrick: our staff’s deep devoutness, sincerity and love for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is rare to find such depth, and height and width of the love of God by an entire ministerial staff. From what a magnificent base to gather and nurture one being called into God’s service.

After accepting our invitation, Patrick told me that he and His wife, Yvette, fervently prayed, “that God would prepare the hearts and minds of the people at Richmond’s FBC to receive us and that God would prepare us to receive them.” How little did they know that that work had already been accomplished?

It was into this family of God that Patrick and Yvette Jackson came some two years ago.

Under the tutelage of Associate Pastor of Christian Formation, Steve Booth, Patrick hit the ground running. Soon after they arrived, I found myself in an adult Sunday school class in which Steve and Patrick taught as a team, and in which I took many notes.

Shortly after, we as a congregation began experiencing Patrick’s powerful voice from the pulpit as he so effectively read the Scriptures. Next, came his strong, compassionate, current and relevant prayers. Then his contribution to the bass section of the choir. AND his sermons!

Simultaneously, new healthy leadership skills, as Patrick says, were becoming his “by osmosis; watching Jim (Dr. Somerville) and others navigate issues of worship planning and execution…keeping prayer as a foundational strategy,” especially during COVID-19.

Patrick was also gleaning strength and support from the Resident Support Team, a team of FBC members who pray for and encourage each resident, and his meetings with Steve Booth. From these times Patrick feels Steve became more than a supervisor; Steve became a friend.

Especially enriching for Patrick was his participation in the Services of Prayer and Healing; likewise, being able to officiate at funeral services and being with the family members and giving them hope in Christ.

FBC staff and church members were also getting to know and appreciate Patrick.

Candi Brown, Minister to Children, shares that she found Patrick to be “approachable, relatable, sincere, caring, a good listener, smart and with a good sense of humor” in addition to “his passion and love for Christ and his genuine desire to minister to others.” Candi appreciates lunch conversations, office chats, laughter shared and prayers spoken that have nurtured their friendship.

Bessie Taliaferro remembers Patrick’s support as she struggled with a seminary topic. Not only did Patrick supply her with reference material, but he also provided a play list of gospel songs that he listened to during trying times. On Bessie’s graduation day, Patrick and Yvette were there.

Deborah Hocutt cherishes an unforgettable moment with Patrick. He stood in the pulpit one Sunday just about to give his sermon. Needing some personal words of comfort that day Deborah says, “Patrick looked directly at me, stared a few seconds, then smiled as if all things were going to be fine…. I cried through his sermon from that moment…. A moment so incredibly genuine, just like Patrick’s heart.”

The Fred James Family says they “really love Patrick and Yvette.” They “loved sitting behind Patrick while Yvette preached one Sunday. He was so vocal in his encouragement…yet stoic at the same time.” “He speaks with authority and conviction, and I see Jesus through him,” Julie says.

Emerson Shelton admires Patrick’s groundedness in the faith, his good presentation and his amenability. How thankful Emerson is that Patrick’s and Yvette’s prayer for the preparedness and reception of our and their hearts and minds was resoundingly answered.

Yes, I have no doubt that First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia was where God was calling Patrick Ian Jackson to serve. Through the many pastoral opportunities offered Patrick was nurtured and he flourished. Yet I believe the greatest treasure was not on an achievement list. That treasure was our living out together what the love of God looks like in a holy and healthy body of Christ. What an example to forever hold in our hearts and minds and to never lose sight of as Patrick and Yvette leave and we remain! What a moment to realize that truly,

“…the greatest of these is love.”


Sandy SheltonSandy Shelton and husband, Emerson, joined FBC in 2016. A retired Christian Educator, Sandy enjoys being a part of FBC’s Adult Formation Committee, Joy Singers and Church Choir. Sandy’s retirement days with Emerson, playing in her string trio with dear friends and wonderful moments with grand kids are among her cherished blessings from God.

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