Archive for August, 2020

By Jim Somerville

On Sunday, March 15, 2020, ninety-two people gathered for worship in the Sanctuary of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Four days earlier, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a “global pandemic.” The next day, March 12, the governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency. But there we were on March 15, trying to sing the hymns and say the prayers and listen to the sermon as if everything was normal.

It was not.

calloutOur COVID-19 response team decided to suspend all gatherings at First Baptist Church for at least the next two weeks, which meant that we had to figure out how to produce a worship service for the following Sunday that could be streamed on our website and broadcast on Channel 8 without a congregation or choir. And then there were all those other things to think about. What about Sunday school? What about Wednesday night supper? What about staff meeting on Tuesday morning?

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case it was. We scrambled to get a TV crew together to record the worship service on Sunday, March 22. Steve Booth began to reach out to Sunday school teachers who were willing to try meeting with their classes on conference calls, or on the “Zoom” platform. Phil Mitchell called off choir rehearsal and began to look for every talented soloist and instrumentalist he could find. Steve Blanchard searched for ways to continue the church’s Compassion ministry when we couldn’t let people in for showers. Ann Carter and Candi Brown were faced with the daunting prospect of ministering to youth and children “virtually.” Ralph Starling’s ministry of outreach ground to a halt while Lynn Turner’s ministry of prayer reached a whole new level. Personally, I was waking up at 3:30 every morning trying to figure out how to re-invent the church.

But two weeks into it we began to see the upside. Attendance was up! Since many of their own churches were closed more people than ever were tuning in to our webcast and broadcast. Our deacons reached out in those early days, trying to call every single member of the church just to make sure they were okay. Sunday school teachers rose to the challenge, and began providing opportunities for Bible study and discussion that were surprisingly successful. I started a private Facebook group, just for the members and friends of First Baptist, that grew from 500 on the first day to more than 1,000. I also started offering a Wednesday night Bible study to fill that gap in our schedule even as our own Beanie Brooks began posting Wednesday night supper recipes.

And then the true miracle: giving was up! Our members and friends seemed to understand our anxiety about meeting the budget when we couldn’t pass the plate. They began to give online, and give generously. I was bracing myself for the first financial report, and when it turned out we were ahead of our usual giving I could hardly believe it. What a church!

We don’t want to do this forever. Some of us are more than ready to be back in our beautiful building for worship, Bible study, and fellowship. Those warm hugs and friendly pats on the back are often what keep us going. Still, we can be grateful that in this unusual time we have stayed connected as a church family. We have gone deeper in our love for God and wider in our love for neighbor. I continue to pray that we will come out of this crisis “better and stronger than ever.”

It seems impossible.

But as I remind myself each time I pray that prayer: nothing is too hard for God.

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