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Archive for the ‘FBC Family’ Category

By Steve Blanchard and Justin Pierson

Justin and Tori

Richmond’s First Baptist Church has a new Pastoral Resident who is a familiar face. He has been a part of our fellowship for about four years. Justin Pierson, our new Pastoral Resident, began working at FBC in the Ministry of Christian Compassion several years ago, and he and his wife, Tori, have been involved in so many ways in the life of our church.

What you may not know is the journey that brought Justin to his decision to go into the ministry.

Justin grew up in Roanoke, Virginia and began considering a vocation in the ministry as early as high school. He continued to explore his calling to the ministry while at Virginia Tech where he was involved in the Baptist Collegiate Ministry, leading music for worship services and participating in Bible studies. He volunteered with youth ministry events for churches throughout Virginia and in the summers worked for various churches and Christian camps.

As Justin explains, “After graduation, I was almost certain that I would pursue ministry, but I wasn’t sure of the next steps. Although my psychology degree was useful for ministry, I knew that I needed more education if I wanted to properly serve, but I wasn’t sure if seminary was the next step. I wanted a break from school and wanted to understand how ministry is done in other parts of the world. So, I traveled to Vienna, Austria to live and serve for six months. I interned with a Baptist congregation there ministering to young people and Farsi-speaking refugees. It was amazing how different that experience was from my former church experiences in the U.S.”

on mission in Bosnia“This experience solidified my calling to ministry, but also sparked my interest in faith, culture and justice. I saw how this congregation sacrificed to serve refugees whom society had forgotten and tried to exclude. I saw how their congregation was growing, attracting young people, discussing complex theology and its modern-day application, and living into its calling regardless of its cultural unpopularity or financial risk.”

Justin playing guitarIt was after this experience that Justin knew he was called to the ministry and, after leaving Europe, he enrolled at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond (BTSR) and started working part-time as an assistant in the Ministry of Christian Compassion at FBC. It was through his work in the Ministry of Christian Compassion that Justin discovered that the heart of FBC was similar to what he had seen in the congregation in Vienna. He saw people willing to serve those in need, and a congregation willing to adapt to the needs of those who are served. And he saw a staff eager to help young people and form the next generation of leaders. As Justin explains it, “I found people willing to do the unpopular thing in order to live into the calling they believed in.”

After graduating from BTSR, Justin entered Union Presbyterian Seminary where he recently completed his Master of Theology. Throughout seminary, Justin continued to work part-time with the Christian Compassion Ministry.

Justin in worship

Throughout his years of serving in the Compassion Ministry, Justin found that FBC was a place in which he was interested in furthering his ministry experience and a place that would welcome his ideas and interests. Justin added, “I value the staff at FBC and wanted to continue to be a part of the ministries here.”

After working with Justin in the Compassion Ministry, Steve Blanchard, FBC’s Associate Pastor for Compassion, has found that, “Justin is a willing and dedicated worker, open-minded, passionate and talented in a variety of ministry areas. His faith has really taken shape as his own and his desire to continue to explore, ask questions, seek justice, learn and grow are just a few reasons why I believe he is an excellent choice for our residency program.”

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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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By Karen DeMarino

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Richmond’s First Baptist Church has found ways to safely move forward with service, worship and fellowship, thanks to our dedicated “behind the scenes” building support team and custodial staff. While so many of us have been told to stay at home, these essential folks have the crucial responsibility of keeping our church building functioning safely. Our “lean and mean” teams are well-informed, committed and sincerely enjoy working together.

Bonnie Wilmoth, with the help of her hardworking support staff, oversees the day-to-day operations of our building maintenance for life-safety and security. “Our number one priority right now is to keep all our employees who still need to work in the building on a daily basis feeling safe, protected and comfortable.” For 34 years, Bonnie has been the “eyes and ears” of FBC not only during normal times but also during times of crises or emergencies. Additionally, she manages costs and estimates associated with building and grounds’ contractors and helps with Community Missions.

Barbara Jean Harris brightens up the room with her infectious smile and positive attitude! Demonstrating a new electrostatic sprayer, Barbara Jean expressed how safety and protection have ALWAYS been a priority for our church community. “Keeping the individual rooms within the building disinfected and sanitized is nothing new for us. We offer preschool classes to children with cancer and keeping the classrooms safe for them has always been a priority. The heightened care that has become so familiar to all of us during the pandemic is the way they live normally.” Barbara Jean has been with FBC for 20 years, loves her job and jokes that Bonnie is “glad to have me!”

Curnice Booker, recently recognized for 25 years of service, has a wide range of responsibilities both inside and on the grounds of FBC. Sometimes on a lift or behind the wheel of a bus, Curnice can be found maintaining our space by changing lights and steaming carpets, setting up the gym for Wednesday night dinner and outdoor snow removal. “I am so happy to work with the people I do. It makes a huge difference. It makes the day go better when you can work with people who make you laugh. I also find the personal contact to be nice. Pastor Jim makes personal phone calls, genuinely cares and appreciates what we all do, thanking us all the time.”

Annie McClenny answers our phones on Tuesdays, in person, and remotely from home the rest of the week during the pandemic. At the front desk, she makes sure that no one slips into the building unnoticed. And, she makes sure that all messages from our church family are brought to the attention of the right person. Annie also has “regulars” who call in just to talk. “I assess their needs and develop a plan that may include food or medicine being dropped off. Or sometimes they just need to talk through their problems and have someone listen.”

Amy Howard makes sure that all our rooms, offices and “high-touch” areas are hygienic. “The detailed cleaning that typically happens during our August shut-down is actually happening now. We are steaming carpets, washing windows, cleaning baseboards, radiators and furniture. Floors are being waxed and fresh coats of paint have been applied where needed,” said Amy. Since the pandemic, we’re taking additional daily measures like propping all doors open and wiping down all door handles.

John Pettigrew takes care of second floor custodial duties in the classrooms and third floor youth areas. He also rings the bell tower on Sunday morning, and for funerals and special events. But John’s most important responsibility is to keep our Sanctuary immaculate and ready for Sunday service. “I want our “mother ship” to shine and look beautiful and be better than anything else in the building. I take pride in what it looks like because it is our most important area and is holy ground. I won’t even wear my shoes in the Sanctuary after it has been cleaned.”

Ron Maxwell works with the building support team and, pre-pandemic, took care of daily event set-up. In the afternoons, he cleans and sanitizes the preschool rooms. Ron has a kind “helper-heart” and genuinely enjoys his 20 years with First Baptist.

Beanie Brooks has run a tight ship in Food Service for almost 24 years. She manages the overall budget, orders and organizes food and disposable supplies, creates menus and oversees food prep for events. “I have a wonderful team and thoroughly enjoy working with them. Everyone is very knowledgeable and ‘hands-on’ at all times.” Beanie also noted that she is “ServSafe” certified and is tested annually. Additionally, she is licensed by the VA Health Department, which is governed by the CDC. Beanie explained, “I have continually posted signs saying, ‘Wash Hands ALWAYS’ all around the kitchen!” Additionally, Beanie is gaining quite a following of her own on Pastor Jim’s Facebook group page by sharing her delicious recipes daily. She calls herself a “stress-cooker” and joked that her own food bill has tripled since the pandemic. Beanie also orders supplies for our food pantry and manages the volunteers that help our ministry serve those in desperate need. “Our First Baptist volunteers are amazing! Some of them have been helping our ministries longer than I have been with the church.”

Keith Davenport can be found in the kitchen most Mondays and Thursdays cooking something unique and always tasty! Not only does Keith prepare meals for our staff and members, he also prepares bagged lunches for the homeless who visit our door several times a week.

Vanessa Carter works with the team in Food Service, cleaning and cooking, and has been with FBC for over 30 years providing help where it is needed.

Ben Capps is responsible for keeping our entire kitchen, including dishes, walls and floors immaculate.

Collectively, over 200 years of dedicated service has been provided by our faithful building support team and custodial staff. From behind the scenes, they are what make First Baptist church operate efficiently and they all do so, happily, with faith, hope and love.


Karen DeMarino

Karen DeMarino serves as our Social Outreach Coordinator. Karen comes from a marketing communications background, most recently working with the Diocese of Richmond’s Department of Education as marketing director for 29 Catholic schools in Virginia. Additionally, Karen is marketing consultant for All Saints Catholic School and serves on their marketing board. Karen has two adult teens, Adreanna and John, and a rescue pup, Scruffy.

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By Robert Thompson

Life is a constant state of beginnings and endings, alphas and omegas, firsts and lasts. After forty-one years of active ministry, Steve Booth is writing a new chapter in his life as he prepares to retire. Seventeen of those years have been with Richmond’s First Baptist Church as Minister of Christian Formation.

Steve and I have been friends for almost forty years. We met when we were pastors on the Northern Neck of Virginia. He was pastor of the Fairfields Baptist Church, and I was serving the Corrottoman Baptist Church. There is a lot of history, lots of stories (some to be told, others not). I trust him with everything. This interview was to be face-to-face. We started with good intentions, but COVID-19 had other plans. We have interviewed through email. Now, imagine the two of us are talking face-to-face:

Robert: Steve, tell us about some of your beginnings, your family and education.

Steve: I was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi, the son of seminary trained ministers. I was one of three children, with a sister, Beth, and a brother, Mark. After high school, I attended Campbell University in Buie’s Creek, North Carolina, graduating in 1976. As I began my studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, I thought I would move into the hospital chaplaincy program. But as I sought clarification of my call, the pastoral residency program drew me, and I moved forward with my call to congregational ministry. The Highland Baptist Church in Louisville licensed and ordained me in June 1979.

Robert: We are interested in the influences upon your life and your areas of service. Share some of those ministry opportunities.

As a young adult discerning my call to ministry, I found reassurance in the writings of Thomas Merton. He was a powerful influence. Merton’s writings assured me that calling was not about picking the right door but trusting God’s acceptance of my desire to seek his will with all my heart.

This freed me to try on a number of different ministry hats. My vocational ministry journey has included serving as a youth minister, pastoral resident, pastor, associate pastor, Christian educator, denominational consultant and pastoral supervisor. Much of my ministry has been in Christian education, and I have had the privilege of serving the Huguenot Road Church, the Ardmore Church in Winston Salem, North Carolina, the Richmond Baptist Association, the Bon Air Church and FBC.

Walking through each open door, trusting God’s leadership for each step, embracing a variety of ministry callings has provided not only much joy, but also an expansive view of congregational contexts and the unique challenges that ministers face and navigate daily.

Booth photos

Robert: Share with us some of the highlights of your ministry.

Steve: I have been immeasurably blessed to serve eight different congregations and one local association. Each of the ministry contexts stretched and grew me as a minister. I left each with a deep gratitude for the people I served and the grace and love I experienced.

My first position following ordination was as a pastoral resident at Orange Baptist Church. The experience was profoundly helpful and formative in my early ministry years. As an aside, one of my greatest joys has been to pay forward that experience by helping begin, shape and guide FBC’s pastoral residency program. The five residents that I have been privileged to work with—Lindsey McClintock, Hanna Zhu, Nick Deere, Brett Holmes and Patrick Jackson—have served FBC with distinction and commitment. I’m grateful to call them colleagues and friends.

In 1990 I was invited to be part of the Baptist General Association of Virginia’s Young Leader Program under the direction of Dr. Bob Dale. It was during this course of study that I was introduced to Bowen Family Systems Theory. The Theory has been a profoundly helpful compass for navigating my personal and professional life. I’m convinced that “systems thinking” has been the single most helpful resource in helping me survive and thrive as a congregational minister.

Serving on the adjunct faculty at three theological seminaries in the disciplines of supervised ministry and Christian Education Formation has provided me an opportunity to guide, support and encourage young ministers as they prepare for ministry.

One-on-one conversations utilizing my gifts in pastoral supervision, spiritual direction, discipleship coaching, pastoral counseling, and coaching have been sacred and treasured gifts and opportunities.

Serving with some of the most gifted ministers and support staff on the planet (particularly at FBC) has been a gift. They are colleagues but, more importantly, my friends.

One final highlight, although emerging out of the darkest time in my life, was the unconditional love and support I received from FBC during a personal life crisis. Through the ministry of our Divorce Recovery ministry and the support of ministerial colleagues and loving fellow church members, I began a season of healing. A few years later, a new era in my personal life began when I met and fell in love with Martha, or Marti. I am forever indebted to FBC for loving me through those dark days and allowing me to continue as one of their pastoral ministers.

Robert: What have you learned over these past forty years?

Steve: That is an interesting question. I suppose my first lesson is to realize that my life has been a constant state of letting go of my need to control and letting God be in control.

Related to allowing God to be in control is learning to trust God’s will for my life. Again, Thomas Merton speaks to me through his book, Thoughts in Solitude,

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned is letting God love me and in turn help me love others in appropriate ways and words.

Robert: What brings you joy?

Steve: There are so many joys in my life but let me share eight:

  1. Accompanying young ministers as a mentor and coach in their early days of ministry
  2. Facilitating Bible study and small group experiences. Creating spaces for people to reflect on their spiritual journey
  3. Helping couples prepare for marriage
  4. Serving with ministry colleagues (leaders and support staff) who are also very good friends
  5. Being a part of the Shalom-Darnell Bible study class
  6. Enjoying time with my Northern Neck minister-brothers and their wives
  7. Marti and our six children and 12 grandchildren
  8. And Marti! Marti! Marti!

Robert: Would you do it over again?

Steve: Absolutely! A few bumps I might negotiate differently, but no regrets! Thanks be to God!

Robert: Steve, thank you for sharing some of your life with us. You are loved for who you are and for the gifts God has given you to share. We will miss you. God bless you.

 


Editor’s note: A retirement reception to recognize our love for Steve and his contributions to the ministry at FBC will be held at a later date when we can gather safely.

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By Alex Hamp

Betty Ann Dillon“Actions speak much louder than words” is a belief instilled in Betty Ann Dillon by her parents and grandmother. It does not take long for one to realize that Betty Ann is a lady always in action! At almost 91, she shows little intention of slowing down. For close to 77 years Betty Ann Dillon has been an integral member of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

calloutThe daughter of a Baptist minister, Betty Ann moved to Richmond in 1943 when her father was appointed Director of Race Relations for the Virginia Council of Churches. It wasn’t long before the family joined FBC and Betty Ann began her involvement with the church. While in high school, Betty Ann was very involved with the Vesper Club, which provided activities similar to today’s Wednesday night youth group. It was here at First Baptist that Betty Ann met her first husband, William Doub. “Billy” had been on the Cradle Roll at FBC as an infant and was later baptized at the Church. She and Bill were married in the Chapel (now the Library) in June of 1949, the same year she received both a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Master of Arts degree from Westhampton College at the University of Richmond. In her early adult years at First Baptist, Betty Ann was involved with the Forum, a group of mostly young people who met for snack supper and had a speaker on Sunday evenings before the evening service began. Betty Ann also taught Sunday School classes to the intermediate youth group, sang in the choir and worked in the library.

In a time when many women did not work outside the home, Betty Ann began building an impressive work resume. In 1949, with psychology and sociology degrees, she became the Senior Personnel Assistant at State-Planters Bank. She worked with managing, recruiting, and consulting for thirteen years at the bank. In 1963, Betty Ann was delighted to be pregnant with her first born, Sandy, and left the bank to find part-time work as a psychologist at the woman’s prison in Goochland and then went to work at Pinecrest Juvenile Detention Center for Boys. In 1966 she gave birth to a second daughter, Donna. She continued working part-time, while raising the girls.

Throughout most of the seventies and eighties Betty Ann worked at the Diagnostic Center for Juvenile Services in Bon Air and then for the State of Virginia; first in the Office of Employee Relations and then at the Virginia Employment Commission as the Director of Human Resources. Tragically, her husband Billy, suffered a massive heart attack and died in 1977, leaving Betty Ann to raise her two daughters, ages 11 and 14. It was at the Office of Employees Relations that she would meet Matt Dillon, whom she married in 1985. They went on to begin Dillon D & I, a personnel consulting business. The D stood for diligence and the I for integrity, two values Betty Ann exemplified throughout her work, spiritual and personal life. Betty Ann officially retired from working in 2000.

With her retirement and Matt’s passing in 2005, Betty Ann became an even more active and recognizable figure of FBC. She has faithfully served as a deacon, a member of the Budget and Finance Team, and has twice chaired the Personnel Team. She has volunteered in food services for over thirty years. The First Baptist Preschool, another important mission of the church, has always had a special place in Betty Ann’s heart. Her older daughter, Sandy, attended the weekday preschool in the sixties and Betty Ann has been on the preschool board for more years than she can count! In 2014 she became the chair of the board. Betty Ann has been a champion of the preschool and has shared much wisdom with the director, fellow board members, staff and families.

If you cannot find Betty Ann at First Baptist, you may find her at a number of other local places and organizations in the Richmond area. Especially dear to her are both the Shepherd Center and the University of Richmond. Betty Ann has served on numerous boards at the University and has been a trustee and leader in the alumni association there. She is also actively involved in the Shepherd Center, a service and education organization for older citizens of the Richmond area. There she has led groups and has been the President of the Board of Directors.

Steve Booth summarizes Betty Ann beautifully, “Betty Ann’s commitment and resilience as a congregational and community leader are without peer. I continue to marvel and be inspired by Betty Ann’s ability to turn every obstacle into an opportunity to celebrate God’s goodness. Whether leading a ministry team, serving as a small group facilitator or taking a principled stand, Betty Ann is an exemplary servant leader and a disciple worthy of emulation.”

Betty Ann has lived a full and busy life! She has experienced the sorrow of the passing of two husbands and both of her daughters. Despite all of this she shares, “God has looked after me for ninety years, and I do not think he is stopping now!”

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By Jackie and Bob Spears

When we were applying for our second adoption, a social worker told us “I would never give you a normal child.” We could see her point. By then we already had two Cambodian boys in permanent foster care plus an adopted daughter who had spent her first 11 months in Medical College of Virginia’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and was still being fed through a gastrostomy tube. We were also temporary foster parents for a dozen refugee kids from at least four countries (thankfully, not all at once). Our “not normal” adopted son weighed less than two pounds at birth and came with a frightening list of actual and potential health problems.

None of this was planned. There was no sense of having a mission to help the less fortunate. More or less accidentally we stumbled across people who needed help, thought we might be able to provide it, and jumped in. We don’t regret it, but this is not a warm, fuzzy story of love triumphing over adversity. It’s real life, with a mixed bag of results, some uplifting, some heartbreaking.

Not What You’d Call a Normal Family

Chun Tate and Ra Yoeun

Our two Cambodian sons came first. For legal/bureaucratic reasons they were not adoptable, but we got permanent foster placements, and they are family. Both lost their families and spent much of their childhood in communist work camps with no formal education. When the Pol Pot regime collapsed, they escaped to refugee camps in Thailand. At about 14 years old, they arrived in Richmond semi-literate in Khmer and speaking no English. Initial adjustments were confusing and frustrating—they were teenage boys who had grown up with no family, no role models and brutal discipline, dropped into a bewildering new culture. They didn’t understand us, and we didn’t understand them. On the plus side, they were bright, hardworking and (mostly) cooperative. After English lessons and a year or two of public school, they each went to middle and high school at Collegiate School.

Here their paths diverged. One overcame his traumatic beginning. Today he is a retired Naval officer with a lovely wife and a son at Virginia Tech. He won a full scholarship to Virginia Military Institute, is an engineer with a master’s degree and has one of the sharpest minds we have ever encountered. The other was too emotionally damaged. After two failed marriages and a bankruptcy, he considered returning to Cambodia, but found he couldn’t successfully cope with either culture. He now lives in a Cambodian enclave in California with his third wife and children, subsisting on welfare and income from Uber. Their everyday language is Khmer, and his command of English has regressed to a rudimentary level.

A pediatric neurologist told us that our daughter, born in Chesterfield County, would never be able to hold a job or live independently, and probably would never learn to feed herself. Today she has friends, a good job and has earned her associate degree. She has emotional difficulties and a severe speech impediment, but she is successfully making her own way. We are enormously proud of her.

As an infant, our adopted son, born in Williamsburg, was at risk for cerebral palsy, had hydrocephalus (thankfully transient), had breathing problems from undeveloped lungs and lost his hearing due to an antibiotic reaction. Against the odds, he survived and grew into a healthy adult with good intelligence. Unfortunately, he also has poor impulse control, little ability to organize or plan, and has episodes of violent rage. He’s never held a job for more than a few months at a time and is currently unemployed and living in his car. We haven’t given up on him, but it is increasingly discouraging.

Not What You’d Call a Normal Family

Nicholas

Our temporary foster kids were an equally mixed bag. We had two Vietnamese American boys who were abandoned by their birth mothers. One was pulled from a trash bin as an infant by an older woman who raised him. He came to Richmond with his foster mother but was taken from her because she wasn’t an officially approved foster parent. She had an apartment near us, so we became his official foster parents, but he spent much of his time helping her. He was a sweet, good-natured kid, always cheerful and helpful. Today he is married with children and works as a mechanic. The other boy grew up wild on the streets in Saigon. He seemed normal at first but became increasingly erratic. He was removed to a psychiatric ward after he threw a kitchen knife at Jackie. When released, he went to a group home and later wound up in prison.

There were at least ten others. One was an Ethiopian boy, one leg withered by polio, who walked to Kenya and claimed his friend was killed by lions during the trip. He came to America because he was confident our doctors could fix his leg. When he learned the truth, he accepted it cheerfully and went on to a successful life. Another was a mildly developmentally delayed Vietnamese girl who grew up as a child prostitute and was sent off in a refugee boat by her mother, with instructions to send back money and medicine. She married (against our advice) at 18, soon divorced, and resumed her childhood occupation. There was a Somali girl who thought any cooperation with us was blasphemy against Islam. We had a four-year-old Cambodian girl, removed from her home because of drugs and neglect, who was ultimately returned to her mother by social services. We have heard nothing, but have little hope for her.

We have no regrets, but no illusions either. We were given a chance to change what we could and accept what we couldn’t. We hope we had the wisdom to tell the difference.


Jackie and Bob SpearsJackie and Bob Spears have been married for 48 years, have four children, and have lived in Richmond for 41 years. Jackie grew up in Richmond; Bob is from a military family and grew up all over. They were married at FBC where Jackie attended, and where her mother, Jackie Booth (later Bowles) was a soloist with the choir. They now attend the Studio class at FBC Sunday School.

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By Jim and Wendy Norvelle

For Lewis and Toni Myers, the road that winds from their childhood homes in the flat Mississippi delta to missionary and family life in Vietnam to retirement days in Richmond includes a very important bench outside a girls’ dormitory at Mississippi College in Clinton.

Day after day, Lewis patiently sat on the bench and waited for Toni to exit Jennings Hall so he could catch her eye. He wanted to make sure that she saw how serious he was about her—about marrying her.

“Every time I came out of my dormitory he was sitting on that bench, waiting for me,” Toni said, her eyes twinkling. Lewis smiled an impish grin, remembering that he would sit on the back of the bench and put his feet in the seat. He didn’t want her to miss him.

Lewis and Toni have been married for 65 years. For 42 of those years, they partnered with the International Mission Board, including 17 years in Vietnam. They arrived in Saigon in 1960, a couple in their mid-20s with their three children. One more child would be born there.

Lewis is from Skene, Mississippi, a delta crossroads community among cotton fields with a general store. Toni is from Boyle, Mississippi, about four miles away on Highway 61.

“It was helpful to be from a small rural area when we went to Vietnam,” Lewis said. “We went with the mindset to build close relationships as we were accustomed to in Mississippi. Vietnam was just opening up as a new mission field for Southern Baptists, and we thought the new work there would fit us well.”

The same could be said for their marriage—it fits them well. Many times during the interview they either began each other’s sentences or they ended them.

What’s their secret?

“We both are of one accord,” said Lewis. Toni nodded in agreement. “Sometimes I have a good idea, and sometimes she does. Our faith has deepened over the years. We have a togetherness. We are not running off and doing many different things.”

The ending of their time in Vietnam did present a challenge. They were back in the United States on furlough in 1975 when South Vietnam fell, ending the long civil war. Eventually Lewis joined the staff of the then Foreign Mission Board in Richmond.

“It was tough when I came to the board and, for the first time, we were not in ministry together on the field,” Lewis said. Toni found her mission field at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, getting involved in the college ministry and Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) as well as serving as a volunteer interpreter for Vietnamese refugees, especially at the City of Richmond Health Department.

For Toni and Lewis, their marriage and their faith have always been intertwined.

“I made a good choice,” Toni said. You could say that it was like two parts of the same bolt of cloth or two sides of the same coin.

“I don’t know how to pull our faith and our marriage apart,” Lewis echoed. “We’ve made a faith commitment to each other and to the Lord.”

Their routine is a key, they said. They rise early, share a daily devotional time, enjoy a cup of coffee and read the newspaper. A morning walk is usually next. Faithful church attendance is a given. They return to Vietnam each year for Lewis to teach in the Vietnam Baptist Bible Institute. Toni counsels students dealing with long classes and final exams.

The road continues for this loving couple who started in Mississippi, heard the call to serve God while in seminary, preached and witnessed in Vietnam, and today teach a Bible study class, work with the WMU and sing with the choir on Sunday mornings at FBC. Together. Intertwined.


ICON-norvelles

Jim and Wendy Norvelle met at First Baptist Church and were married in 1983. Jim sings in the choir and serves as president of the Endowment Fund. Wendy serves as a deacon. The Norvelles have two daughters, Laura and Kate, and two grandchildren to spoil.

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By Candi Brown and Steve Blanchard

The dictionary defines adoption as: “the action or fact of legally taking another’s child and bringing it up as one’s own, or the fact of being adopted.” But a dry legal definition doesn’t even begin to tell us what adoption is. Its definition is probably as broad as the number of reasons individuals or families have adopted children. For this feature, here’s a glimpse at how two of our staff members might define it as they have welcomed children into their homes. These stories may help define adoption, but it is so much more. In their cases, it’s a journey of love.

Candi’s Story

Adoption has been a central focus throughout my life. I was adopted as an infant and raised in a Christian home where I was loved and accepted. Later, during my college years, I became interested in learning more about foster care, specifically foster programs that would hopefully lead to adoption. I completed a year of social work training at an adoption agency and after working with so many precious children, I thought that I might be interested in adopting a child one day.

Life moved forward and after being married 17 years, and having three biological children, God moved through an amazing series of events to give our family the opportunity to adopt. In 2009 through our refugee ministry at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, I became friends with a Burmese man, Kasim, and his two young sons. They knew no English at the time and were struggling with their adjustment to life in Richmond. I worked with them for several years, helping them make appointments, shop and invited them to do things with my family. Then in 2015, the boys’ father became too ill to take care of them.

From an unlikely friendship with a Muslim refugee, God provided a place for Kasim’s boys. They were first placed in foster care in our home, and once their care plan goals turned to adoption, we knew that they were meant to be part of our family. The adoption of Thomas and Jason was finalized in December 2017.

I’ll admit that there have been adjustments for all of us, including our three biological children. We face challenges, as all parents do, but I hope that we are teaching our children the importance of love, family, sacrifice and acceptance of others. Recently, I asked Thomas what adoption meant to him. He told me “I don’t know. I guess it’s just like having another family who cares for you. It’s not losing your parents; it’s just gaining new ones who love you more.”

Journey of Love: Stories of Adoption

Steve’s Story

In 2001, my wife Susan and I began seriously considering the prospect of adoption. At the time, we had no children and the thought of adoption was something we both embraced. We did our homework and finally decided we would like to adopt a child from China. We began the process with mountains of paperwork and procedures, correspondence with home and foreign adoption agencies, and lots of travel to meet with various adoption services. Finally, after about 16 months, we received news of our placement along with a picture of our new child who was not yet a year old. We were absolutely thrilled and totally filled with joy.

In 2004, we traveled to China, along with nine other families from around the U.S., to meet our daughter, Molly. The friendships we formed during our trip have endured ever since. And in 2007, those friends led and supported us in adopting our second daughter, Menley, who was 13 months old at the time.

Just like many other parents, we endured sleepless nights, changed a ton of diapers and heard our share of tantrums while, at the same time, we have embraced their first steps, watched as they amazed us with their creativity, and stood broken hearted as they struggled when they first entered school. But trust me, the joys have far, far, outweighed the difficulties. We even considered adopting a third child, but overseas adoptions began to close.

Our extended families have totally embraced our children. Molly and Menley quickly became grandchildren, cousins, and nieces. They have asked questions about their biological parents, mostly out of curiosity, and we have always been as open as possible with them about their heritage and their culture. We were even able to return to China in 2018 to visit the cities where they were born.

The amazing thing is that they are truly sisters, even though we adopted them at different times and from different parts of China. They love each other and love us as their parents. I cannot imagine life without them. They are our true joy and I am so proud of them for the young women they are becoming. I realize our experience of adoption is not unique, as we have many friends who have traveled down the same path. I know that every process is not always easy but I sincerely believe that every kid deserves a chance to grow into the individual God wants them to be with a family who loves them. All that to say, I am a truly blessed man.

Journey of Love: Stories of Adoption

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by Allen Cumbia

You have heard the saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” In a literal sense a sword can inflict great harm and even death, but in a figurative sense the product of a pen, the written word, has much greater power both for good and for evil.

calloutWords can be used to harm, to disparage, slander and express hate. The pen can be more destructive mentally and emotionally than any sword could ever inflict physical harm. But a pen can also be an instrument of uplifting, encouragement, good cheer, reinforcement and love. A pen can, through written words, inspire, motivate and challenge an individual to become someone greater than they might ever imagine.

The Power of a PenI was reminded of the great power of the pen during and after a stay in the hospital. Last November I underwent open-heart surgery to repair a defect in my mitral valve. I was in the hospital eight days, followed by an extended recovery period at home. It was during this time that my mailbox transformed from a junk mail, bills and sales flyer collector to a source of daily anticipation as I waited to see who I might hear from that day. You see, there was an outpouring of cards and letters wishing me well, offering prayers for swift healing and a quick return good health. I felt power in the thoughts and sentiments of friends and acquaintances as they offered words of hope and encouragement. I found joy in opening a card, reading a light-hearted greeting or heartfelt words of love and concern. They encouraged me to feel better and focus on healing, and that is what happened! I was thankful for the time and energy put into each greeting and well wish, and so grateful for the friends who cared enough to reach out and brighten my day.

Allen CumbiaCards and letters are really a ministry unto themselves. They’re not expensive, don’t take a long time to write or send, and they impact the recipient in powerful ways. In this age of digital communication, it is easy to be in touch, encourage and bless ones going through difficult times by sending an email, text or Facebook message. This is a great way to quickly span the distance between the sender and the recipient. But there is something special about receiving a card or letter delivered through the mail. Physically holding and touching that card, seeing funny, or more serious artwork and the message, and knowing that the last person to touch that card before you was the friend who sent it to you—that is about as close as you can get to having their physical presence there with you.

Anyone may easily minister to and bless others through the written word with a pen. I am so grateful to all that have recently touched me in this way, and would encourage you to do the same. You will probably never realize the true impact of this simple act of love and caring.

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