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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 Sandra Saunders

Working with international students attending Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) through the ministry we have at Richmond’s First Baptist Church (FBC) has been the most rewarding experience of my adult life. Instead of traveling to China, Mongolia, South Korea, Taiwan, Ghana, Nigeria, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, New Zealand, Austria, Egypt, Venezuela, Bangladesh, India, Jordan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and many other countries to see the world, I can meet these delightful and brilliant students right here in Richmond, VA.

VCU International StudentsMany colleges and universities throughout the United States make an effort to recruit international students so that everyone on the campus can gain new perspectives and personal connections with students from all over the world. The Global Office at VCU does just that through programs within the school, as well as reaching out to the community around the school to include everyone in welcoming the students to the United States. When I first started in this adventure, I learned that the office sponsors a “Global Café” on the first Friday of the month during the academic year. The VCU Global Office invites any community members to come, sit around a table, and share with these students. Some students are shy at first but then become more comfortable because they see friendly and smiling faces—people who are not their professors!

Several years ago Ralph Starling, Minster of Christian Invitation at FBC, became our liaison with the VCU Global Office which has opened up so many opportunities for our church to welcome the international students living close to FBC. The Global Office also calls on Ralph to host students, such as Fulbright Scholars, to share a meal and conversation around the table. This year we had students from Afghanistan, New Zealand, England, Austria, Mexico and India attending the dinner. The positive, long-term effect of those meals is that they are now “forever” friends, no matter the physical distance between the United States and the students’ home countries.

You might wonder what else we do with these students besides eat! FBC sponsors “English Conversation Classes” on Sunday mornings during the Sunday school hour and again on Wednesday evenings. Some of these students already have excellent English skills, but I think they are lonely and seeking “community,” and with us, they find welcoming faces and open hearts.

Each year Ralph organizes day trips to Virginia Beach, VA for the students. Osamah, our Iraqi friend, told me he had met Ralph just several weeks after he came to VCU when he went on one of the planned day trips to Virginia Beach. He said he came to First Baptist Church the very next Sunday because he wanted to meet more people like Ralph. He attended worship services, Wednesday night dinners and our English classes. He told me he had enjoyed several Thanksgiving meals in the home of Christy and Jim Somerville, meeting their extended families, and expressed how very special that was to him. I got to know Osamah better by taking him grocery shopping so he could purchase natural foods, such as natural honey. He is a very healthy eater and wanted to continue eating that way, if possible.

Another of our excursions is to Eagle Eyrie for a weekend. Students love to hike and inspect the area around our lodge there. One of our Saturday drives away from Eagle Eyrie has been to Peaks of Otter. This past summer, I watched as Sawsan, one of our international friends from Iraq, stood at the water’s edge and looked across at the mountain peak. She stood speechless, and after a few minutes I spoke to her and she remarked as she stood there, “This is just awesome!”

One of our Kazakhstan friends, Dauren, returned home for the summer between his two years here; he video-chatted me every few days, showing me his two-year-old niece and the things she was learning. They know that we love them enough to care about what goes on in their families’ lives in their individual countries. Some share family illnesses back home that concern them because they know we share in their concerns and hurts and we pray for them.

Besides grocery shopping and planning trips together, there are many times these students need to go to Washington, D.C. to their consulates or embassies. For those who don’t have their own transportation, we offer to take them. We also try to help with their transportation to doctor’s appointments.

FBC members who help with international student ministry, and have grown to love the students include: Carrie and Mark Larson, Linda and Louis Watts, Tom Harvey-Felder, Ann Evans, Helen Wood, Myra Clements, Barbara and Paul Hodge, Rob Reinstein, Jeannie and Jeff Dortch, and J.C. Gascón. Louis Watts has become an experienced furniture mover, physically helping the students move in or out of apartments!

I am so very thankful to be a part of this venture at First Baptist Church. This is my chance to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the world!

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Story by Chris Hillman. Photos provided by Chris Hillman, Mark Larson and Louis Watts.

If you recall Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” you might feel its theme of joyous international unity and world peace may be in the only place it works – the dream world of an amusement park. But at First Baptist there is a place where such lofty themes are being lived out.

calloutThrough FBC’s Ministry of Invitation, very special relationships are nurtured with Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) more than 1500 international students, from some 96 countries. Volunteer opportunities include being a conversation partner once or twice a month, temporarily hosting a student in your home, and building lasting relationships.

Ministry with InternationalsMy family now enjoys one of those relationships. Pamela Haney, VCU’s Student Engagement Coordinator, introduced me to Aso Quadir from Iraq. We began with brief telephone conversations, then lunch meetings, and ultimately family gatherings with my wife and six-year-old son, and Aso’s wife and two small children.

Pam’s guidance also led us to a different kind of hosting. Last year my wife, Resa, and I shared our home with 20-year-old Abdullah Alhumaid from Saudi Arabia. He was excited about living with a real American family while at school. Abdulla warmed our hearts and quickly became a welcomed addition to our family. We met his parents via Skype and will always remember Abdulla’s mother looking at Resa and with tears in her eyes, whispering, “May God bless your heart for opening your loving home and being an American mother to my son while he is away from us.” Then Abdullah introduced her to our son, Chasen, “Please meet my new American little brother.” Our family and theirs have grown in so many ways!

Ministry with InternationalsWonderful friendships continue to grow through FBC’s relationship with VCU’s international students. Ralph Starling, FBC’s Associate Pastor for the Ministry of Invitation, and members Louis and Linda Watts and Mark and Carrie Larson led summer activities including meals, trips to Virginia Beach, and a 4th of July picnic. Varied events are planned for the fall.

Ministry with InternationalsWhen a very appreciative international student asked Ralph why he shared his time and energy, he replied, “We’re just here to love you the same way that God loves you. We want you to feel welcomed in America, to help you have lots of fun, and make great friends!”

We can’t know all the results of these conversations and dinners, of sharing our homes and our lives. But we can be sure that the world is indeed smaller for us, for First Baptist, and for a number of VCU’s international students.

InternationalsSee related story:  A little more like the Kingdom of Heaven

Author’s note: Aso recently graduated and returned home to the Kurdish city of Irbil. Numerous atrocities have been committed in that city with the intent of driving out the Christian community. This distresses Aso, who is a devout Muslim, because he has many Christian friends in his home town. Please pray for the safety of both the Christians and Aso’s family.

Editor’s note: To be involved in this ministry, contact any of the following:
Louis and Linda Watts (804-794-9630)
Mark and Carrie Larson (804-658-4972)
Ralph Starling (804-307-4376)


Chris HillmanChris Hillman is in his third year at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He, his wife, Resa, and son, Chasen, have been part of Richmond’s First Baptist Church since 2011; he is currently serving as an intern in FBC’s Ministry of Invitation. Chris previously worked with the National Geographic Society, so ministering to international students comes naturally to him.

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