Posts Tagged ‘Richmond Hill’

Story and photos by Jeannie Dortch.

“I’ve always done what I wanted, but it takes patience.” Tasha Tudor

As the wife of Jim Flamming, First Baptist’s former Senior Pastor of 23 years, Shirley Flamming folded herself into church members’ hearts with her conviviality, sincerity and spiritual depth. Since Jim’s retirement in 2006, Shirley has not withdrawn as much as she has drawn within.

In a recent conversation, she shared some milestone events that shaped her life since she and Jim made Richmond their home in 1983.

calloutThe daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher and educator, Shirley attended Hardin-Simmons University, a Southern Baptist institution. She met Jim there and after their marriage, Shirley spent as much time at church as her husband, eventually becoming the Director of the Children’s Department at First Baptist, Abilene, Texas. “It was church 24/7,” said Shirley. “And by the time we moved to Richmond, I had been exposed to no other life than that of a Southern Baptist.”

The trajectory of Shirley’s life began to shift soon after she and Jim arrived in Virginia. She read a book about the life of Tasha Tudor, a children’s book illustrator. Tasha lived the last third of her life secluded from modernity, surrounded by her plants, her animals, and, most importantly, her family. Shirley declared, “After reading that book, I wanted to be Tasha Tudor, and I knew I was at a perfect place in my life to start over.”

Shirley Flamming

As a young mother, Shirley balanced the demands of church and home with the medium of clay.
Her studio has provided her a prayerful retreat for over 40 years.

The division in the Southern Baptist Convention had an enormous effect on the Flammings. In the late 70s a conservative group in the convention announced their intention to take control of the denomination’s agencies and institutions. For a few years in the 80s, Jim served on a “Peace Committee” that tried to heal the rifts between “moderates” and “conservatives.” That experience gave Shirley a new look at denominational life. She wondered how God could be working amidst all the ugliness she was seeing. She questioned her previous assumptions: “I had always thought that Southern Baptists were the only denomination doing something good. If this was no longer true, then I wanted to be part of a larger framework to see what God was accomplishing through other Christians.”

Shirley found an opportunity to do that as one of the founding board members and later president of Richmond Hill, an ecumenical retreat center. She was attracted initially to its interracial and interdenominational makeup. Through participating in its programs, she began to discover the contemplative nature of her own faith. “This was a life changing experience for me. My own spiritual life was deepened through silent prayer and reflective retreats. But more importantly, by being with people of other faiths and ethnicity, I learned that God was bigger than I had imagined and that I needed to bless what people were doing for Him in this world.”

Shirley’s mornings spent in silence and prayer led to her giving workshops on praise and thanksgiving in the U.S., Mexico and South America. Shirley stated, “Significance of purpose for Jim was accomplished through the church, but I was learning that I had been given a different set of gifts, and one was to make friends for the church outside of church.”

In 1989, the Flammings’ second son, Dave, moved to Richmond with his family to be closer to the Medical College of Virginia for his treatment. They lived with Shirley and Jim for two years before leukemia took Dave’s life. “After Dave died, no one in our family was the same,” Shirley confessed. “I saw how the Lord had gone before me preparing me in such a powerful way. Dave’s children had lost their dad, and I didn’t want them to lose their childhood, so I put my all into Dave’s family to bring delight back into their lives.” That decision continues to bring comfort and joy in the midst of pain.

Soon the Flammings’ other sons, Doug and Dee, had children. Shirley began traveling, infusing her spiritual energy and gifts into their families, as well as into her larger extended family. “I love worshiping with God’s people, but I no longer feel the need to be a constant presence at church to be full of God’s spirit while doing His will. God sends me people to befriend, to bless, and to pray for. But, as my family has grown and aged, God’s heart has prompted me to remain close to them in order to be true to myself.”

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