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Story by Clint Smith. Photos by Susan Brown, Win Grant, Ralph Starling and Jess Ward.

As members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, we regard our building as far more than brick and mortar. It’s a place where we go to seek God and where God lives to be sought. It’s a holy, safe place where we wholly present ourselves to the Lord and trust our deepest concerns with one another. For most of us, we cannot remember a time when our beautiful church didn’t reside gracefully at Monument and Boulevard, its permanence only eclipsed by its warmth and beauty. But the building is not ours, it is God’s—and every week, hundreds of people travel through our doors seeking not a worship service but support, advice, exercise, or simple camaraderie.

SMILE Christmas celebration

SMILE Christmas celebration

Two-thirds of the members of Single Moms in the Lord’s Embrace, better known as SMILE, are not members of First Baptist Church. “Single moms have a unique set of needs,” says Beverly Wells, who leads the monthly group. “We help single moms find acceptance, support, and confidence in themselves, while learning how to become better parents to their children with God’s presence in their lives.” When these women arrive at the church on the second Tuesday of each month, they are greeted with a prepared meal, free child care, and a guest speaker sharing advice on anything from home repairs and vehicle maintenance to real estate and budgeting. “One of our members came to me after the [budgeting] program with tears streaming down her face,” recalls Beverly. “She told me that the presentation was exactly what she needed to get control of her financial situation. On my drive home that night, I truly felt God’s presence and knew that He was blessing others through SMILE.”

The Divorce Recovery Ministry, celebrating its 25th year in September 2015, regularly reaches individuals struggling with marital separation and divorce. They come from as far as Farmville, Fredericksburg and Williamsburg, and from any religious background imaginable. “One of the biggest ways the Christian church can make a difference in the lives of people going through divorce is by creating a safe place for them to experience grace, healing and hope,” says Rev. Ralph Starling, Associate Pastor, Ministry of Invitation, and the facilitator of the annual Divorce Recovery Workshop. “By creating a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere, participants are able to learn to trust again and remember their value.” The workshop, which runs for eight consecutive Sunday evenings each fall, teaches participants to process their hurt, anger and grief, leveraging the trust in the room to form lasting new friendships. “Almost weekly I encounter someone at the grocery store or shopping mall that will approach me and say, ‘You may not remember me, but I was in your workshop at First Baptist years ago, and I just want you to know it … saved my life.’ This ministry is about transformation!”

Tai Chi class

Tai chi class

“I was weak, overweight, and generally miserable,” Jenny Barone said of her life after retiring from a career in law. “I found a tai chi class and signed up, and then I signed up for another, and another. Within a few years, I knew I wanted to teach this great form of exercise that anyone can do, whether standing or seated, and realize real physical and psychological benefits from it.” If regularly practiced, this ancient Chinese martial art improves balance, strength, breathing, circulation, and fall prevention. “Over half of our class comes from outside the church, and it’s been very rewarding for me and my students.” One particular student, Jenny tells, had not exercised in many years and had given up her beloved walks on the beach due to difficulty balancing in the deep, dry sand. Using the techniques Jenny taught her, she was again able to stroll down the beach. “Small victories over limitations, whether from aging or injury, are very rewarding!”

Upward basketball

Upward basketball

Other groups meet specific but deep needs, such as the Survivors of Suicide Loss. “I have lived through four suicides,” tells Shirley Ramsey, who leads this newly-formed ministry. “My mother, my mother’s brother, my sister’s son, and then [my son] all lost their battle with major depression. I learned the importance of opening our hearts and allowing ourselves to grieve our losses.” The tenth-leading cause of death among Americans age 10 and older, over 35,000 annual suicides leave a much larger number of grieving loved ones in their wake. “I decided this would be a good way to honor my dear [son] Jackson by helping others. When I tell my story, it opens doors for others to share. By opening conversation about suicide, we help to reduce the stigma that seems to surround mental illness.” She continues, “My First Baptist family has walked me through this tragedy with faith, love and compassion and I want to pay it forward to others.”

RVA United worship

RVA United worship

Through these and many other diverse groups, including Alcoholics Anonymous, the Boy Scouts of America, HOPE (Hanging on with Purpose Every Day, a depression support group), karate, RVA United (worship for 20- and 30-somethings), and Upward sports, First Baptist Church offers counsel, fun, friendship, and solace to hundreds of people. The multiplied impact of our gifts, both of time and money, is even greater when considered against this larger community. As usual, Jesus says it best: “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’” (Matthew 25:34-36, NRSV).

More information on ministries described in this article at:
•    Divorce Recovery Ministry, FBCRichmond.org/recovery
•    Single Moms in the Lord’s Embrace, FBCRrichmond.org/compassion/smile;
http://www.nbc12.com/story/28262935/focus-on-faith-frazzled-to-fabulous
•    Survivors of Suicide Loss, Shirley Ramsey (804-868-0082) or Ren Bell (804-548-6670)
•    Tai chi, Jenny Barone (804-382-8103)

Read related stories: Scouting at First Baptist Church, Moving Upward, RVA United is a big dream

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