Today I had the great honor of speaking at convocation for Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Below is the message I prepared to welcome the incoming class of BTSR. I hope it blesses seminary students, faculty, graduates and friends everywhere. Over the years I have heard many people question the importance of a theological education. This message is my testimony to the value I place on my seminary experience.
I grew up completely un-churched in the heart of the Bible belt. I was that “lost child” all the church ladies prayed for, the one they assumed did not know Jesus. My image of the church was a place where people sat and pastors preached. I was outside the walls and wondered what it would be like to sit in those pews.
In my late twenties through a series of miscarriages, God led me inside the walls of the church building and I found a comfortable home in the pew. I knew all the faces who sat near my comfy pew home and they loved me into the Christian family. I belonged in that pew. I was finally comfortable inside the church walls.
In 2001, with the demise of Enron, my family moved from Houston to Richmond and I lost my comfy home in that pew. I landed in Richmond, not knowing anyone. There was a stirring in my spirit, an unrest that I could not explain. I felt God was calling me to go beyond pew sitting, and I answered that call by enrolling in BTSR in 2003.
At orientation, I learned that BTSR is dedicated to training “pastors.” That scared me! I was not pastor. The Pastor was the one who stood and preached to the pew sitters. I did not know what God was calling me to do, but I knew it was not that!
Like all smart BTSR first year students, I enrolled in New Testament. It was Dr. Spencer who first helped me see beyond the pew. My epiphany came in our study of Luke 4:16-21. You know the passage. It is Jesus first sermon in the book of Luke. He has gone to his home town of Nazareth, into the synagogue. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
In our study of this passage, Dr. Spencer said something I will never forget. He said “This was Jesus Mission Statement.” He claimed that if you looked at the life of Christ, in the book of Luke, Jesus lived out his mission statement through his earthly ministry.
If this was Jesus mission, I felt certain that this passage was critical in my discovery of my own path. What excited me about this passage was that it went way beyond the preaching to the pew sitters. Jesus ministry was directed to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. I still did not know where my journey would lead but it was the first time that I realized that as a “pastor,” I could be called beyond the pew and outside the walls of the church.
The next stepping stone in my journey beyond the pew came through Dr. Newman’s Ethics class where we read Christine Pohl’s book “Making Room: Rediscovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition.” Pohl seemed to take Jesus words in Matthew 25:40 literally. When Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Pohl claimed that there was some kind of mysterious transaction that happened when Christians served the poor. She seemed to really believe that Christ spirit was present beyond the pew and outside the walls of the church in the streets with the poor. This intrigued me so I signed up to serve at CARITAS at my local church.
Dr. Brachlow would have been very proud of me that evening. I went open to hearing a word from God from total strangers and I was not disappointed. I met a young mother, we will call her Stephanie. She had a three week old baby. Pohl was correct, Christ was there with me beyond the pew as Stephanie shared her journey out of homelessness and something mysterious did happen. I felt God leading me to befriend this woman. I have never done anything like this before in my life, but I knew it was of God.
Over the next several months, Stephanie and I just hung out together. She was a mom, I was a mom. We were not so different. But Stephanie’s life was lived far beyond the pew, trapped in addiction, crime and emotional instability. Stephanie took me into a world not visible from the pew, a world not welcome inside the walls of the church.
When I asked her what she wanted to do with her life, she said “I just want to help people because so many people helped me.” So that is how Embrace Richmond got started. Stephanie started identifying people in her community who had needs and I started collecting things to help them. We started with easy stuff like baby cloths, strollers, toys but eventually that all grew into the largest furniture bank on the eastern sea board. For a year, Stephanie served her neighbors and I saw her confidence grow as she claimed her identity as a servant of God. To date that furniture bank, which I spun off to CARITAS in 2008, has served over a thousand households. It is a bridge between the pew and Stephanie’s world.
As I sat in Dr. Oladipo’s class and he talked about the importance of raising up indigenous leaders, I realized that that was what I had done with Stephanie and wanted to continue to do. When I spun the furniture bank off to CARITAS, the most important thing to me was that formerly homeless individuals continue to operate it. In 2008, Embrace Richmond received an AmeriCorps grant and we have dedicated half of that grant toward the ongoing support of the furniture bank. Annually, we employ eight homeless/formerly individuals and mobilize dozens of homeless volunteers who serve in the furniture bank program.
After transferring the daily operation of the furniture bank to CARITAS. I knew I wanted to help more people like Stephanie be a blessing to their own communities. So we began doing community development work in Hillside Court and Fairfield Court and we began hiring formerly homeless and at-risk men and women to reach out and be a blessing to these communities. Charles Fitzgerald is with us today, he is our first “Street Saint” and is entering his third year of service. He is one of roughly eight formerly homeless and at-risk individuals who will join our community development team this year. These team members will mobilize more than fifty community volunteers who are reshaping the inner city of Richmond. This team is bringing the sanctuary into the streets. They are redefining what it means to be church, a church that has no walls or pews.
Sadly, Stephanie is no longer a part of our Embrace team. We lost her to the streets and her addiction. While the vision of providing employment to more than a dozen formerly homeless individuals is a beautiful vision, the reality is that it is hard. I wish I would have listened to Dr. Bagby back in the early days of embrace. Back when I thought “boundaries” were unnecessary and self care overrated. I have had my heart broken many times as I have watched beautiful people succumb to addiction and have been powerless to do anything about it. However, in those days when I want to quit, I call up Charles, who is himself a walking miracle of God’s redemptive power, and he reminds me “God’s got it.”
The vision was taking shape but it was not complete. I realized that until the church behind the walls answered Dr. Biddle’s challenge, we would not be living fully into God’s vision. It is a challenge that has been ringing in my ears for five years. It came in our study of Deuteronomy where I began to understand the connection between Israel’s freedom from slavery and God’s call to do Justice by freeing those who are poor and oppressed. One day Dr. Biddle said, “Imagine if one Sunday a month, every church in America came out from behind the church walls and focused on doing justice in the world. How would that change our country?” I knew then that somehow, God was calling me to be a part of that kind of vision. A vision of the entire church body going beyond the pew and welcoming whose who would never be at home inside the church walls.
Every month, Embrace Richmond hosts what we call “Blessing Days.” Through these events we bridge people in the pews with the inner city through the efforts of Street Saints like Charles. Annually we mobilize roughly 1000 congregational volunteers from churches across the city who unite to do justice in the inner city of Richmond. It is a beautiful thing to see!
These bridge building events help us achieve the final element in the vision of Embrace Richmond which was revealed during a class I took on Ecumenism at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Having grown up outside the church, coming to faith in the Lutheran church, finding my way into a Baptist seminary, birthing a ministry made up of 90% catholic women, and at the time being a member of a Methodist church, I knew whatever God called me to, it would involve unity of the entire body. Prior to coming to BTSR, I had never been a member of a Baptist church. But I was embraced in this place and I found a home here. In my class on Ecumenism, the professor said, “We will never be able to unite the body of Christ around doctrine. However, we can unite in our care of the poor and the oppressed.” The vision and Mission of Embrace was complete.
We envision a city united to embrace all who are in need; bridging people of every race, class, and religious background together to care for one another.
Our Mission is to strengthen impoverished communities by empowering community-based leaders and engaging people of faith in works of service.
This leads us back to our key scripture for today, Ephesians 4:1-13. Both the vision of unity and the mission of equipping people for works of service are contained in this passage. However, the most important lesson I learned from this Ephesians passage is that Gods vision of a pastor is far bigger than “Preaching to the Pew Sitters.” It is a vision that recognizes that our preaching is for the purpose of equipping the saints for works of service. It is a vision that values the gifts of the apostle as well as the prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher. It is a vision that leads to unity of the body and the fullness of Christ manifest in our communities.
As a woman who did not see herself preaching to the people in the pews, I really struggled claiming my identity as a pastor. However, BTSR broadened my vision and helped me claim my apostolic gift and allowed me to shape my pastoral call; a call that took me outside the walls and beyond the pews.
Whether your call leads you inside our outside the church, I pray you will always have a vision that goes beyond the walls and see your congregation as bigger than just those who occupy the seats in the pew. I pray as you journey through seminary; you will look for God in the strangers and will seek to live what you learn from this amazingly talented faculty.
May you go in peace and serve the lord who dwells beyond the pew.