Category Archives: Stories from the Street

A Church Resurrected: Interview with Pastor Sammy Williams (Northminister- Part 3)

Over the past few months, I have been writing a series of blog posts about Northminister Church.  This series grew out of a post I wrote titled, “A Search for Kingdom Churches.”  My definition of a Kingdom Churches are churches that:

  1. Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
  2. Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
  3. Do more than give money or stuff, but that build relationships that are transforming not only the city, but also the church.
  4. Support Kingdom work without getting the credit or having some other ulterior motive like recruitment of church members.

My series about Northminister started with a brief conversation with Pastor Sammy Williams. As Sammy shared stories with me about how his church is loving its neighbors, he continually gave the credit to others like Jeanne Murdock, Cassie Matthews, Karel Harris and Terry Smith.  However, I have been around church life long enough to know that leaders such as these, do not spontaneously emerge.  It is only through pastoral leadership that individuals with such great passion and heart are empowered to do what these amazing ladies have done.  You can learn more about Jeanne Murdock’s and Cassie Matthew’s ministries by reading my interviews with them from earlier this year.

I decided to interview Pastor Sammy Williams to try to understand why God was drawing all these leaders to this one church and why these leaders had been able to flourish in the culture of this congregation.  Sammy gave me the answer in the first two minutes of our interview.  He shared that for many years, he had been mentored by Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Savior in Washington DC.  I have written about Church of the Savior many times and have shared insights gleaned from their printed materials but I have never had the privilege of meeting Gordon Cosby.  I knew right away that the relationship between Sammy and Gordon was the key to why this ordinary urban church that was on a path to death was experiencing an extraordinary movement of God.

Sammy shared the history of the church with me:

When I came to Northminister in 1986, the congregation was  80% retired.  But there was this small group of people in their 20’s who were just alive and who just knew that God wanted to do something with this church.

Northminister was referred to at the time as an “ex-neighborhood church.”  Northminister started out as the Barton Heights Baptist church and was located on North Avenue in the heart of Barton Heights.  They were looking to move in the 1940’s because they had outgrown their building.  Everyone also knew that African American’s were beginning to move north in the city. The thinking of the white community was that black families would never move north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  The church purchased what is now the whole subdivision around Northminster.  They formed a corporation, subdivided the property, and sold lots to members.   They spent 10 years developing the subdivision and building the church.

When they moved into the building in 1956, the Pastor had a parsonage across the street from the church.  Every Saturday after lunch he would leave his house and walk the neighborhood and get home in time for supper.  He said he would have spoken to 2/3 of his members in that short walk.  At their height, the church had 1400 people in Sunday school.

The sanctuary was completed in 1963.  Shortly thereafter, the first African American family moved north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  All the white families began to leave.  So what I inherited in 1986 was the remnant.  It was roughly a 300–member church. While the church started to attract new people, I was doing 30 funerals a year. So we were basically staying level.

We did some strategic planning in 1997.  That task force came back with their report and the first line of that report was – the family secret.  The family secret was that if something radical did not change this church would not survive the deaths of the present members most of whom were retired.

For several months thereafter we facilitated listening sessions.  This was radical for us.  We would come and worship at 9:00 and then break into small groups of 50.  We talked about selling the property and moving to Hanover.  We looked at the cost and the value of selling our building.  When the congregation looked at our beautiful building and the reality of what we could afford to build, the question became, “Are we really called to leave this neighborhood?” There really was a sense that we should stay.

The final proposal we adopted was that we start a new church in the present location. We realized that we were missing two generations and we knew we really needed to reach folks 25-35 years of age to stay alive.  We realized that to attract that demographic we needed a more contemporary worship experience.

I had never been to a contemporary service and had no desire to go to a contemporary service back in 1997.  I remember walking by a contemporary service at a CBF conference and thinking, “Why would anyone want to do that!”  One summer I went to 7 contemporary worship services.  Everything was contemporary but the sermon was the same.  I started asking, “How can we get the sermon to match the culture of the rest of the service?”  Over time I learned to preach in a whole new way.  We started attracting adults who had never been to church.  I taught the new member class and these new members were like blank slates.  They were hungry and I found that they energized me. After doing this new worship service for a year, I realized that I had a “new church” that I really loved and that really energized me.

When we decided to start the contemporary worship service none of us had a clue how to do that.  We put out a call to anyone interested in helping with a contemporary service and God sent eight people.  We had guitar players, drummers, keyboard players and vocalist and I was shocked – they were really good.  They were sitting in our sanctuary and their gifts were going unused.

One of the difficulties I have as a Pastor is that we are taught to compare. The models that are out there all focus on church growth.  One summer I visited 10 of the top churches in Richmond.  They were all excelling in what the world defines as success.  However, only one of them was truly racially integrated.

After that summer, I realized I much prefer what we have at Northminister.  It is not the model for church growth. I have been there 24 years and we have about the same number of people as we did 24 years ago.  The big difference is that we are less than 20% retired.  When I came to the church less than 5% of the members lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the church, today roughly 25% live around the church.  When I came to the church the congregation consisted entirely of European American’s and today roughly 20% of our congregation is African American.

Today I have two very distinct churches.  The early service consists of the remnant of the church I inherited and the later service represents the church God has birthed within the original church.

I recently had a conversation with my staff about a church I heard about in town and their response was “They are the cool church.”  So I asked my staff, “What one word would you use to describe us?” They decided the word “peculiar” fit us best.  However, the one word I pray we become known for is the word “authentic.”

The model that I would like to pattern Northminster after is Church of the Savior. Gordon Cosby is my pastor and has been mentoring me for many years.  Gordon is the most deeply connected-to-God person I have ever met. I go up to spend time with him about once a month.  When I asked him how he got to be the person he is, he said “All my life I have been in small groups with my people and they have taught me the most important things I know.”

I would say that Sammy has clearly been shaped by his mentor Gordon Cosby.  While Sammy would say that Northminister has a long way to go to even come close to being in the same category as Church of the Savior, he has seen what very few pastors ever see.  He has witnessed the resurrection of a church.  He credits this new life to all the leaders like Jeanne, Cassie, Terry and Carol and the compassionate ministries they have birthed for bringing the spirit of unity, hospitality and welcome that permeates this church.  However, none of this would have happened had Sammy not been willing to let go, release control and trust that these women were responding to a clear call from God.

I want to thank Sammy and the folks from Northminster for restoring my faith in the institutional church.  While many of my blogs focus on my perceived short comings of the inherited church models, Northminister is a beautiful example of how God is birthing fresh expressions of the church even within the walls of the existing institutional structures.

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Filed under Community Development, missional church, Stories from the Street

A Search for Soul Food

Smoking Jointphoto © 2007 Wiros | more info (via: Wylio)My favorite way to spend a Friday night is to camp on the couch, set Pandora loose with one of my favorite songs and catch up with friends on Facebook and Twitter.  God always uses that background music to draw my attention to ordinary moments and turns them into divine encounters.

Today it was these words from the secular artist Jewell’s song “Little Sister” that got my attention:

My little sister is a Zombie in a body
with no soul in a role she has learned to play
in a world today where nothing else matters
but it matters, we gotta start feeding our souls
Not our addiction or afflictions of pain
to avoid the same questions we must
ask ourselves to get any answers
We gotta start feeding our souls
have been lost to the millions with lots
who feed on addiction selling pills and what’s hot
I wish I could save her from all their delusions
all the confusion
of a nation that starves for salvation
but clothing is the closest to approximation
to God and He only knows that drugs
are all we know of love

These words resonated deeply with my own reality.  We have been working hard with our friends in Hillside, many of whom have become like family to us.   Our friends voice a desire for employment, but like the “little sister” in Jewell’s song, are like Zombie’s whose bodies have been taken over by addiction.  Week after week I watch as good people make bad choices related to drugs.  Marijuana seems to be the drug of choice for many of our younger friends and no matter how clearly we articulate the dangers and consequences of abusing substances, they continue to act as if it does not matter.

Like the older sister in Jewell’s song, I wish I could save my friends from the delusions and confusion that plague the Hillside community.  I wish I could save people from the demon of drugs that is robbing them of the abundant life God desires for them.   As I was reflecting on my feelings of helplessness in this matter, the words “We gotta start feeding our souls” leaped out at me.

My very wise friend Charles Fitzgerald who has himself overcome a 33 year addiction through the support of The Healing Place program often says, “If you miss the spiritual part of the program, you miss the program.”  We all know the battle before us is spiritual in nature.  We can continue to invest tremendous energy into vocational mentoring and job readiness programs only to have substance abuse undermine those efforts for many of our friends or we can get serious about helping people feed their souls.  I am not sure yet what form that soul feeding will take.  I am just sensing God is calling us to focus our efforts in that direction at this season in our journey.

I would love your input into this conversation, especially those of you who have experienced challenges related to substance abuse personally or with family members and friends.

What kind of soul feeding helped you break free of drug addiction?  For those who have walked alongside those with addictions, what kind of soul care did your friend or family member find helpful?  What advice would you give us as we seek to come alongside those trapped in addiction?


Filed under Spirituality, Stories from the Street

A Melancholy Moment: Flashback to High School

I have three teenage daughters and as they face the challenges inherent in being teenagers, I seem to be reliving those times in my own life.  My eldest is a rising senior and as she looks with anticipation toward college and a very bright future, I feel her anxiety.  Will she get into the college of her choice? What will she major in?  Will she miss her high school friends. Will she be able to make new friends in college?  The future is full of possibilities and uncertainty, hope and fear, promise and possible disappointments.  I remember it like it was yesterday.

My younger two daughters are still in the midst of being teenage girls with all the challenges of maintaining healthy friendships.  As I think back to high school and all the cattiness that was just a part of growing up, I can relate to the stories of discord that they share.  Of course I am sure every mother sees her daughter as the victim, the one who is just misunderstood.  I am sure my girls are not the sweet, innocent, bystanders I make them out to be.  None of us would ever want to admit our children are the perpetrators behind the unkind behavior.  But, as I feel their pain of being the victim, I also remember the times I was the one causing the pain.

I grew up in a very small town.  I had pretty much the same grouping of friends from the day I was born until the day I graduated High School.  Yes, that is us above at our junior prom.  We all just moved through the years from one clique to the next.  I eventually landed in the “brainy/semi-popular” clique.  I was friends with the cheerleaders and the Homecoming queen but I was never center stage.  I learned early on that drama seemed to be directed toward whoever was in the middle of circle and being on the periphery was preferable.

While I truly had little to do with all the drama, I did do some things I am ashamed of to this day.  Like the time I stood by while one friend beat another friend, or the time I shared gossip about a friend that was ugly and hurtful.  Those times I was untrue to a friend still haunt me nearly 30 years later.  I am sure the friends I hurt have long ago forgiven and forgotten about the incident, yet I have not.  Anytime we are untrue to who we truly are, we injure ourselves more than we injure those our behavior was directed at.

So here it goes – Beth, Heather, Kristi, Jill, Marion, Connie, Brenda, Sandy, and our sweet departed sister Janet: I am sorry.  I am sorry for not being the friend you deserved in high school.  I am sorry for any gossip I repeated.  I am sorry for any opportunity I had to defend you and did not.  I am sorry that I cared more about fitting in than I did about being a faithful friend.  It is with tears streaming down my face that I say “Please, forgive me.”  I was blessed to have you all as friends.  Of course there were many other wonderful girls and a few boys whom I had the privilege of calling friends through the years but the nine of you impacted me more than any others.

As I listened to my girls share their friendship woes this week, I realized that many of their challenges would be solved if they or their friends would simply learn to say “I’m sorry.”  I know through the years, I have been a lousy role model in this department.  I am stubborn, selfish and prideful – diseases that are prevalent in our society.  So, I wonder what would happen if all the adults started modeling humility, grace and forgiveness.  Could we change the teen culture?  I know, that is a stretch but you all know I am dreamer.

Hope you all have a good weekend and that you spend it with good friends and if you have a chance, you might want to reach out and say “I am sorry” even if it is 30 years too late.


Filed under Personal Reflection, Stories from the Street

From Believers to Followers

My friend Lee made a good point on my blog about Christian Unity.  He quoted Jesus story of the Good Samaritan as an example of Christ call to live our faith, not just believe or say the right words.  I think if Christians put more emphasis on “following Jesus” and less on “believing in Jesus” there would far greater Christian Unity.

The fourth Thursday of every month, our Hillside team hosts a community fellowship event.  It is generally some sort of pot luck with Embrace providing the main course.  We celebrate birthdays, play games and just have fun with the team of Hillside residents who volunteer with us throughout the month.  However, the highlight of these fellowship events is always welcoming new leaders onto our leadership team.  In February, it was Windell’s turn to be inducted onto the team.  I have never seen anyone smile as big as Windell did when Janie pulled his official Embrace Richmond t-shirt over his head and he got a big embrace from both Janie and I.  He then went to his neighbor Debra, and gave her a big hug and said, “Thank you for telling me about Embrace Richmond.  This has been such a blessing to me!”

I sat and listened as Debra sang Windell’s praises.  She shared how she had been ill recently and how Windell came to her house every day to check on her.  How he went to the pharmacy and got her some medicine and went to the grocery store for her and how he came by regularly to lift her spirits.  She also shared that Windell did this for many people in the community.  In a community where most residents have been taught to stay to themselves, Windell is going against the cultural tide and breaking down walls of isolation that separate neighbors from one another.

While most people have images of gun wielding thugs when they think about Hillside Court, I have images of all the Windell’s who are just trying to make their community the best it can be.  In the nearly two years we have been walking the streets of Hillside, praying for the community, gathering the residents, and helping them tackle some of the challenges they face as a community, I have met a number of people like Windell.  They are people who choose to do the right thing, not for money, not for fame or glory, but just because it is the right thing to do.  They are people who simply want to be a “good neighbor.”

When asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

We spend a lot of time in the church talking about and learning practices to help us live the first part of Jesus reply, “loving God.”  However, we spend very little time learning how to be good neighbors.  You might recall that Jesus was asked in Luke 10:29, “Who is my neighbor?”  Rather than give a simple answer to this question, Jesus replied

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denariiand gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”

The part of this story that always speaks to me is that it was not the religious leaders who actually lived the religious teachings, but someone who was not even a part of the Jewish faith.  When I look at Windell, I see the good Samaritan.  I have no idea what Windell’s religious beliefs are, but he obviously lives out the second half of the Great Commandment better than most of us.

This month, Patrice officially joined the team.  Patrice is featured in the picture above standing next to me.  You may remember Patrice’s name from my post a few months back.  She is the one who stepped up during our listening meeting on safety to lead a team dedicated to supporting Hillside families.  Since that day, Patrice has worked hard to fulfill the commitment she made that day.  Like Windell, Patrice simply seeks to be a good neighbor and honestly she puts me to shame.

If asked, “What is the role of the suburban church when it comes to under-resourced urban communities?”  I think Jesus would answer, “to be a good neighbor.”  The Samaritan addressed the emergency need of the man on the road and then insured that he would be well cared for by the innkeeper.  In the same way, we are to help people in crisis but also to support the innkeepers who can provide ongoing care and support to those in need.  In other words, we are to help insure people like Patrice and Windell have what they need to be successful in caring for those who have been deeply wounded in their community.

Windell and Patrice both serve as “Care Leaders.”  Care Leader’s are kind of like “innkeepers.”  They look out for the people in their part of the Hillside community and they basically model for the rest of the community what it looks like to be a good neighbor.  We are honored to have such an amazing care team.

A few weeks ago, two more young people were gunned down in Hillside court.  For the first time, I actually knew the families of both the victims.  Among the first people to visit the families were members of the care team.  In a community with so much pain and heart break, there are these “Samaritans/innkeepers” in the mix and it makes my heart rejoice. I can’t wait to see who God raises up next!

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Filed under Community Development, Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

The Virus is Spreading and I Hope You Catch it

masque anti virusphoto © 2009 ZYG_ZAG | more info (via: Wylio)The one thing I brought back from my cruise that I would have liked to leave on the boat is a nasty little virus that has left me with a sore throat, runny nose and overall yucky feeling.   My husband caught it on Friday, I came down with it on Saturday and then the girls got it on Sunday.  I probably infected my entire staff on Monday and all of Hillside court on Tuesday.  If you are one of my victims, please forgive me!

Viruses are rather amazing organisms.  You can’t see them because they are so tiny but they can infect grown healthy men and bring them to their knees.

Today, I witnessed another type of virus.  It started during our morning meditation when Antionette shared that she had been dreaming of this day for two years.  You see today, we launched our first mobile food pantry.  For those of you who do not know, the mobile food pantry is basically a food pantry on wheels.  For two years, we have been working with the Hillside tenant council, RRHA and local churches to try to address food scarcity in Hillside Court, but a lack of secure space and a lack of funds prevented us from moving forward.  The cool thing about the mobile food pantry is that you don’t need space.  The truck rolls in, you distribute the food on the sidewalk and the truck takes everything that is left over away.  It is an amazing site to see.  The other cool thing is that it is fully funded by the Central Virginia Food Bank which is such a gift to a community like Hillside court where there are no organizations who could afford that much food.

The virus then spread from Antionette to our  volunteer team as we reflected on the story of Jesus feeding the multitude in John 6 with the lunch of one small boy.  We got to be the disciples and distribute this gift which was truly direct from the hand of God.  As we reflected upon how this miracle arrived in our community and all the prayers we had prayed for food resources over the years, Vanessa helped us see that miracles are times like this.  No one on the outside would see the miracle but we all knew that is what we were witnessing.  I believe it was that time of praising God for this miraculous gift that infected the team with an attitude of gratitude.

It was then the team who infected everyone who walked in the door.  As Antionette greeted our guest with a smile and instructions, they felt welcomed and invited into the joy of the day.  As Sylvia and Vanessa processed applications and verified ID’s they extended dignity to our guests. As Chinary entertained those who were waiting with a game of charades, they could feel her positive energy and their frustration with having to wait in line turned into joy.  As Ann took their vouchers and John helped load their bags, they did so with a smile and cheerfulness.  All the way down that line, the spirit of joy translated into a spirit of gratitude from those who received.

By some miracle, we served every family and had a small amount left over to meet emergency food needs between now and the 1st of the month.

One of my favorite stories from today came from Janie.  There was a young single mom with a newborn baby and a toddler.  She was trying to hold the baby, the toddler, and two bags of groceries at the same time. There was a healthy, young man just standing around watching her struggle.  Janie went up to him and asked him to help her with her food.  He smugly said, “It will cost you .50 cents a bag.”  Janie looked him in the eye and said “You mean to tell me that you are not willing to help this woman and these kids out?  I am very disappointed that a young man as healthy and strong as you are would refuse to help this poor woman.”  Ashamed he grudgingly said “Oh, ok…I will help her.”  After he took the bags to her home, he returned to the food pantry, found Janie and said, “Thanks lady, that felt great.  Thanks for setting me straight and for making me help someone else.”  Janie then asked him if he had been through the line and he said, “No, I don’t live in Hillside.”  She said, “We have enough for everyone, grab a bag.”  He smiled at her and said, “Isn’t that just like God.  I finally help someone else and God has a blessing waiting for me.”

Viruses can infect grown men and turn them into grateful servants.

Throughout the day, the greatest blessing to me was the number of folks who came up to me and asked how they could get involved at Embrace.  They saw that the person greeting them was a resident of Hillside, the people behind the tables were residents of Hillside, the people unloading the trucks were residents of Hillside.  So many groups come into this community and “do for” the community but no one ever invites this community to “do for” themselves.  That spirit of gratitude quickly became a spirit of giving when they realized they could be on the other side of that table.  In a neighborhood where a culture of “taking” rules the streets, I know it was nothing short of a miracle that this virus of gratitude and giving is taking root.

On the applications for the mobile food bank, we asked folks if they would be willing to serve in the community and roughly 100 individuals said “yes.”  Watching people go from recipient to giver is one of the greatest joys in the world.  I can’t wait to see what God does with all these newly “infected” folks.  It is getting very exciting in Hillside Court!

Are you smiling?  Is your heart filled with joy?  I guess I should have warned you, I infected this post with the virus.  Now go and infect someone else!


Filed under Community Development, Stories from the Street

A Search for Kingdom Churches – Northminster Church Part I

“In John 14:12 Jesus states that “anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to the father.” In order to achieve Christ’s lofty vision for His church, we must become missional in our mindset, holistic in our approach, and transformational in our impact. Many churches need a new framework if they are to become transformational in their communities.”

This quote is from a study called “Operation: Restoration” which is available at the Communities First Association website. This quote captures the essence of what I shared in my post “A Search for Kingdom Churches” which I published last June.  At the time I wrote this post, I asked for people to help me find churches that:

  1. Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
  2. Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
  3. Do more than give money or stuff, but that build relationships that are transforming not only the city, but also the church.
  4. Support Kingdom work without getting the credit or having some other ulterior motive like recruitment of church members.

Over the years, I have had countless people share with me that Northminster Church was this kind of kingdom focused church.  Like many urban church’s in the city of Richmond, Northminster, suffered the ravages of “white flight” as church members fled the city for the suburbs. Ten years ago, the church was primarily a commuter church made up largely of middle class white suburbanites who only ventured into this low income largely African American community for worship once a week.  Over the past ten years, this church has made the journey from being a church “in” the community, to doing ministry “for” the community, to being a church that does ministry “with” the community.

This is a story of transformation that I think will give hope to many urban churches.  It is a story that involved not just one person, but the whole body pulling together to change a community from the inside out and in the process transform a church.  Over the next several weeks, I will be sharing with you how God used ordinary people who possess a kingdom perspective to usher in the reconciling Kingdom of God here on earth.  I am sure all my friends at Northminster will agree, they are still on a journey but I think we can glean a lot from their story thus far.

This past week when I met Sammy Williams, Senior Pastor of Northminster Church, he pointed me in the direction of Jeanne Murdock and said that the transformation at Northminster started with Jeanne.  I had the privilege sharing a cup of coffee with Jeanne.  What follows is her story.

Ten years ago, Jeanne joined the staff of Northminster Baptist Church as the office manager.  One of her duties involved giving out food to those who contacted the church for assistance.  At that time the food pantry was rather small and seen as an auxiliary ministry but God gave Jeanne a vision for something more – something relational in nature.  She shared her vision for expanding the food pantry and having it open one Saturday per month with several people she hoped would run with it.  However, it kept coming back to her. It took a while, but Jeanne finally accepted God’s call.

Her first challenge was to secure space. The perfect room for her expanded food pantry was being used for storing what Jeanne termed “junk” that had accumulated over the life of the church – things like hymnals from the 1970’s, old Sunday school curriculum, broken furniture.  Jeanne overcame this first obstacle but not without some resistance.  She set up her new food pantry and was surprised when 12 people came on the first Saturday for food.

From the very beginning, Jeanne’s husband Buzz was at her side.  Initially, Buzz, a retired police officer, came to insure her safety.  However, as word spread about the food pantry, Buzz realized that people were walking miles to come and he began offering rides home.  That is where the real relationships began to take shape.

Within five years, the ministry had grown to every Saturday and was serving roughly 50 households every Saturday.  Over the years, VCU students had become the primary volunteer base.  One Saturday, Jeanne was running low on volunteers and one of the individuals who had come for food, Keith Parker, said “Looks like you need help”, and jumped right in.  From that day forward, Keith never missed a Saturday.  As Jeanne watched Keith come alive as he served his neighbors, she heard God saying “Give it away.”  She asked Keith to take over as the distribution manager and was thrilled when he began recruiting other community residents to help. He was from the neighborhood and was able to easily connect with the food pantry residents who gladly joined in.   Jeanne did not know it, but the day Keith crossed over from receiving to giving was the day God began a whole new chapter in not only her ministry but the life of the church.

Keith and Buzz became fast friends. Buzz discovered that Keith had lost his driver’s license, was dealing with substance abuse, and had become homeless.  When Keith made the decision to enter The Healing Place, Buzz committed to pick him up every Saturday so he could continue to volunteer at the food bank.  Keith graduated from The Healing Place and has been clean and sober every since.  He now speaks to groups around the city and mentors other addicts.

As Jeanne watched the ministry  grow and more and more residents joining in to help, she longed to see deeper relationships form.  In 2007, she had the idea of setting up a lemonade and cookie station so people could fellowship with one another during the distribution.  She shared the idea with Terri, a fellow member of the church, who loved the idea.  Terri was so excited about the idea that she shared it with Cassie Matthew her next door neighbor.  Though Cassie was not a church member, Jeanne welcomed her to join in the effort.

Cassie took the idea and ran.  She started not only putting out refreshments but began bringing in gently used clothing and other items that she and her friends wanted to give away.  As Cassie saw how grateful the food pantry recipients were to get the clothing and other items, God gave Cassie a vision for what she called a “Free Market” – basically a church yard sale where everything was free.  Christmas time 2008, Northminster hosted the first “Free Market.” The event was so successful that it has become a monthly event.

As Cassie was launching the “Free Market”, Jeanne was grieving the loss of her husband Buzz.  Jeanne realized that she would have to take a huge step back for a season but was thrilled that the food pantry would continue with community residents now running all aspects of the program.

This is the end of Jeanne’s story but the beginning of Cassie’s adventure.  I hope you will join me for Part II of this series next week.

Is your church a Kingdom Church?

Please share how your church is transforming your city by empowering under-resourced communities to meet their own needs.

Interested in becoming a Kingdom focused church?

Embrace Richmond is thrilled that Jay Van Groningen, the Executive Director of Communities First Association will be coming to Richmond.  Please join Jay and the Embrace Richmond team on May 26th – May 28th to learn more about Asset Based Community Development and how these principals are sparking a movement of community transformation and church renewal across this country.  To learn more about this opportunity, contact me at or watch the Embrace Richmond website for more information in the coming weeks.


Filed under Community Development, missional church, Stories from the Street

Will the Ax Fall?

Yesterday I escaped to our cabin in rural Virginia for much needed personal retreat.  I was lying on the picnic table studying the barren branches of the red oak tree above me, which appeared at first glance to be in its winter dormant state.  As I focused in on the branches, I realized there were tiny buds that were barely visible from where I was laying.  I climbed on top of the picnic table and got a closer look.  Sure enough, little buds which will soon be beautiful colored leaves were starting to appear at the tips of the branches.  With the ground still frozen, mother nature was preparing for the next season.

Like that tree, our ministry at Embrace is preparing to bring forth an abundance of new growth.  For the past year we have planted seeds, watered them, and waited.  Some of this new growth will be seen in the form of new projects like our partnership with Shalom Farms, the Food Bank Mobile Food Pantry, a new youth focused creative arts program with Oak Grove Elementary School CIS, health programs in partnership with MCV and the Health Department’s resource centers, a new computer lab and employment program at Hillside Court as well as a comprehensive block by block neighborhood care strategy just to mention a few.

However the more exciting growth is happening in a way few can see.  Slowly but surely people in our Hillside Court community are breaking free of the bonds of isolation that has held them captive in fear, loneliness and depression.  We are seeing not only new ministries take root and blossom but we are seeing people come alive, grow and bear fruit in the form of love for their neighbors.

While most people would never drive through Hillside and see what I see, those with eyes to see who are willing to be still, get up close, and really focus will see the buds of something beautiful developing.  In about six weeks my barren little red oak tree will burst forth with color, growth and promise.  Likewise, within six weeks the Hillside Court community will do the same.  The Recreation Center will no long sit empty most of the day but will become a hub of activity as our AmeriCorps members launch their new projects with zeal and excitement over what God has done in and through the residents of Hillside Court.

The newspapers are filled with stories of the death, violence and the utter despair of this community – death and destruction sales newspapers.   Will the TV camera’s still be around in six weeks?  Will anyone care to record the positive life- giving efforts of a few brave souls who have chosen not to live in fear but instead have gotten on the solution side of the issue?  I have been approached by several media personalities about doing stories about the recent murders in the community.  I have declined them all.  I believe a community will become what it focuses on.  If we put the focus on people being victims, then that is how they will see themselves.  I think my friends in Hillside have the power of God on their side and they are more than conquerors.  They will use what the enemy intended for harm and turn it into good.

While the enemy in Hillside carries semi-automatic weapons and thrives in a culture of terror and fear, the greatest enemy to this fragile community is not the killer on the corner – it is the arrogant in Washington DC.  All this new growth and development in Hillside court was made possible by funding from AmeriCorps.  Through these funds we have mobilized the residents to reclaim their community. We have created opportunities for people to earn a living, learn new skills and get a college education.  In an effort to keep campaign promises and win political clout, congress is poised with an ax at the root of our fragile little community as they threaten to completely eliminate the AmeriCorps program.

Howard Liebers writes the following regarding these proposed cuts:

AmeriCorps is a national service program which offers opportunities to millions of people from a variety of backgrounds to give back to their communities. They volunteer, some full time, for a very small living stipend and an education award. Among the recommendations from the House Appropriations Committee was a complete elimination of the AmeriCorps State and National Program to save $373 million. But the cuts translate to much more, impacting thousands of Americans who serve and more than 1,840 national and local non-profit and community groups.

Let’s take a look at the return on investment from AmeriCorps since 1994:

AmeriCorps Fast Facts:

§  637,000: Number of people who have served as AmeriCorps members since 1994.

§  774 Million: Total number of hours served by AmeriCorps members.

§  $1.77 Billion: Total amount of Segal AmeriCorps Education Awards earned by AmeriCorps members since 1994.

§  2.4 Million: Number of community volunteers managed or mobilized by AmeriCorps members in 2008.

§  3,300: Number of nonprofit, faith-based, and community organizations served by AmeriCorps members last year.

§  $6.3 Billion: Amount of AmeriCorps funds invested in nonprofit, community, educational, and faith-based community groups since 1994.

Pray God intervenes and protects not only the community of Hillside court but thousands of other non-profits like Embrace Richmond that will be impacted as well as the thousands of communities and hundreds of thousands who receive goods and services because of the work of AmeriCorps members serving across this nation.


Filed under Community Development, Stories from the Street

So what does Embrace Richmond do again?

It is really demoralizing to speak for 45 minutes to a group of pastors about your ministry and then get asked, “What do you do again?”  Even worse is to have people come up and tell me about the great furniture they have to give me for a furniture bank I have not run for more than two years.  I guess it is just human nature for people to gravitate toward the tangible things and to have trouble grasping the concept of development focused ministry.

In our materialistic American culture, far too many of our responses to poverty involve “giving fish” and far too few of our responses go to the level of “teaching people to fish.”  Even fewer of our responses get to the root causes of why some communities have no fish or “the condition of the pond.”

I want to thank Jay Van Groningen of Communities First Association for sharing this “fishing” analogy with me.  Jay coaches dozens of community development professionals across the country and apparently I am not the only person doing this work who finds it challenging to articulate the process in a way that others can easily grasp.

So here is yet another attempt to articulate what Embrace Richmond does.  We teach people to fish (individual development) by empowering them to address the lack of fish in their community (giving fish) and together we address the systemic issues that have eroded the relational, economic and spiritual fabric of impoverished communities (condition of the pond).

Still clueless?  Maybe a couple of stories will help.

Two years ago I met Antionette Morell (3rd person from right above).  She is a resident of Hillside Court who shared that she did not know her neighbors and felt isolated and lonely.  We invited her to come to our listening conversations and we learned that Antionette had a dreamed of making Hillside court a friendlier more connected place.  She had a dream of welcoming new residents with welcome baskets, getting to know her neighbors, getting the residents together for fellowship events.  For a year Antionette has served as a key volunteer in Hillside Court doing all the above.

Last week we brought Antionette on as an AmeriCorps member.  As an AmeriCorps member, she will be trained as a community organizer.  Antionette will meet the needs of her neighbors (giving fish), she mentors other residents in how to be good neighbors through our block captain program (teaching fish).  Most importantly Antionette will be breaking down the isolation so often present in resource poor communities.  Antionette is changing the condition of the pond by helping her neighbors build social capital.  It has been proven that individuals with strong social networks are better equipped to advance economically.  In her own small way, Antionette is breaking the strong hold of poverty in her community.

Still don’t get it.  Let’s try one more.

I met John (3rd person from left above)  last summer when he was selected to receive furnishings through our “welcome home” project.  On the day we furnished John’s Hillside home, Antionette gave him a welcome basket and I invited him to come to our community gatherings which he gladly did.  We learned that John felt strongly that everyone should have access to enough food.  You might remember John from the post Jesus brought Sweet Potatoes.  For more than six months, John has been a faithful volunteer on our health and safety team and two weeks ago he joined our AmeriCorps team as our “Food Security” project coordinator.

Like Antionette, John will be trained as a community organizer.  John will be coordinating our monthly trips to the grocery store, will lead our mobile food pantry project as well as our community garden partnership with Shalom Farms.  John will recruit his fellow residents to help him and in so doing, he will break down the walls of isolation, depression and fear that separate people in the Hillside community.  It is these walls of isolation that is allowing people to kill one another with no one calling the cops.  By breaking through the isolation, the residents will discover “the power of we” that is essential to stopping the violence.  In his own small way, John is saving lives by feeding the hungry in his community.

Please join me in praying for Antionette and John’s ministry to the Hillside Community.  They are truly missionaries and street saints in one of the most challenging communities in our city.

So what does Embrace Richmond do?  We find amazing people like Antionette and John and we pour all our resources into helping them achieve the dreams they have for their neighbors.

So, did I do it?  Did I explain what we do in a way that people will stop offering me their furniture and instead join me in supporting Antionette and John’s dreams?

Antionette and John are only two of our ten Community Focused AmeriCorps members who have mobilized dozens of Hillside residents.  There are dozens more amazing stories I have yet to share.  So, subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss any of our great stories!  And please feel free to share your own amazing stories.

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Filed under Community Development, Stories from the Street, Unity Works Reading

The Power of We: An Anti-Terrorist Weapon

“If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about your community in the next year, what would you change?”  This is the question we ask as a part of our initial asset mapping of our Hillside community.  I guess I should not be surprised to find that 100% of the individuals asked this question have responded “make the community safer.”  As I shared in 3 Weeks, 3 Shootings, 3 Dead, our Hillside community started off the year with an unprecedented level of bloodshed.

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Filed under Community Development, Stories from the Street, Unity Works Reading

3 Weeks, 3 Shootings, 3 Dead: Yet, The Promise Land Awaits

Earlier this week, I posted “Harmony and Gunfire”, a post in which I shared the blessings of our amazing MLK Day celebration and contrast it had with the gunfire that erupted just a few minutes after we left the community.  It was with fear and trembling that I hit the “post” button because there was this little voice asking, “Do you really want people to know that there was gunfire in the community during the daylight hours so close to an event?, What if people don’t come to Hillside anymore because they are afraid?”

On Tuesday night at 7pm, two women were gunned down in Hillside court, one losing her life.  Somehow through this tragedy, God has instilled boldness in my spirit. My petty fears over “What people will think?” or “How it will impact Embrace?”, now seem so ridiculous in the midst of the continued insanity that is all around my friends who live in Hillside court.  Three weeks into the new year, three shootouts, three dead.  It’s time to get over our fear and seek peace in our city!  I am thankful the Richmond Times Dispatch actually did a great write up laying out the detail of the murders in this small 440 unit complex.Read article here for a fuller background.

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Filed under Community Development, Stories from the Street