Northminster’s Next Chapter

On Palm Sunday the Northminster congregation voted to join forces with Atlee Community Church. You can read the official announcement here and find current info on the new Facebook page here. On Sunday, April 27th we celebrated our last worship service as Northminster Baptist Church and we are now Atlee Community Church-Northminster Campus. I’ve posted the message I offered at the Celebration Service below (if you’d rather listen, you can hear it here.)

Let me begin with an often-quoted verse of scripture:

“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Isaiah 43:19 (RSV)

The Creator of heaven and earth is inquiring, and as you scratch your head wondering if this is a trick question, I’ll clue you in. Whenever God points at some brand new thing the Creator is doing in the world and asks, “Do you not perceive it?” our honest answer is always: “No, Lord, I can’t. We can’t. New thing? Where?”

It is the human condition not to be able to perceive the amazing new thing God is about to do.
• When Joseph was hauled off into slavery, he could not fathom that God was in the process of doing an amazing new thing through him.
• When Moses stood before Israel’s elders with the news, “I have spoken with Yahweh and we are about to be set free,” they couldn’t imagine it.
• When Mary said to the angel Gabriel, “Let it be to me as you have said,” she could not perceive the height, breadth, length and depth of the marvelous new things God was about to do because she said Yes.”

See how it works? God begins doing a new thing, asks if we can perceive it, and the answer is always, “No.”

This morning we stand in a long line of faithful people who have looked at the blank page of the future and wondered, “God, are you really at work in this?”

I want to be clear about the shape of this new thing God is doing with Northminster.

Lynda and I go to the beach every summer, and I’ve started gathering my reading material. There is Ann Patchet’s new book The Story of a Happy Marriage and an old one by her called Truth and Beauty. I have Pat Conroy’s memoir, The Death of Santini, Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Invention of Wings, and I just ordered Amazon’s best selling Capital in the 21st Century.

Two novels, a memoir, a book of essays and an economics textbook. Different literary genres, but all of these books have one thing in common—each one is written in chapters.

All great writers use chapters to build on what has happened and launch you into what will happen. You don’t finish chapter 7 of a 30 chapter novel and say to yourself, “There is no way the author can top that. I’m done with this book.” No, when chapter 7 ends, you turn the page to chapter 8 and continue reading.

Here is Northminster’s history book. IMG_3766And guess what? It is written in chapters.
Chapter 1 tells the story of the church’s founding in 1891. It was named after Richmond’s first suburb, Barton Heights.
Chapter 2 documents explosive growth and the construction of a magnificent facility.                    Chapter 5 explains the details of the move to this current location.                                                            Chapter 6 deals with the challenges the congregation faced during the 1960s and 1970s.

I pointed out last month that while A People Called Northminster covers the period 1891-1975, we have been adding chapters year after year, as God has pushed us into the future, always breaking new ground. When we partnered with Metropolitan African American Baptist Church to build our first Habitat house, that was chapter. When we adopted the Romanov family—Christian refugees from Russia—we wrote a chapter. When we expanded the food pantry and watched it spawn a cluster of community missions, that was at least one chapter. Northminster’s history has unfolded in chapters.

Today, one Northminster chapter ends and another chapter begins.

Today is definitely an ending, and like all significant endings, this one stirs up sadness. For many of us today feels more like a visit to a funeral home than a baby shower.

But Northminster’s history has been filled with endings that were days of significant change.
When they moved from one location to the next to the next, it felt like today.
When long-term pastors resigned or retired, it felt like today.
When the congregation relocated to this campus in 1956, it felt like today. (They worshipped at the Hanes Avenue location for 28 years; then on April 29, 1956, they worshipped there for the final time; on the first Sunday in May 1956 they worshipped in this room for the first time. Congregational history is repeating itself this week and next.)

Talk about endings and new beginnings: Moving to this campus in 1956 forced significant changes, and they were not all well received: they changed the name of the church from Barton Heights to Northminster. They left a beautiful sanctuary to worship in a gym. They went from one Sunday morning worship service to two because the new gym was smaller than the sanctuary they left behind. The Barton Heights Banner—the weekly newsletter—became The Northminster News. Change comes hard in Richmond—when I came on the scene 30 years later, members were still calling the newsletter The Banner.

I believe it is good for us to remember today that we are not the first people to walk from one chapter of this church’s life to the next.

And while we’re at it, we should recall that people who have gone before us have demonstrated how to move from one chapter to the next.

You are familiar with this window:

Photo by Ronnie Schneider

Photo by Ronnie Schneider

The Sermon on the Mount Memorial Window is the focal point of Northminster’s sanctuary. Some of you have spent countless hours staring at this window while you waited for sermons to end.

This one is not as familiar:IMG_3756

It has a name: “The George T. Waite Memorial Window.”

Dr. George T. Waite Pastor 1917-1928

Dr. George T. Waite
Pastor 1917-1928

Dr. Waite was called as pastor in 1917 during a time when the church had stagnated. He was a dynamic pastor/preacher/administrator. During his 11 year tenure Dr. Waite oversaw the reorganization of the church’s governing structure, he led a dynamic outreach campaign and oversaw the construction of the Hanes Avenue location. When he began his ministry membership was 382; when he resigned to become executive director of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board membership was 1246.

And a number of those members felt the church’s best days were behind it. “We will never find another leader like Dr. Waite,” they said in their deep sadness. The church was 37 years old. It is now 123.

Dr. Waite died eight years later at 52, and to honor his memory the congregation commissioned this stained glass window. He represented an era of the church’s history that they did not want to forget.

20 years later, when they sold their facilities to the First African Baptist congregation, the contract stipulated that the Waite window would not remain with the building—the church took it with them to this campus and for 8 years it sat in storage until a place for it was constructed in the Grand Corridor which leads to the Sanctuary.IMG_3760

The Northminster/Barton Heights congregation has always moved into the future by honoring the past. This is happening with today’s new chapter. We are changing our name—not the first time that’s been done—to Atlee Community Church-Northminster Campus. The new name honors our history and heritage , even as structures and staff change. We take with us into the future Northminster’s DNA: a strong commitment to missions, a passion to be Jesus’ hands and feet in this neighborhood, a deep capacity to care for one another.

God is indeed doing a new thing today.

And as we move into the bright future, I would like for you to remember the promises with which Isaiah 43 begins:

“When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior… You are precious in my eyes… Fear not, for I am with you….” Isaiah 43:2-5 (RSV)

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Exciting News

northminster-headerToday I announced that after 6 months of discussions, Northminster’s leadership is recommending that we join forces with Atlee Community Church. If the congregation approves, we will merge with Atlee and become its Northminster Campus.

Atlee Community Church is no stranger to us. For almost 2 years we have been financial partners in the Advancement Center, a small jobs program for our Northside neighbors housed at Northminster.

I knew Atlee’s founding pastor, Chris Hembrough, when he was youth minister at Chamberlayne Baptist Church. When he told me about his plan to start a new church (with the help of Dover Baptist Association and the Virginia Baptist Mission Board) and to use drums, guitars and drama to appeal to seekers, I walked away thinking, “Chris has lost his mind!” This was 1995. Turns out he was crazy like a fox. Atlee has transformed thousands of lives over the last 18 years, and their creativity paved the way for contemporary styled churches in the Richmond area.

In 1997 when Northminster started our own contemporary worship service we visited seven congregations before patterning our service after what we had experienced at Atlee.

When people ask me, “Why a merger?” I offer two basic answers:

First, because we believe God is saying to our two churches, “You will be better together.” In his textbook on church mergers, Jim Tomberlin writes:

Most successful mergers today are mission-driven…. They occur when churches discern that their synergy could lead to a greater impact for the kingdom of God.

We believe that “missional” and “attractional” are not opposites but two sides of the same coin. Atlee’s strengths are attracting seekers to life-changing faith and building them into fully devoted followers of Christ. Northminster’s strength has been discovering and developing missions within it’s urban setting. We believe if our churches join forces, the kingdom of God will benefit.

Second, Northmister’s pastor of 27 years (that would be me) has been open about his intention to retire at the end of 2016 so that leaders can plan for a smooth transition. As we studied the options, merging with Atlee offered the strongest succession plan. Our new pastor, Jeff Boggess, would bring with him a community of 1500, a proven leadership ability, and a tested approach to evangelism and discipleship. Northminster is getting so much more than just a new pastor.

One of Northminster’s leaders described the advantages of merger this way:

As I have prayed for our church every day, I have become convinced that the work God wants done in this location far exceeds the capacity of our members. Merger means that God is sending the resources necessary to do the work God wants done here.

You can read about the merger in detail here.

What this means for me personally is that I will serve on the staff of Atlee Community Church through 2014 (and continue preaching Northminster’s traditional service), then I will retire a little earlier than I had expected. If you’re wondering, I think this is a very good thing!

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Stained Glass

Clyde Hickerson was pastor of Northminster from 1944-1965 . Once every year he would preach the Sermon on the Mount—Matthew chapters 5-7—from memory. So it was no surprise when he designed Northminster’s sanctuary in the late 1950s that the focal point was the Sermon on the Mount crafted in stained glass.

Photo by Ronnie Schneider

Photo by Ronnie Schneider

The window is 32 feet tall and 16 feet wide. It was designed by Frederick Cole and crafted in Munich, Germany.

The original drawing had Jesus seated, as he is in the Gospel of Matthew, but when Dr. Hickerson saw it, he felt the dimensions were wrong. So he and Mr. Cole  redesigned the window with Jesus standing and phrases from the sermon gently cascading like life-giving rain into the stream that fills the baptistry.

Whenever I stand in the sanctuary pulpit, I take comfort in the fact that if I fail in my work, behind me in beautiful plain sight was the most famous sermon in the world.

I’ve been thinking about this stained glass window this week thanks to the Reverend Elizabeth Mangham Lott.

Elizabeth is Northminster’s former youth minister and preschool coordinator. I am proud to call her one of my daughters in ministry. Last Sunday she was installed as pastor of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.

She wanted Northminster to be symbolically present in the service, so she put the Sermon on the Mount Window on the cover of the order of service.1623728_10153963228415107_834557483_n

Elizabeth, we wish you the very best. Your former community knows what a gifted pastor you are and how fortunate SCABC is to have you serving them. You’re going to do great things in NOLA (and all of us at Northminster look forward to visiting!).

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What Racism Looks Like

Every week Richmond Hill distributes a prayer guide called Metropolitan Richmond at Prayer. This week’s reads:

We pray to overcome in Christ’s name the heritage of racism: To proclaim in word and deed the Beloved Community; to experience the victory of Jesus’ resurrection over all personal and institutional results of racism and racial inequality in this metropolitan city.

Racism was on my mind before I received it. I saw 12 Years a Slave, I re-watched Lincoln, then there was all the coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death, much of it focusing on apartheid.

While reflecting on racism, I recalled a conference I attended two decades ago.

“What is your definition of racism?” Ken Sehested asked 25 Richmond pastors.


Racism is a word that everybody in RVA knows. We’ve seen it, experienced it, tasted and smelled it. But when Ken asked for a definition, this room full of black and white pastors— who I knew to be articulate and never shy about sharing their opinions—was silent.

Ken let the silence linger until it was squirm-in-your-seat uncomfortable. Then he went to the board and wrote this formula:

       Racism = Power + Prejudice

Turns out this is a classic academic definition. Suddenly the word that everybody knew but no one could define was reframed, and the floodgates of discussion were opened.

       Power + Prejudice

Think about it. And while you’re thinking, here’s a picture of racism in RVA today.

A few weeks ago, Lynn Williams from Crossover Healthcare Ministry dropped by to talk with Northminster’s staff about the Christlike, gap-filling medical ministries of Crossover. During her presentation she commented off-handedly:

A single mother with two children who makes $6,000 per year does not qualify for medicaid in Virginia. She is considered too well-off for assistance.

       Power + Prejudice

The overwhelming majority of single mothers in Richmond are black. The state legislature Virginia_Legislature_024a0that wields the power to decide who qualifies for assistance is mostly white and male, and they are all privileged.

Sadly, Power + prejudice is still at work today just as it has been throughout Virginia’s history.

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What Racial Harmony Looks Like

In an earlier post I suggested that “racial reconciliation” is a misnomer (to reconcile is to restore friendly relations between parties who used to be together but who have become separated: in the U.S. blacks and whites were never together in the first place). I recommended that “racial harmony” is a more reasonable goal.

Here’s a snapshot of what Racial Harmony looks like.

photo 1

And here’s the story behind the picture.

About a year ago Northminster’s youth pastor, Tiont Williams, came into my office with a proposal about summer youth camp. Instead of traveling to be a part of a denominational camp, he wanted to invite a youth group from a friend’s church to join our youth for a week of urban ministry. Youth and chaperones would camp out in our church building. They would engage in mission projects during the day and enjoy recreation and worship in the evenings. 

Tiont’s best friend from seminary, Amber Harris, is minister to youth at Fairfield United Methodist Church in High Point, NC. Fairfield’s group is made up of white suburban youth. Northminster’s youth are mostly urban black teenagers.

Tiont Williams and Amber Harris

Tiont Williams and Amber Harris

After months of planning, the Fairfield group arrived for supper on Sunday evening of the hottest week of the year. I was there to greet them, and my one word description of the first evening of camp is awkward. The Northminster youth were at one end of the gym shooting basketball; the Fairfield youth were gathered around a Wii at the other end.

When it was time for supper, Tiont and Amber stood before the group and announced that one of the goals of the week was to get to know each other. So when they sat down to eat, each table was to be a mix of the two groups. The youth followed instructions and ate together. Then they returned to their respective ends of the gym. Awkward.

On Monday morning they set out into the gosh-awful heat to volunteer with Habitat for Screen Shot 2013-11-01 at 2.20.56 PMHumanity, the Boys and Girls Club, and Embrace Richmond. Every day that week they painted, picked up trash, mentored elementary school students and learned what it was like to serve God by serving people in the city.

Did I mention that it was hot? Nothing bonds people like common suffering! And throughout the week the deep friendship between Amber and Tiont was contagious.

I returned for worship on Tuesday evening and could see that the groups had begun to mingle as friendships were developing. On Friday evening as they sat for worship, they were one group, black and white all mixed together. Saturday’s departure was filled with sadness as new friends were driving away/being left behind.

Both groups learned about urban ministry that week. And we all learned about racial harmony—singing our different notes and hearing them blend to the glory of God.

This weekend Northminster’s youth are traveling to High Point to visit their friends from Fairfield UMC. They are going to tour Winston Salem State University and Wake Forest University. They will renew friendships. And my guess is that when they worship together on Sunday morning, they will be a picture of racial harmony.

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Racial Harmony

Three articles about race caught my eye last week. The first one contained a link to this Racial Dot Map. Zoom in on Richmond and you’ll see a 21st century racially segregated city. Next, a denominational leader blogged about the need for racial reconciliation, and he insisted that we initiate more black/white dialog. Finally, Style Weekly’s cover story on Church Hill used the phrase “racial reconciliation” in it’s headline.

There was a time when I spoke of the need for racial reconciliation often. In 1991 I joined an interracial group of pastors who were praying, discussing and working to bring black and white Christians together in Richmond.

In a public meeting I made an impassioned plea for racial reconciliation, and then in a private, hallway conversation my future friend Rocoe Cooper Jr. corrected me.

Rev. Cooper, pastor of the Metropolitan African American Baptist Church, explained that to reconcile is to restore friendly relations between parties who used to be together but who have become separated. “Sam,” he argued, “blacks were brought to this country against their will and enslaved by white masters. You cannot bring back together two groups of people who have never been together in the first place.”

I was just a little flustered by his correction. I realized he was right about the definition of reconcile. All I could do was ask, “If you’re not going to use the word reconciliation, what word do you use?”

“I prefer the word harmony,” he said. “Harmony is when different notes are sung together to produce a sound pleasing to the ear. Harmony acknowledges and celebrates our differences. Harmony does not ask us to surrender who we are. Racial Harmony, it seems to me, is a realistic description of what we are trying to do; racial reconciliation is not.”

You may not like Rev. Cooper’s distinction any more than I did, standing in the hallway that morning. But I have become convinced that he is correct.

In fact my goal as a pastor and leader in the still-segregated capitol of the confederacy is to be an agent of racial harmony. Bringing together black voices and white voices, learning about our similarities and differences, and singing our beautiful, different notes, a sound that is certainly pleasing to God.

Racial Harmony. It’s a phrase that grows on you.

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“Wake up, O sleeper…” Ephesians 5:14

I spent last weekend at a Richard Rohr conference just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The retreat center was on Native American land and one of the recurring themes was, “Wake up to the wonder around you!”

We were encouraged to take time to notice some of the amazing things in that beautiful setting: flowers and trees, the magnificent night sky, sunrises and sunsets. Everywhere you turned there was something to astonish you.

Sunrise in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico

Sunrise in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico

The conference focused on the contemplative life and the main message was, “Don’t be so busy, so preoccupied that you fail to experience wonder, because a sense of wonder turns us toward God.”

All of us get so caught up in making a living, doing what has to be done on any given day that we lose our sense of wonder. And when we do, we also lose our connection to God.

One of the conference speakers was a Scottish preacher who shared a rabbinic legend about two men who experienced the parting of the Red Sea but never looked up. Above was a magnificent pillar of fire, protecting them from the Egyptian army. On either side was a wall of water, held back by some amazing force. But these two men, Rueben and Simon, totally missed the miracles around them because they were staring at their feet plodding through the mud:

Simon: I cannot believe they are forcing us to walk through this ankle-deep mud.

Rueben: Why this is just like the mud we used to make Pharaoh’s bricks!

Simon: Yes it is. All of our lives we have been trying to walk through this awful mud.

Rueben: Slavery and freedom are really the same, aren’t they? Nothing but mud as far as you can see.

If you’re like me, you hear this story and find yourself reflecting on how many days you’ve spent complaining about the mud instead of basking in the wonder of miracles all around you.

The contemplative life is about waking up to Reality—raising your gaze beyond the mud to be astonished.

I heard a mother, now in her 40s, share what she learned from her first pregnancy.

Early one morning about halfway through my pregnancy, I was given a thought during my quiet time. There is a child growing inside me who is totally dependent on me for food, for oxygen, for life itself, and she has no awareness that I even exist. At that moment I realized: This is exactly how it is with us and God. We are totally dependent upon God for nourishment, for breath, for everything in our lives, but most of the time we haven’t an inkling that God is even there.

The first step toward transformation is to wake up. One path to awakening is to notice the wonder all around you.

If you could find a few minutes today to look up from the mud you’re walking in, the Saints who have gone before you will surely cheer you on. Because when you notice wonder, you’re awake.

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