A good friend of mine named Sterling Severns is the pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Richmond, VA. Sterling and I went to college and seminary together and he is a dynamic person and minister. His church has changed dramatically over the last year in some amazing and entirely unexpected ways. I thought I would share the story of those changes with you as an example of how I believe God wishes to surprise all of us with opportunities to serve people on the margins.
Tabernacle Baptist Church looks the part of a stately, white, urban congregation in the “Capitol of the Confederacy”. In its heyday, Tabernacle was a thriving city church with a sanctuary offering seats for thousands each Sunday. With the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention only a few short blocks away, Tabernacle was the site for missionary commissioning services that connected it with the entire world. Times changed and so did the neighborhood around the church. Families moved to the suburbs and the rowhouses around Tabernacle were often subdivided into apartments. They filled up with yuppies, hippies and college students, few of whom were interested in a traditional Southern Baptist Church. The church membership dwindled to a small group of older members and those who remained were heard to joke, “The last one who dies needs to turn out the lights.” They prayed for God to bring them new members, especially ones with children.
Five years ago, my friend Sterling was called as their pastor. His two children doubled the size of the Sunday School. As the Southern Baptist Convention became more and more conservative, the church chose to affiliate with moderate to liberal Baptist groups which helped it be more open to the community around it. Sterling’s considerable gifts also helped to draw in new members. Things began to seem less desperate and more hopeful. Still they prayed for God to bring them new members, especially ones with children.
One day, an associate minister of the church received a call from an acquaintance who worked with refugees. She was asked if there were any Baptist churches in Richmond that would work with a growing population of Burmese Karen refugees that were being settled there in increasing numbers. Of course she mentioned Tabernacle. The church looked at the Karens as a mission opportunity and considered options of how to help these strangers in a strange land. At the beginning, the Karens were one group in need among many in Richmond. Meanwhile, Tabernacle members prayed for God to bring them new members, especially ones with children.
The Karen Burmese are a minority in the country of Burma (renamed Myanmar by its oppressive military government). They have experienced ethnic cleansing at the hands of the brutal government forces, who often ethnically cleanse villages and rape any women they find. The Karen in America came here legally as a part of international refugee resettlement programs. The problem is the groups put in charge of helping them find new lives are often underfunded or incompetent; such is the case in Richmond. Most refugees arrive speaking little or no English, with very little money or job skills and no knowledge of how to navigate the currents of American society. Interestingly, many of the Karen are Baptist thanks to the work of early missionaries in the 18th century, so their American brothers and sisters in Christ at Tabernacle found themselves gravitating toward these strangers who sang traditional Baptist hymns in their own dialects. Slowly but surely, the church members found themselves helping get children signed up for school and driving whole families to doctor appointments. Then they started an ESL class to teach the Karen English. Relationships quickly formed and the Karen began showing up on Sunday mornings at Tabernacle.
The members of Tabernacle Baptist Church began to realize that the families and children they had been praying for had arrived. But instead of the Caucasian middle class families of previous generations, God had provided families and children from Southeast Asia with a long list of needs. I’m happy to report that the members of Tabernacle opened their arms wide to the families God brought to them. If you visit on a Sunday morning, you will find around 175 people (around half Caucasian and half Karen) attending a service offered in three languages: English and two Karen dialects. Rather than looking in a bulletin or on an overhead screen, the members sing old Baptist hymns in their separate languages; the melodies have offered a common experience. Their Sunday School and youth group contain Caucasian and Karen children. Their meals and times of fellowship allow for adults to cross boundaries of language, nationality, and class. Together they are striving hard to be one church.
Grace comes in many forms, so be careful what you pray for.
Grace and Peace,
Grace and Peace,