I currently live and work at Richmond Hill, an ecumenical retreat center and intentional community in Richmond, VA. Richmond Hill was originally a Catholic convent established in Richmond’s historic Church Hill neighborhood after the Civil War. As the Union army advanced on Richmond, the Confederate army set fire to the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, setting ablaze warehouses full of liquor and gunpowder. The fire burned for days and leveled the city. After these catastrophic events, the Catholic Diocese sent a group of nuns from the Order of the Visitation of Monte Maria to come and pray for the healing of Richmond; they established the convent and prayed from 1887-1987. Eventually the order got too old to maintain the property, so Ben Campbell, an Episcopal Priest and community leader in the area, organized an ecumenical group of churches to buy the property and turn it into what it is today: a retreat center, intentional community, center for racial reconciliation, and place of prayer for the healing of Metro-Richmond.
In our present context, “revival” churches often have better church attendance than the statistically declining mainline. However the impact of these flourishing revival churches in their local communities is limited by their focus on individual discipleship over systemic change.
There are about twelve of us who live and work at Richmond Hill fulltime. We pray three times a day, host retreats, and work in social justice initiatives in the community. Richmond Hill has three main outreach programs. The first, the Micah Initiative is a faith-based partnership that places mentors from faith communities in Richmond City Public Schools to support students and teachers. Second is the Armstrong Leadership program, which works with high school students at Armstrong High School to teach leadership skills and help students graduate high school and go onto college. Finally, there is RVA Rapid Transit, a grassroots movement that is seeking to bring a system of Bus rapid transit to the Richmond metropolitan region.
Much of my job at Richmond Hill involves running the social media campaign and organizing events for this third initiative, RVA Rapid Transit. A recent Brookings Institution study that measured access to jobs via public transportation ranked the Richmond Metropolitan area 92 out 100 major metropolitan areas in terms of job access. Currently, only 27% of jobs are accessible in Metro Richmond via public transportation. RVA Rapid Transit hopes to use Bus rapid transit, a system of high-speed buses that drive in dedicated lanes, to increase job access via public transportation in Richmond. Our goal is to raise that 27% of jobs accessible by public transportation to 80%. Just as Nehemiah saw the walls of Jerusalem as essential to the life of his city, we see public transportation as essential to the life of a modern city.
Richmond Hill is my current chapter in an ecumenical faith journey that has afforded me the opportunity to work and become familiar with different segments of the church and different types of ministries. As I reflect on this ecumenical experience, I am struck by the divisions between the Christian churches that tend toward revival and those that tend toward reform. Ben Campbell’s book Richmond’s Unhealed History in particular has made this apparent. Campbell’s book traces the history of slavery and discrimination in the former Capital of the Confederacy in which I now live. In one chapter, he discusses how the Great Awakening of the 18th century began around the same time that the slave system in Virginia was being codified. Campbell points out that this great spiritual “awakening” raised little to no explicit challenge to the system of slavery, even though revival meetings often brought together both black and white – slave and free – to worship the Lord. Even the revivalists who spoke out against slavery did not follow their words with meaningful action, often either tacitly supporting the slave system or rallying for the creation of the freed (but displaced) slave colony in Liberia.
Just as Nehemiah saw the walls of Jerusalem as essential to the life of his city, we see public transportation as essential to the life of a modern city.
I was absolutely dumbfounded to learn this. I have studied both the history of slavery in America and the history of the Great Awakening, but it had never occurred to me that the Great Awakening occurred in the context of the slave system and did little to challenge it. Our country experienced a great revival of spiritual and religious devotion – even multi-racial revival gatherings! – and yet this did nothing to change the existence of a de facto totalitarian state for half the population of the state of Virginia.
I still see this division between revival and reform today. In our present context, “revival” churches – those that tend to be more charismatic and evangelical – often have better church attendance than churches that focus on “reform” – the statistically declining mainline. However the impact of these flourishing revival churches in their local communities is limited by their focus on individual discipleship over systemic change.
Take my ministry as an example. As I have advocated for RVA Rapid Transit and asked local congregations to get involved in our work, I have found that mainline, socially progressive churches tend to be very supportive of our work. However, many of the evangelical and charismatic churches that I’ve approached have failed to see the connection between public transportation and the Gospel. Such was the case with an Assemblies of God church well-known for international missions and for service projects in our community. Another church with which I spoke was a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation that works with international refuge communities who have re-settled in Richmond suburbs. Many of these refuges do not have access to a car and live in a part of Richmond where public transportation is virtually nonexistent. However, while this church did at least perceive the advantage of a Bus Rapid Transit system for the refugees to whom they ministered, they did not see it as their church’s role to get involved in regional politics concerning public transportation.
While this church did at least perceive the advantage of a Bus Rapid Transit system for the refugees to whom they ministered, they did not see it as their church’s role to get involved in regional politics concerning public transportation.
Perhaps the idea of public transportation as a controversial issue might seem strange to some readers. Let me provide a brief synopsis of the detailed history Ben Campbell provides in his book:
In Virginia, cities are completely separate fiscal entities from counties. At the same time, according to Dillon’s Rule, the state legislature has greater political power than local governments. Thus, when the Richmond City Government transitioned to primarily African American control in 1971, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law that forbid cities of over 125,000 (i.e. Richmond) from annexing any more land from counties. [i] Enter white flight into the surrounding counties and the construction of some of the largest public housing projects on the East Coast, the tax base of the city of Richmond tax base was decimated, even as the wealth of the surrounding counties continued to increase. Today, this translates to an intense concentration of poverty that is as high as 20% in some areas of the city.
While Chesterfield County, a county (remember, separate fiscal entity!) south of Richmond, owns half of the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC), Richmond’s only bus service, it does not allow regular bus service into the county itself! Though not often said in public, this is the case because of suburban fear that extending the bus system would bring crime and poverty into the counties. This fear has obvious racial undertones, like the many policies across the country that isolate communities according to race and class.
We at RVA Rapid Transit try to counter this prejudice by pointing out that Bus Rapid Transit, because it requires permanent infrastructure, often leads to economic development. Such was the case of Cleveland’s Healthline, a seven-mile long BRT system that brought five billion dollars in economic development. It is our hope that this economic argument is compelling enough to override racial and class tensions.
While spiritual consumerism and sensationalism certainly exists in parts of the evangelical and charismatic movement, I don’t think we mainliners can completely write off the growth and attraction of these churches to people’s spiritual vanity.
The problem of public transportation in Richmond is incredibly complex, as are the majority of social problems we face in our cities in the 21st century. As churches called to engage with the world, to “seek the peace of the city,” what can we do in the face of these problems? It seems to me that the Church in this time is called to both revival and reform.
I am glad to say that I have begun to see some overlap between the revival and reform traditions I mentioned above. I attend East End Fellowship, a multi-racial, nondenominational new church plant. East End Fellowship is part of a loose network of churches, the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), founded by John Perkins, a civil rights activist and well-known evangelical leader focused on racial reconciliation. CCDA operates according to three core principles: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. The movement is known for having white evangelicals move into predominantly poor African American communities to seek racial reconciliation and redistribution of financial resources to underserved communities. Many at East End Fellowship – black, white, Asian, and Latino – live in the community and are actively involved mentoring youth in the community through a nonprofit organization called Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT). East End Fellowship is becoming increasingly involved in city politics: one of our pastors currently serves as chair of the school board, and we recently joined RISC – Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities – a faith-based community organizing group.
Another ministry I know of that combines revival and reform is Tierra Nueva founded by Bob Ekblad, a Presbyterian minister who has been working with migrant workers and ex-offenders in Skagit County, WA, for decades. About eight years ago, Bob decided to incorporate charismatic theology into his liberation theology after attending a church at the center of the charismatic movement in Toronto, Canada. He has written a book about his life and experience called A New Christian Manifesto and now leads an incredibly effective ministry that empowers the marginalized and helps people break free of addiction. One of the most amazing stories I heard when I visited Ekblad’s ministry was that of a former Neo-Nazi meth cook who was dying from kidney failure because of what drugs and alcohol had done to his body. According to this man’s story, Bob prayed for him while he was in prison, and his kidneys were healed. He now serves in Tierra Nueva’s ministry, is married, and just had a child.
It seems to me that the Church in this time is called to both revival and reform.
While spiritual consumerism and sensationalism certainly exists in parts of the evangelical and charismatic movement, I don’t think we mainliners can completely write off the growth and attraction of these churches to people’s spiritual vanity. The fact remains that our Lord Jesus Christ’s person and teachings offended people of all variety of theological and political persuasions in his day. And yet, Jesus promised that if we would not be offended by what he was and is doing, we would be blessed (Luke 7:23). My ecumenical experience has taught me that the Spirit of Christ can show up in the most unlikely of places, both in the midst of revival and of reform. I have come to believe that God is most pleased when God’s people are not divided but dwell together in unity.
[i] Campbell, Richmond’s Unhealed History, pg. 173.
AUTHOR BIO: William Roberts is a Candidate for Ordained Ministry in the Presbytery of Eastern Virginia. He currently lives and works at Richmond Hill, an ecumenical retreat center, place of prayer, and center for civic activism in Richmond, VA.
To read other articles from Week 2: The Sin of your Sister Sodom, click here.
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