On a recent Sunday evening the lights were dark at the First Baptist Church of Richmond. The members were down Boulevard at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts where they were honoring their pastor, Peter James Flamming. On the last day of this month, he concludes his 23-year pastorate at the Richmond church.
First Church folks crowded into the cavernous Marble Hall and lined across the floor and down a corridor to shake hands and hug their pastor. It was not unlike the long lines in which children and parents wait for a moment with a department store Santa. No doubt many of the members had personal thoughts and good wishes which they wanted to share with the pastor who had counseled and comforted them.
The pastor stood beside the entrance to the exhibit of fabulous Faberge jeweled objects. Further ahead were a marble statute of Cleopatra, a collection of magnificent silver pieces and a large granite statute of an Egyptian king dating 600 years before Christ. Nearby was a marble statue from 40 years after Christ. It was Caligula, the unpopular Roman emperor, whose images suffered damage by his enemies. The museum's statue was minus arms, a foot and the tip of the nose. Nevertheless, it was a treasure.
A near neighbor to the Virginia Museum is another treasure house popularly known as Battle Abbey and officially as the Virginia Historical Society. On permanent exhibit are numerous artifacts telling the Commonwealth's story including a dugout canoe, a Conestoga wagon, an old-fashion streetcar. Valuable documents are scattered in cases. The huge mural on the seasons of the Confederacy graces a gallery. Treasures.
There is another treasure house on Boulevard. It is the handsome Greek temple which has stood for nearly 80 years at the intersection of Boulevard and Monument Avenue. It is the First Baptist Church. Its chief treasures are its people. George White McDaniel, who was pastor a century ago, once observed, “God has brought our church into a large place and it must never be content with small things.”
Each succeeding pastor has enabled the congregation to reach for the stars. Peter James Flamming arrived on the Richmond scene in 1983 and quickly earned a place in the hearts of his congregation. He led the church into a television ministry which regularly reaches some 30,000 people. It made Flamming a household name and a familiar face and voice across Central Virginia. Although he officiated at some 1,000 funerals, he also labored to keep the membership at 3,800-plus.
In 1994 the church embarked on an ambitious enlargement which created improved facilities for children, a magnificent dining area, and a new gymnasium. In many ways, the enlargement of the old treasure house reflected a major decision to remain in the central part of the city. First Baptist Church believed that the best days for Richmond were yet to come and the church wanted to be a part of the city's future.
As pastor, Peter James Flamming visited countless hospital rooms and funeral parlors. In 1990-91, the church members ministered to the Flammings when the couple's son, Dave, was stricken with leukemia. They helped every way they possibly could, including organizing a “Marrowthon” fundraising walk. They surrounded the family with support when Dave died at age 33. They showered love upon the parents, the young widow and the little girls. The pastor told his people: “In the end, faith, family and friends matter most. You have been all three for us.”
As denominational statesman, Peter James Flamming answered the call to serve on the SBC Peace Committee, a rather ill-fated attempt at quelling a firestorm. He also encouraged his own church to provide giving options so that anyone could be a member and honor their own sense of integrity.
As preacher, Peter James Flamming excelled. Like his renowned predecessor, Theodore Adams, he always preached a simple gospel in such a manner that the smallest child and the wisest adult could understand and apply. He remained an engaging pulpiteer and an astute observer of human nature.
Never content, even as the birthdays mounted past 70, Peter James Flamming kept leading his people “to dream again,” helping them to envision their fullest potential and to shy away from small things. He encouraged a social ministry to the homeless who walked nearby Broad Street. The basement of the church offered a place for a shower ministry. He envisioned a bold missions partnership effort which has enabled members to perform “hands-on” missions projects around the globe.
It is doubtful that Peter James Flamming could have accomplished so much without the encouraging support of his wife, Shirley Northcutt Flamming. She was the daughter of a Baptist minister and well-known seminary professor. She never dreamed of marrying a preacher; and Flamming, also the child of a Baptist preacher, did not aspire, at first, to the life of a minister. But the Lord has a sense of humor and both young people soon found themselves headed for a life devoted to church work. The good people of First Baptist Church never insisted that the pastor's wife walk a prescribed path and they allowed Shirley to be her own person. She found numerous ways to shine.
Richmond's Boulevard is indeed an avenue of treasure houses. The priceless art, the valuable historical documents, and the treasure which moth and rust cannot harm. First Baptist Church lovingly blesses their 15th pastor on his retirement and resolves to maintain their treasure house—a place where people find community, practice Christianity and discover the richest treasures of them all.
The story of First Baptist Church of Richmond is told in a forthcoming book, entitled The Open Door. Written by this columnist, it will be available from the church beginning in January.