Loved in a different setting

Talking with an older, trusted friend while sipping a cup of coffee, Sue and I shared our desire – what we believed was our calling – to serve through international missions after graduation from seminary.  Bill listened and nodded as we explained how we felt God leading us.  We weren’t sure to which country or to which people group, we explained, but our calling, treasured since our days in college, was strong and sure.

After telling him our desire to serve outside our culture and language, Bill said, “If you want to serve in cross-cultural missions ‘over there,’ then you should have some positive cross-cultural experiences here.  Have you ever ministered in a setting different from you own?”

Well, no, not really, is how we both responded but, we concluded, we would like to.  This was all Bill needed to make a phone call to the leadership at Forest Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, where Sue and I would eventually worship and serve that summer of 1983.  

Forest was an African-American congregation located on the southeast side of Louisville.  Bill had known the pastor and leaders there for many years, and so suggested that we locate ourselves there during the summer or off months between terms at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  

We had no idea what to expect.  Though Sue had grown up with quite a few African-American friends, the high school I graduated from had no African-American students, nor did the church I attended as a youth.  I had never before visited an African-America congregation, so I was totally unfamiliar with the black church experience.  And I was unsure how well – or even if – I would be welcomed as a budding minister.  I was definitely apprehensive.

It’s possible the Forest Baptist fellowship felt the same way about us, but if they did, I never saw it.  Sue and I were welcomed from the first day with open arms.  Knowing I was a seminary student, the pastoral staff asked – better still, insisted – that I sit on the platform with the church’s regular ministers during worship services because “that’s where the pastors sit.”  Quickly I was put on the calendar to deliver a Sunday morning sermon.  I had never, and have never since, gotten so many “Amens” and “Hallelujahs” as I did the day I preached there!  The experiences we had those three months were incredible.

So what actually did I experience that summer?  Spirit-filled worship not concerned with what time we started or ended.  Dynamic preaching from the church’s pastors that somehow penetrated down to your bones; I mean, you seemed to actually feel the words spoken!  Meaningful prayer lifted to God from God’s people talking openly, frankly, conversationally and warmly with the One they knew as their Heavenly Father.  And loving, caring, gracious people, who laughed with us, ate with us, received us into their homes, prayed with us and served God with us.

Mostly, I experienced the Spirit of God loving Sue and me through wonderful sisters and brothers who became as family to us.

It’s now been 34 years since Sue and I served at Forest Baptist Church.  So much I have forgotten these three-plus decades, like most of the names of the people there and some of the events and services we helped with. 

But what I haven’t forgotten, and doubtful ever will, is how I felt when I was with them, and the incredibly gracious and loving way they welcomed Sue and me into their fellowship.  I still remember them treating us with no less respect and love than they did anyone else.  And I still remember that Forest Baptist Church – an African-American congregation – saw Sue and Greg Smith – two young white people – as nothing less than a sister and a brother in Jesus Christ.  

I guess what I learned most from my African-American brothers and sisters that summer was not so much how to minister in a setting different from my own, but what it means to be the recipients of Christian love and ministry by amazing people in a setting different from my own.

This has turned out to be one of the best lessons I have ever received.

Greg Smith, along with his wife Sue, serve as field personnel with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship through LUCHA Ministries, a faith-based non-profit agency ministering among first-generation Latinos and their families in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Both native Arkansans, Greg and Sue are members of Fredericksburg Baptist Church.