In many ways, the first two metro areas featured in the This Is Our City series couldn't be farther apart—and not just on a United States map. While Portland, Oregon's Christians compose a narrow, vibrant slice of their post-Christian home, Richmond, Virginia's Christianity is so deeply embedded as to be taken for granted. The place where Thomas Jefferson in 1786 forged his budding country's commitment to religious freedom, Richmond is home to over 800 churches and 4 seminaries in a relatively small city of 1.2 million. Its current mayor, Dwight Jones, is an ordained Baptist minister, and at the time of this writing, it stood at the center of a pro-life personhood bill, one of only two in the country, sponsored by a Baptist delegate.
Thankfully, the following five Richmond Christians transcend cultural Christianity by serving the City on the James through sacrificial, creative vocations.
Lawson Wijesooriya | Solving the Nature Deficit
Educators lament the "nature deficit" among today's children, who are more likely to watch the Discovery Channel than discover their own backyard. In Richmond, which flanks the James River, the deficit is deep in the red. But Lawson Wijesooriya (pictured here with husband Romesh) is working to change that through Blue Sky Fund (BSF): a year-long educational program that gets youth out in the woods and into experiential learning. Wijesooriya, who fondly remembers backpacking in Wyoming as a girl, says the trips reconnect the 900 at-risk children participating with their own place: "We have many 3rd graders who will ask if the James River is the ocean … they have lived two miles from the James their entire lives."
It may also offer an unlikely escape route out of poverty. Through taking kids rock climbing and backpacking, BSF hopes to strengthen their "resiliency"—the strength to overcome obstacles—and apply it elsewhere. Wijesooriya explains: "We had a 9th-grade girl tell us, 'I did not want to go camping. I was afraid and nervous. But after the hike, I realized I could do it. I realize that is true at school and at home too.'?" Ultimately BSF is an outgrowth of Lawson and Romesh's calling: to share Christ's love with an underserved generation. As a pediatrician studying childhood obesity, Romesh partners with Lawson to fight sedentary childhoods. "I had been developing vision for Blue Sky long before I knew it existed," says Lawson, 31. "But I could have never made a living working for a young nonprofit [without Romesh] supporting our household."
Hero: John Perkins
Reading Now: A Good and Perfect Gift, by Amy Julia Becker
Chris Payne | Making Space for Music
If you're a musician breaking into the local scene, you likely loathe the inroads: smoky bars where your hard-earned craft becomes background noise for drunken patrons. Christopher Payne knows the pain; in 2009, he and another Richmond singer-songwriter "were getting tired of competing with the loud bar scene." In response, they founded the Listening Room, an intentionally small, growing music venue where the keyword is connection between songwriter and audience. "Without an audience, the performance and craft is pointless. One cannot exist without the other," says Payne, a Virginia native and owner of Church Hill Records. "By taking music out of the normal loud places, you allow that transcendental, transactional element of music to flourish." Now in its third year, the Listening Room has become a central player in Richmond's underground acoustic scene. Tyler Crowley, a local musician, says the Room has a profound effect on performers. "They always comment on the quietness of the room, the respectfulness," says Crowley, a worship leader at Hope Church. "And when a song ends there's a hush in the room—a holy moment." "Regardless of background," says Payne, "audiences leave having experienced the splendor of the Creator God."