Posted on : Tuesday September 1, 2009

Pastors planning some fun. From left, Bill Cochran, First Church, Landowne; Mike Garner from host church Dover Church; Tenney Parrish, Tabernacle Church; Ed Reese, Hazelwood Church. Cochran, Parrish and Reese are from Baltimore. Behind them is a set built for VBS.

By Jim White, Editor, Religious Herald

Va.—Though it may have looked like a typical Vacation Bible School to an outsider, what was going on at Dover Baptist Church in Manakin Sabot last week was one-of-a-kind.  Pastor Mike Garner will make sure you know that.

Three other churches, all from Baltimore, assisted in Dover’s VBS by bringing supplies, teachers and even some pupils. A total of 36 people, by coincidence 12 from each church, came from Baltimore’s Hazelwood Church, First Church of Lansdowne and Tabernacle Church. Their pastors are excited that the churches have moved from receiving mission teams to sending them. Among the 36 were two summer missionaries appointed by the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board.

A few years ago, NAMB identified Baltimore as a “Strategic Focus City” and encouraged churches across the country to partner with that city’s congregations in providing VBS and other mission endeavors. The Baltimore Baptist Association called the effort Embrace Baltimore.

Bill Cochran, pastor of First Church of Lansdowne; Tinney Parrish, pastor of Tabernacle Church, and Ed Reese, pastor of Hazelwood Church, were among the missionaries sent by the three churches to Dover. Each is eager to tell how Embrace Baltimore changed their churches.

“Embrace taught us the difference between an organization and an organism,” cites Cochran. He noted that organizational church is predictable, but a church is a living, moving, changing and adapting organism. “This kind of church gets messy. It isn’t safe church,” he observes.

Dover Baptist Association in central Virginia heeded the call to Embrace Baltimore and sent a team to plan joint ministries with Baptists there. During the meeting, Garner and Parrish got acquainted and instantly became friends. That night they planted the seeds of a partnership between their churches. Parrish’s contact with Reese and Cochran, who embraced the idea of a mission trip to Dover Baptist with enthusiasm, nourished the partnership seeds to full flower.

“This is the first church-to-church partnership to grow out of Embrace Baltimore,” notes Reese. All agree it won’t be the last.

“Our enrollment is 117 [as of Thursday], which is more than double what we usually have,” erupted Garner. He referred to the adult class to illustrate his point. “Last year my wife and I taught the adults and we had about eight who attended. This year we have 23!”

Garner pointed to teacher Ezekiel Mercer, a member of the Lansdowne church, as the reason for the growth.  Mercer, who spent much of his life in the penitentiary, surrendered his life to Christ two years ago  and,  according  to Cochran, “When he got saved, he really got saved! I don’t know anybody who has memorized as much of the Bible as he has.”

But the services provided by the Marylanders have not been limited to Bible study. Any place they saw a need, they cheerfully threw themselves into the work. “They have cleaned the place! They scrubbed bathrooms. It’s incredible what they’ve done,” gushes Garner. “It has really energized our church!”

Not all of the Baltimore brethren were excited about spending a week doing VBS in a rural setting. Parrish laughs, “My own 20-year-old daughter drove her car down because she wanted to be able to escape if she couldn’t take it. I asked her Wednesday if I needed to let the hotel know she was leaving early and she said ‘No way. I’m staying!’ ” At the other end of the spectrum, Cochran’s 70-ish mother also came as a team member — her first mission trip ever. Like her younger counterpart, she discovered the experience to be beyond anything she imagined.  She asked her son, “Can we do another one of these before Christmas?”

The Baltimore pastors have provided another service as well. They bring fresh eyes to the field of ministry. “They have shared with me some of the things they have done where they are and we have already adopted some of them. For example,” he continued, “we took lunch to the law enforcement officers here. We told them, ‘No preaching, no tracts. We’re just bringing you lunch to say ‘Thank-you.’ We took about 30 lunches and they really appreciated it.”

Each of the four pastors is enthused about the growth they observe in their own people as a result of the partnership.