Doing the Lord’s Work in East Richmond
On a recent Sunday, I visited Faith Community Baptist Church, which rises proudly in the midst of a blighted neighborhood in Richmond. Amid used car dealerships and payday lenders, the bright, new building stands like a beacon.
And that’s no accident. The Reverend Dr. Patricia Gould-Champ had a vision over a decade ago that three troubled communities in Richmond—Creighton, Whitcomb, and Fairfield—needed help. With the help of James Champ, her husband of 25 years, Dr. Gould-Champ has made her vision brick and mortar.
Not coincidentally, the sermon I heard began with an unusual item: report cards. One by one, Dr. Patricia Gould-Champ called on students who had received excellent grades and, in one case, made it to the honor roll. You could see the pride on the congregation’s faces, and the students’ faces were beaming so broadly they might as well have been in an ice cream shop with a hundred dollar bill.
As an educator, policymaker, activist, cancer survivor, and minister, Dr. Gould-Champ has worked mightily to do the Lord’s work in Richmond.
She was born in Danville and moved to the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond with her father, mother, and brother when she was six. Her father was a brick mason but could not join a union because unions still had not been opened to African-Americans. Her mother worked at a laundry, then as a custodian for the public school system in Richmond public schools.
She attended public schools and Virginia Union for her undergraduate degree. Dr. Gould-Champ became a teacher, then a principal, and then got a job at the State Department of Education in Richmond, where she began a doctorate in education.
But throughout, her faith was calling. “I grew up in church, was baptized at seven,” she told me. “I left during my college years. But even once I was doing all these things academically and professionally I knew that something was missing. I went back to church, started getting active, and then the Lord just started moving me, to the point that ministry became a part of who I was.”
Just after she completed her doctorate, she felt the calling to go back to divinity school. How did she feel about getting back on the educational horse, I asked her. Laughing, she said, “I was very upset that God had me go back to School in January for the Master of Divinity.” But she went because she thought her calling would “require preparation.”
She ultimately went to work at the 31st Street Baptist Church in Richmond, where she met Mr. Champ. But she had a calling to create her own endeavor and work in a local community.
One day, she realized, “I’d been driving through the community that God called me to serve.” These were three neighborhoods: Fairfield, Creighton, and Whitcomb Court. But the path was not going to be easy. “When I was asking God where do I take them, he showed me this run-down bowling alley which was the first African-American bowling alley in the city of Richmond, but it had turned into a nightclub with all kinds of crazy stuff was going on.”
Dr. Gould-Champ initially paid $50 for her flock to pray in the bowling alley, later negotiating a monthly lease. When she decided to open a ministry, she called her meeting on a Thursday night, in order to not conflict with 31st Street’s Wednesday service. They gave flyers to friends, who spread the word. Over 200 people came. It was a stunning success.
In her first sermon, she shared the vision. 22 people joined after the sermon and agreed to spread the vision. Many are still with the church today.
They went ahead and bought the building, but the roof soon collapsed. They totally demolished the bowling alley, and after several years of fundraising and building, and help from the American Baptist Churches, they ultimately built the $1.3 million facility I visited.
Today, about 40% of their congregation comes from the community. “We’re proud of that but we wish it could be more,” she says. “We have people who drive from as far away as Tappahannock.”
This building has enabled the direct action that is Faith Community’s stock in trade. Every Sunday, the members continue to go out among the communities of Fairfield, Creighton, and Whitcomb. Dr. Gould-Champ and Mr. Champ have trained in Florida to learn the Drug Awareness Resistance Education (DARE), which trains practitioners in giving people peple information, motivating them to speak for themselves.
They’ve been an active member of Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities (RISC), an innovative group that has advocated for a variety of educational, health, and criminal justice reforms, such as evidence-based treatment in prison and reducing the suspension and expulsion rates in high schools.
They have instituted special financial literacy programs to teach youth about “how money can serve us, instead of serving movie.” This summer, they will be hosting three of Mayor Dwight Jones’ interns. They also work on career training, giving children the opportunity to learn more about careers they might contemplate, including by visiting local businesses. “If you can’t see it, taste it, smell it,” Mr. Champ smiles, describing the experience of kids visiting board rooms, “you can’t sell it.”
This is one reason they go to such lengths to praise good grades. Mr. Gould Champ: “Kudos are a part of our culture. Kids need to be embraced and encouraged.”
Being a female pastor creates its own challenges, Dr. Gould-Champ admits, but she’s been “blessed to be supported by males,” including, of course, her husband, but also senior pastors elsewhere. She recalls that at her ordination there was one female on the council. Another pastor was “not supportive” of the idea of her becoming a pastor. Eventually, she helped secure a teaching position for him at a seminar. “God changed his demeanor,” she recalls with a smile. “God worked on him and made it so that I could go back there.”
Five years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She only missed one Sunday in worship. She had a mastectomy and radiation, and then went through two rounds of chemo. The first one went fine, she recalls but “it was the second one that took away my ability to walk without a cane and really threw me for a loop.” The worst thing was their daughter was a junior in high school—“That was the most difficult thing.” But she survived. “God has been extremely faithful, and I’ve been able to still do the work here.”
In the end, it all comes back to that building. Dr. Gould-Champ recalls people advising her not to design the building with open windows, because of the threat of theft and vandalism. She still followed her vision. “I want people to be able to see what we’re doing,” she explains.
“They’re not going to shoot through it, they’re not going to break through it,” she told me. “I just want it to be open because what we’re saying is we’re open to you, we trust you and we want you to be here.”
For more information about Faith Community Baptist Church, visit this link.