Jim Somerville was a toddler when his family was forced out of Alabama.
His father, the pastor of a small-town Presbyterian church outside of Montgomery, had refused to say the opening prayer at a meeting of the White Citizens’ Council and word began to spread that he didn’t support Massive Resistance to prevent school desegregation.
One morning soon after, his parents found the ashes from a Ku Klux Klan-burned cross on the family’s front lawn.
They loaded up their 1953 Ford Fairlane, strapped a doghouse carrying the family dog and five puppies up top and left the parsonage under the cover of darkness for Southwest Virginia.
It’s against this backdrop that Somerville, 60, grew up. He spent his childhood witnessing his father live out the lessons Jesus taught, immersing himself in low-income neighborhoods in rural West Virginia and loving the people around him.
Somerville now tries to apply them as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Va. (“KOH2RVA” for short) through a garden started last year that grows vegetables for people in food deserts and dozens of other ministries.
“That’s a mission statement that is short enough to fit on a license plate but is big enough to change the world,” he said.
It’s on his Volkswagen Jetta.
Somerville reminds people when he drives, but also during the sermons he’s preached since coming to the city in 2008. In 2012, the church spent an entire year living out the concept.
He’d see people in the hallways of the church and ask them what they were doing to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
“We’re trying to bring heaven to earth right here in this city where we live, this place that we love,” he said. “Anything that doesn’t look like heaven, just roll up your sleeves and get to work.”
Every day, he’d blog about the different things church members were doing—everything from providing showers and a warm meal for homeless people to volunteering at schools in the region—and at the end they held a celebration that highlighted their work. Since that effort, Somerville said, the DNA of the church has changed.
“We moved from being that nice church on the corner that opens its doors on Sunday morning and hopes some people will come to that church that goes into the city to make a difference,” he said.
Karen Grizzard, who met Somerville in his first year as pastor when she was looking for a new church, volunteered to read to students at Glen Lea Elementary School in Henrico County.
“He’s helped the congregation look beyond the walls of the church,” she said, adding that Somerville delivers vibrant and relevant sermons.
The church, located off Monument Avenue with about 4,000 members, grows vegetables on land it owns in Mechanicsville to give to Richmond residents living in food deserts. There’s a mobile food pantry. It’s helping with refugee resettlement and teaching those who don’t speak English as their first language.
“We’re supposed to be changing the world,” he said. “Yes, let’s gather for worship and great music and great programs, then let’s go out and make a difference.”