The Church of the Good Air

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Rhonda VanDyke Colby writes about the congregation at Bon Air United Methodist Church making an imaginative turn from the church’s history to its mission in articulating a vision statement, prayer, and covenant promise on the theme of being “Good Air.”


How a church is born can make a difference in how that church lives. Will the congregation begun as a pioneering new church start always be a risk-taking congregation? Is the new congregation that results from a controversial church split destined to be conflicted throughout its life span? If a church was birthed in a resort area as a place to rest from the pressures of the city, how might its birth inform its future ministries?

It was time for Bon Air United Methodist Church (UMC) to rearticulate its vision. The team of people chosen to discern the vision studied scripture, Wesleyan theology, area demographics, and the Book of Discipline. One team member researched the birth of the church in 1891.

In Victorian times, the people of Richmond, Virginia, desiring to escape the heat and pressure of city life, took the train to an area outside of town. The elevation was high and the air was good. They would retreat for music, dancing, and merry-making. Eventually they formed a church, meeting in a building formerly used as a saloon and bowling alley.

As pastor, I suppose I had dreamed of a nobler beginning. Thinly veiling my disappointment, I wondered aloud if a church with that background might tend to be passive, “entitled,” exclusive, or complacent. Was this our heritage?

Another team member was charged with the responsibility of helping us understand our suburban church’s larger urban context. She had us listen to recordings of 911 emergency calls. We sat in horrified silence as we heard the voice of a frightened child whispering from a closet while on the other side of the door his mother was being murdered by her boyfriend. We heard stories of drug deals, child molestation, domestic violence, and homelessness. As each issue was discussed, silently I listed members of our own church family who had personally experienced each of these “urban ills.” It was sobering for our team to experience the realization that what were considered issues “outside” the church were actually present day problems of members of our congregation. How did this new realization fit with our resort beginnings?

One team member spoke. She recently joined our church after years of declaring she would never go to a church other than for weddings and funerals. She came one day to address the congregation about the local battered women’s shelter, and she never left. She found in the worship and teaching settings of the church people who took her questions seriously and were present with her as she searched for answers. She has seen evil. She is a prosecuting attorney whose pager number is carried by every city police officer. When there is domestic violence or the murder of a child, she is the one called.

The group wondered aloud how the sin and brokenness present in the world and in our congregation squared with our heritage as a resort church. When the prosecutor spoke, it was inspired utterance. “This is the only place I breathe. I am never not thinking about my work . . . about the children, the abused, and the abusers. Some mornings I have come to Sunday worship directly from a murder scene. This is my safe place. It is where I exhale. I don’t believe I could do what I do if I couldn’t come here and breathe.”

Breathe. Good air. Bon Air. In a world that is gasping for breath, in a place where affluence and its demands can suffocate, this one church is called to be good air.

The connections came quickly and fluidly. The flow of inhale, absorption, and exhale seemed to echo our understanding of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. The pattern repeated in grace, faith, and love: God offers us grace; we respond in faith; we serve out of love. We found the image of breath and spirit intertwined in the Hebrew “ruach,” the Greek “pneuma,” and the Latin “spiritus.” In English the connection is found in words such as “inspiration,” “respiration,” and even “conspiracy” (to breathe together). Could it be that Bon Air UMC is being called to be a Christ-centered conspiracy breathing deeply the grace of God and being vessels to carry that good air to a gasping world in a kind of collective CPR? We began to find breath images in the works of John and Charles Wesley. We began learning about the healing and restorative effects of breath work and breath prayer. We reminded one another that in a tightly shut room the resurrected Christ breathed on his disciples.

The resulting statement of church vision and identity is:

We are Christ’s breath of life today
By God’s good air inspired
To love God, neighbors, and ourselves.
Bon Air for all, we pray.

We wear these words on our t-shirts. At a recent 10K race more than forty Bon Air runners raced in shirts that said, “Breathe – ruach. Come for a breath of fresh air.” One vision team member has composed a hymn that re-tells the vision. That same team member was awakened in the night with an insight which has become our prayer:

When we whisper Bon Air, we are saying a prayer.

Bon Air in us, we pray.
Bon Air in all, we pray.
Bon Air for all we pray.

Our vision statement and prayer are accompanied by our Bon Air Covenant Promise which further explores what it means for us to be Christ’s breath of life today. Even the ministry areas of our church are identified as grace areas:

Glorifying God – Worship
Reaching Out to the community and world – Mission
Accepting and Assimilating people into the life of the church – Evangelism
Caring for the Congregation – Congregational Care
Educating for Discipleship – Education

On youth Sunday a recent high school graduate told of the adventures that were in front of her. She concluded saying, “But I will always know I can return here to my church when I need a breath of good air.” In addition to being written on our bulletins, newsletters, and t-shirts, the notion that we are Christ’s breath of life today is being written on our hearts.

The Bon Air Hymn: We are Christ’s Breath of Life Today

We are Christ’s Breath of life today
By God’s good air inspired
To love God, neighbors, and ourselves.
Bon Air for all, we pray.

We praise and celebrate each day
What God has freely giv’n
His love, His joy, HIs Son, His grace.
Bon Air in us, we pray.

Our faith flows from God’s grace always;
Grows strong through acts of love.
It is our future and our joy.
Bon Air in all, we pray.

We serve and give in every way
From love that’s in our hearts
As we reach out to those in need.
Bon Air for all, we pray.

We are Christ’s Breath of life today
By God’s good air inspired
To love God, neighbors, and ourselves.
Bon Air for all, we pray.

Words: Stanzas 1 & 5, Bon Air UMC Vision Statement 2005;
Stanzas 2,3,4, Jerry Eyster, 2005


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About Author

Rhonda Van Dyke Colby is vice president for student life at Shenandoah University. She previously served as senior pastor of Bon Air United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia.


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