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Bermuda Hundred to San Diego via New York City: The Fascinating Journey of Rev. J. Lee Hill, Jr.

by Mary Domb Mikkelson, Connecting Voices Editor

Rev. J. Lee Hill, Jr. started preaching at age nine – “to the neighborhood kids” and became his church’s pianist and choir director when a seventh-grader.   “My family’s life was built around First Baptist Church of Bermuda Hundred, the first town to be incorporated in the English colony of Virginia,” he explains, adding, “that’s where Pocahontas met and married John Rolfe.  I was music-minded from early childhood and Mrs Rosalee, the long-time choir director at First Baptist, took me under her wing to train.  When she passed away, her job became mine.”  The church has a long and fascinating history.  Built circa 1850, it had a segregated congregation – “Blacks, enslaved or free, sat in the balcony, whites in the main sanctuary.”  Before the Civil War the white congregants formed the Southern Baptists, splitting from their parent body over the issue of slavery.  After the war, the church passed into the hands of its Black members and thrived, going on to produce many ministers of note.

     After graduating from high school, Lee, the son of Jimmie and Shelley Hill, attended Florida A & M, a Historical Black College and University (HBCU) in Tallahassee, Florida  and graduated from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.  It was there, while still an undergraduate, he experienced a call to ministry.  “I was licensed as a Baptist preacher when I was twenty years old.”

     Recognizing the need for seminary and to experience a wide range of ministerial and worship styles, Lee continued his education at Howard, Wake Forest and Princeton (he is now working toward a doctoral degree from New York Theological Seminary).  Called to the liberal, majority Caucasian congregation,  Knollwood Baptist Church of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he had “a great learning and shaping experience,” while acquiring skills not available elsewhere. 

     Next came four years as the minister with youth and young adults at New York City’s 3000-member Riverside Church – “the single most exciting period of my life.”  Mentored by the celebrated Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr., he experienced “ministry in its full grandeur” – from the beautiful high liturgical style of Sunday worship to the “soul-stirring” praise of Wednesday Space for Grace and the embracing of people of diverse backgrounds, beliefs and orientation.  “I was responsible for the youth, young adult and children’s programs,” Lee reports.  “It was great seeing young people shaped by faith and engaging in mission.  We made mission trips to New Orleans (in the wake of Katrina) and Hawaii and experienced summer camp programs in Boston.”

     During his tenure at Riverside, on Valentine’s Day 2007, Lee met Christie Nicole Love, a staff attorney for Advocates for Children of New York, at a community forum on troubled children.  He arrived late, thanks to a snowstorm, but, quickly embroiled in conversation with her, soon forgot his embarrassment.  Nine months later, on a carriage ride through Central Park, he offered her an engagement ring. 

     San Diego, Christie’s hometown, entered the picture.  “I submitted my name for consideration by San Diego’s Christian Fellowship Congregational Church, more or less on a whim.  When they called me, my initial response was ‘no.’   The Lord was working on my heart, though, and I found myself constantly thinking of the church and the people I had met there.  I soon had a sense of deep calling, deep enough to pull me from what I had and loved in New York.”

     They arrived in San Diego in November 2010, one month before the birth of son Hezekiah.

     The change has not been without struggle – with the lack of diversity and differences in wealth, church politics and worship style.  “With all that, however,” Lee says, “I felt at home.  In fact, it felt like coming home, to First Baptist, Bermuda Hundred.  I am supposed to be here and feel God’s purpose for our lives being made complete.”

     Asked what the biggest difference between this and his former job was, Lee replied, “Sunday comes every week!  I had never before had the responsibility for preaching weekly, with all the writing, studying, reflecting and praying that involves – and of being the sole minister, on my own without clergy colleagues on staff with whom to exchange ideas.  I miss that contact.  The worship style is somewhere between that of Riverside (high church) and Bermuda Hundred, where hymns were often ‘raised from the floor’ during worship.”

     Lee’s youth (he’s in his early thirties) has proven another factor in “fitting in” – from being labeled “inexperienced and in need of help” to recognition of age being a plus in meeting the congregation’s goal of “growing” the church, both numerically and spiritually. 

     “My job,” he says, is to help them realize that growth involves transformation and the need to do things differently.  That’s a big challenge, but also an opportunity for the Spirit to breathe fresh life into the church.”

     To this end he has started new programs – and found ways to involve even long-time pew sitters in them.  In one, a book study, the group was reading by Malcolm, Martin and America James Cones and discussing what it means for them as individuals and as a church.  “It’s inspiring,” Lee says, when some of our older members speak up, telling what it was like and how they felt ‘back in the day.’  They were there!”  The group tripled in size in the months since Lee arrived (November, 2010). 

     Showing similar growth is Wednesday night Bible study, which, during the Lenten season, focused on African-American spirituals – “Were You There?” and “Jesus Walked this Lonesome Valley,” for example.  “Sharing a meal of soup and bread hasn’t hurt, either,” Lee laughs.

     “In all our activities we are opening ourselves to the Spirit, to learning and to new life,” he adds, “big pluses when facing the challenges of recovering from the schism the church experienced in recent years.  Some people left, others were hurt.  Fortunately, lay leaders emerged to hold things together.  The challenge now is in working with them, in sharing power and authority with them, in enabling them to trust this young whippersnapper!  To that end, I serve both as called minister and intentional interim, working with the congregation to decide who we are and what God is calling us to be and do – to discern our core values, develop a strategic plan and prepare a statement of mission.    It has been said that an intentional interim’s job is to offer the minister who follows a moving train, one waiting in the station and ready to ride.  Christian Fellowship missed out on that opportunity but we are working together to remedy the situation.”

     Among Lee’s hopes for the church are bringing new life to programs rooted in tradition, looking into thoughts about the ONA process, defining its role in creating Christian community and capturing the hearts, minds and souls of young people.”  About the last he says, “If we don’t, the church will die.  We need to offer them not just Granddaddy’s and Grandmother’s faith but a faith that young people can embrace and own for themselves.  To do this we have to embrace, welcome and affirm our own sense of identity and recognize that, as the world shrinks due to globalization, the church has to be on the cutting edge of technology – using it to reach out and evangelize in new and creative ways.  We not only have to extend an extravagant welcome, but we have to mean it and make room.

     “Young people,” Lee explains, want to serve, not sit; to be involved in mission, not confined to pews.  We need to open doors for them, find new ways for them to serve.”

     What about the average, older pew sitter?  How does he propose to involve them?

     “Invitation, invitation, invitation!  I urge people to “give it a try” then encourage them to talk.  Pretty soon talk evolves into volunteering and we’re on our way.”

     Get up, get out, get busy.  Lee, whose ideas have been shaped by such noted theologians as Howard Thurman and Jurgen Moltmann, is leading Christian Fellowship folks into doing just that – by example. 

     The sign on his office table says it all – “Preach the Gospel at all times.  Use words when necessary.” 
Get the idea why Ebony Magazine recently named him as one of its “Power 100” emerging leaders, and George Mason University awarded him two distinguished alumni awards?

 

     Note:  On Pentecost Sunday, June 12 Christian Fellowship will warmly welcome The Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk (at 10:30AM), the first Africa-American woman ordained in the UCC, and The Rev. Dr. James A Forbes, Jr. (at 4:00PM), Senior Minister Emeritus of The Riverside Church, New York—to assist in celebrating his pastoral installation.

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