Funeral Services – a Ministry of Pastor Mike Ray and the Hopewell Baptist Church, Offering Comfort and Hope at a Difficult Time
Hopewell Baptist Church in Napa is led by Pastor Mike Ray, who has been with the church for more than 30 years. His efforts to connect with the community were the definition of grassroots in the beginning. After moving to Napa, California, Pastor Ray immediately saw a need in the community and an opportunity to minister by starting a church funeral service ministry. Many people near Hopewell Baptist didn’t claim any particular religious affiliation and so didn’t have any relevant services planned when a loved one passed away. This interview with Pastor Ray delves into how he opened the door for the grieving and how he’s been able to continue his mission even after the pandemic introduced its own set of obstacles.
Interviewer: Alright, we’re going to be talking about the funeral ministry of Hopewell Baptist Church, which is the conducting of memorial services for departed loved ones. Sometimes, funerals happen here at the church; sometimes, at other funeral homes. Pastor, you can give us some background on how this ministry got started?
Pastor Mike Ray: Okay, 34 years ago, when I first came to the church, I was just trying to connect with people. We didn’t have any money. We could not afford to advertise. We just wanted to be a blessing to the people in our city. They had a statistic that in town, 82% of the people in our town did not have a church and did not claim a religious affiliation. I knew there would be many people that would have no one to turn to if a loved one passed away. Many times in the paper, they would say, “No services planned.”
Interviewer: In the obituaries?
Pastor Mike Ray: Yeah. Yeah, in the obituaries. I went to every funeral home in town, gave them a business card with my phone number on it, and just offered my services. Most funeral homes charge a fee when they have to secure a pastor, priest, or rabbi to do the funeral service or the memorial service.
I told the funeral directors, I would waive that fee, and I have never charged anything for any funeral. It’s not about money. It’s about comfort. From time to time, people would start calling and they would say, “I heard you do funerals.” Immediately, I would end up going to the house or make an appointment at my office, and we always try to do two things at funerals.
One, we try to honor the individual who passed away. The funeral is not about our church, it is not about a certain religion. It’s about the person who passed. Oftentimes, I’ll take over an hour, trying to get personal information, find out all about the person’s life, their passions, their desires, who their relatives were, their education, their jobs, their hobbies, their interests, their dreams, their travels. And I try to realize that I might be the only person they have speak at the funeral, and there’s a lot that needs to be said, and not everything can be said in one hour, about someone’s entire life.
I’ve been to some funerals where I’ve seen the priest or pastor—all they talked about was themselves or their religion or their church, and it’s very sad and detrimental that they didn’t make it about the person. That’s what we’ve tried to do—honor the deceased. And as relatives are there, they sit there saying, “Wow, my grandfather or my mate or my friend was a great person.” I always want them to say, “I never knew that about them. I never knew they did that.” You’ll find every person is interesting if you’ll be interested. That’s the number one goal.
Then the second goal in funerals that we do is to try to comfort those who have just lost a loved one. Grief never goes away, and anytime someone loses a loved one, they hurt. Because that’s the chance we take when we love people, and there’s no quick way over grief. The anger comes, the denial, the aloofness, depression, the blame. All sorts of things happen when people pass.
We try to comfort by talking about eternity, that this is not the end, there really is an afterlife. We major on what Jesus said in John 14:1-6 about Heaven, that He has gone to prepare a place for us, that every person who’s accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior, has a home in heaven waiting for them. This is not the end. This is just the beginning of our eternal life.
Off-times, at the end of a funeral, I will say, “This is just a comma if you’re a Christian, it’s not a period. It’s not a goodbye. It’s, ‘I’ll see you later.’” We try emphasizing the truth that there is a Heaven and that someone can know that they’re going to Heaven. If the person was a Christian and I’m told that they had accepted the Lord, I will tell that story. I’ll tell how they heard the Gospel or where or when it was or when their life was changed by God, and that’s what we do.
We never bring up negatives. If the person was a drug dealer or died of alcoholism or something like that, we don’t bring that up. We’re always looking for the positives and letting the person pass with dignity. That’s what we’ve tried to do these many years. We’ve had some people that have had to bury a young child. There’s been teenage funerals, elderly and all in between; suicides, accidents, car wrecks, drownings. I’ve done 462 times funerals. Sometimes, the crowd is bigger, 600 people. Sometimes, just maybe two people. Sometimes, it’s at a gravesite. Sometimes, it’s inside a church building. Sometimes, it’s cremation. Sometimes, it’s a burial and embalmment.
That’s what we’ve tried to do—tried to be a blessing and tried to ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” I looked it up one time, and I found out what He would do. He never did a funeral because Jesus was life. Every time He came in contact with death, He raised them from the dead, and that’s an amazing, amazing promise.
Interviewer: During the past year, COVID has changed a whole lot of things. Earlier in the year, when COVID first came out and was a big scare, they shut down funeral homes altogether. People couldn’t even properly grieve a loved one there. What’s happening now? How have you seen that changed in the past twelve months with this ministry that we do here at the church?
Pastor Mike Ray: Yes, I ended up doing some graveside-only services. Of course, it’s so different than it was a year ago because we’ve got masks on, people are socially distanced. Some funeral homes only allow 10 people, some, 20. They gave them a number. The loved ones were only able to invite a certain select group to honor and to grieve at the cemetery. But some of this has opened up. The governor, a while back, deemed churches essential. And though we, in our county, couldn’t use the indoor part of our building for much of last year, we were allowed to do outdoor worship services, which would include a funeral memorial or funeral service.
We had a huge tent in the back parking lot with many chairs and a sound system, where people would come in and socially distance and would wear masks as they come in…and you know how everybody does these days. We have live-streamed those services. So, people out of state, and have one coming up in about two weeks that will have people out of the country that will be watching live online. That way, we’ve tried to give them some closure by still being able to have a service and still kind of look like a church. We’ve had some green plants and we had some decorations. It wasn’t just a white tent with green chairs on the parking lot. People were still very pleased that we can do this during this time.
Interviewer: Do we ever charge some sort of fee for doing funeral services?
Pastor Mike Ray: People often ask that. I always say, “We want to be a giving church, not a taking church.” Sometimes people may slip the pianist a little money, a little cash. Sometimes, people will do that for me. But there’s never a charge. I’ve never asked for anything in return. Sometimes, people have dropped a gift in the offering plate or mailed in a check. And off-times we’ll use that to either pay bills or put gas in our church buses or maybe put it in foreign missions or maybe use it for flowers for a funeral that’s coming up that won’t have any flowers. That’s what we’ve done in the past.
Interviewer: Okay, that’s all the questions I have. Anything you’d like to add before we wrap it up here?
Pastor Mike Ray: Yeah, there’s a book that we put out recently, this year during the COVID and it’s just called Christian Funerals or How to Plan a Christian Funeral. It would be geared toward pastors, to give them a lot of ideas of how to comfort, how to conduct an interview, learning about a departed loved one, how to pray, what type of message to give at a funeral, what’s appropriate, being comforting, but not pushy, giving the truth, but in love. And then after visits, how to help the family afterward. There’s a chapter on suicide. There’s a chapter on giving the Gospel clearly, the good news of Jesus. It’s very helpful. It’s available at Hopewell Ministries. I gave one to someone recently, that is planning a relative’s funeral so they can kind of thumb through it and get some Scriptures that they may want to use. It also helps them decide on a schedule of service as well.
Interviewer: Yeah. For some of these funeral services, the loved one’s death was sudden, and no one is planning on these types of things. If you’re not careful, doing all the arrangements can be very stressful. And so, planning in advance—and it’s not a subject we want to talk about all the time—but having something planned is always helpful. And that’s what that book is geared towards, too.
Pastor Mike Ray: Yes, and many times if you ask people, especially young adults, “Have you made plans for your funeral? Have you written down your desires, who you want to do it? Do you have favorite songs you want sung? What do you want on the tombstone? Do you have verses? Do you have pallbearers that you’ve chosen?” All those things need to be considered. Asking people that I’m sure is very morbid. Somehow, we all think we’re never going to die, so we don’t want to make those plans. But I’ve encouraged for years, young adults who are married to have life insurance policies and just have something written down.
I think that in the state in which we live if you just write something down, sign it, and date it, it becomes legal, and that kind of overrides any will or living trust. But we’ve all got to make plans. Because this is something that’s inevitable for each of us if the Lord doesn’t come back in our lifetime.
Interviewer: All right. Well, thanks for taking the time. I think that’ll wrap it up here.
Ongoing Support from Hopewell
Hopewell Baptist Church knows that there has been a lot to adjust to lately because of the pandemic, but Pastor Ray sees this as no excuse to stop or even limit his support for his community in Napa. Though death is rarely planned, it is a comfort in knowing that when the time comes, a loved one can be remembered with dignity. The Hopewell Baptist Church family seeks to be a blessing to the people of the Napa Valley community and beyond.