Humble, extraordinary pastor

Jul 6, 2016 by

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Our MYF was meeting on a Wednesday night at the church for games and Bible study. We were a lively and precocious bunch of 20 teenagers, often running our own program without the input of adult sponsors. As the meeting was winding down, a bald man in a T-shirt ambled into the room and talked casually with a few of us for several minutes; then he shuffled away. A visiting teen asked us, “Was that the church janitor?” We answered with pride: “No, that’s our pastor!”

E. Joe Richards, missionary to Japan for 12 years and pastor of Lombard (Ill.) Mennonite Church for 23 years, went to be with the Lord on May 8. He leaves behind a legacy of love, gentleness, humor, holiness and faith unmatched by any pastor of my acquaintance.

If you’ve never heard of him, that’s not surprising. Joe never promoted himself or sought recognition. As far as I know he never sat on any conference or denominational committees, though he did serve briefly as an interim conference minister. His congregation in Lombard, though it flourished during his years there, never became a large church. His spouse, Emma Richards, the first woman ordained to pastoral ministry in the Mennonite Church, became well-known for her preaching, teaching and leadership in the Illinois Mennonite Conference and wider denomination.

Meanwhile, Joe was content to serve in relative obscurity. But the pebbles he threw into the waters of God’s kingdom continue to produce ripples in the Mennonite family and well beyond.

Call to ministry

Born on June 11, 1929, he grew up in the Welsh Presbyterian farming community of Venedocia, Ohio. He felt a strong call to ministry and preached his first sermon to a group of sailors as he was helping transport livestock to Europe after the war. He met Emma Sommers at Bluffton College — she was his speech teacher — and she brought him into the orbit of the (Old) Mennonite Church. They married in 1953 and then served in Japan with the Mennonite Board of Missions. Twelve years later, when they returned to the U.S., he became a school teacher. In 1968 the couple moved to Lombard, a suburb of Chicago; he became a full-time school principal, and a part-time pastor for the small Mennonite congregation there.

Richards was an innovative minister at Lombard Mennonite Church. He started MYF summer tours to Europe every three years to study Anabaptist history. He instituted an annual live nativity scene on the front steps of the church. He initiated the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center — which today offers conflict resolution workshops around the world. He helped develop an annual end-of-summer outdoor hymn-sing, square dance and ice cream social. He promoted the creation of a youth minister position for training and testing young adults’ readiness to go into ministry, and during his years at the church, 14 members went on to be ordained.

Despite being a full-time principal, he somehow found the time not only to lead the church in dynamic and creative ways, but attended many of the youth group’s functions and retreats. He nurtured, supported, listened, joked and prayed with the youth, while lifting up the highest calling of all: serving the church. We, the youth, loved him deeply. He provided us with an unparalleled example of what it means to be a Christian and a pastor.

In 1973 Emma was ordained, and Joe pulled back from some of his responsibilities so that she could become co-pastor and, for a period, solo pastor. She did most of the preaching, and together they provided pastoral care and counseling. At about this time, the General Board of the Mennonite Church decided to move its offices to Lombard, so when the church built a new sanctuary for the growing congregation, it also built a new wing for the General Board offices. This connection allowed several denominational leaders to experience Richards’ extraordinary ministry and warm personality.

Sensitive spirit

But what some people will remember most was his sensitivity to the Spirit. When he saw a stranger, he often felt prompted to strike up a conversation and offer help. Sometimes in the middle of the night he awoke and sensed that someone somewhere needed his prayers. When he prayed, one experienced the presence of the holy. As my wife said when Joe prayed for her recovery from cancer, “Of all people, I felt God listened most to Joe’s prayers.”

In the early 1990s, the couple retired, and in 1996 they moved to Goshen, Ind. But Joe soon found new visionary projects: pairing up freshman at Goshen College with retirees for prayer and support, creating a Welcome Center at the college and helping to found the Lifelong Learning Institute of Elkhart County. As members of Lombard Mennonite Church retired, many of them moved to Goshen, creating a fellowship of dozens of former LMC-ers affectionately called “Lombard East.” The profound ties of faith, love and community, nurtured by Joe, persist.

During the early years of my own ministry, whenever I was facing a perplexing situation, I would ask myself, “What would Joe do?” After a couple of decades of ministry, I thought I had learned all of Joe’s lessons. But after attending his memorial service at College Mennonite Church in Goshen on June 4, and hearing all the stories people had to share, I discovered I still have a lot more to learn from this extraordinary man.

Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor of First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Va. He previously served for 19 years as pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis and 11 years at Peoria-North Mennonite Church in Illinois.

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