The sanctuary had emptied on a balmy Sunday afternoon when a visitor came through the door at Bethel AME Church.
Rev. Joan Richardson rose from her pew to greet the young man, a student in the Malcolm X Institute for Black Studies at Wabash College who had been invited to worship with the historic congregation but missed the services.
“Come back and see us next week,” said Richardson, the church’s newly appointed pastor, encouraging the student to attend Bethel’s soon-to-be-formed youth group.
Preparing younger people to lead the church into the future has become one of the top priorities for the mostly black congregation whose building was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
“I strongly believe, as I’ve shared with the congregation, we need to stop telling our kids that they’re the church of tomorrow,” she said. “We need to help children understand that they are the church of today.”
Next month, a teen group will begin meeting at the church as another gathering for younger children forms. The church wants to make a return to the denomination’s Sunday school convention, where children compete in a “Jeopardy!”-style Bible quiz game.
Richardson arrived at Bethel in January following the retirement of Rev. Melvin Hall, who has been battling health problems.
The Los Angeles native comes from a long line of pastors on both sides of the family. Richardson’s father, Eugene Sr., did double duty in AME and Baptist congregations until fully devoting his time to AME church in the mid-1970s.
Five of her siblings are ordained AME ministers and the sixth has received his pastor’s license.
Eugene Sr.’s career took the family from Southern to Northern California and on to Kansas and Colorado. After a two-year stint touring the world with Up with the People, a multicultural performance group for young adults, Richardson returned to the San Francisco area in 1990, where she delivered her first sermon on Palm Sunday.
Her family joked that preaching was in her blood, but Richardson was wary of worshipers comparing her messages to her father’s.
“I didn’t want people to think that I was going into ministry just because that was what everybody else in my family was doing, and I was adamant that people would understand that it was something I was called to do,” Richardson said.
After preaching in Oakland, California and counseling women recovering from substance use disorder, Richardson later filled in at an AME church near Louisville, Kentucky while her husband, Roger, was stationed with the Army. She later served as a minister of a recently merged Indianapolis AME congregation.
The Richardsons live in Avon, where their youngest children attend school. The couple has two children, Emerald, 16, and Ryan, 10. Richardson has two other children from a previous marriage, Andre, 27, and Alex, 23.
An open house for the family is planned for 1 to 3 p.m. March 8 at the church, 213 W. North St.
Along with starting the youth programs and boosting community outreach, Richardson plans to oversee technology improvements at Bethel.
“I’m excited to see what’s in store and I have great expectations, as far as the members growing spiritually as well as physically,” Richardson said.