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  • Writer's pictureMennonite Church USA

Our task ahead: Celebrating Emma Richards

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On June 11, 2023, the congregation of Lombard (Illinois) Mennonite Church celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Emma Richards (1927-2014), the first Mennonite woman pastor to be ordained as a pastor of a Mennonite congregation in North America. Lombard’s pastoral team of Barbara and Richard Gehring and Nathan Perrin led a service of celebration, which featured several guest speakers and concluded with a potluck lunch.

Richards’ journey to ordination began on Easter Sunday in 1970. Her husband and lead pastor, Joe Richards, was scheduled to only preach two Sundays a month, with guest preachers filling in the other two slots. Emma Richards decided that she would share a meditation on Easter about the resurrection of Christ. From that point forward, she was a regular guest preacher.

“Everyone was paying attention to her,” Anne Munley, a congregant at the time, recalled. “Even the kids were listening!”

After that moment, the church body advocated for Emma Richard’s ordination, challenging the norms of both Illinois Mennonite Conference and Mennonite Church. Several heated conversations were had, but Richard’s stood strong in the face of it.

Evan Richards, the Richards’ son, recalled in his presentation that he did not notice anything different about his mother while this was happening. He was in college at the time, and his memories and interactions could be summed up as: “Mom was just being mom.”

Emma Richards, though hesitant to accept the ordination process at first for fear of the controversy distracting from the Gospel, soon became a trailblazer for future women. Lombard Mennonite Church stood with her during a tumultuous time. Though not all of the congregation supported the ordination at first, they nonetheless stayed together.

The next speaker was Munley, who is pastor of both North Suburban Mennonite Church in Libertyville, Illinois, and co-pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Schaumburg, Illinois. She also serves on the credentialing team for Illinois Mennonite Conference.

“Emma viewed everyone through a lens of love,” Munley shared. “There was always a sense that things could be figured out.”

Munley compared Richards’ patient character with how Mennonite Church USA should thus respond to issues surrounding sexuality and gender.

“We can learn from Emma’s life,” Munley continued. “From her compassion, patience, joy and of waiting upon the Lord.”

The final speaker, Glen Guyton, executive director of MC USA, preached a lively sermon using the same text Richards used in her ordination service (Ephesians 4: 4-16.) He thanked women in the past who have ministered to him, such as his mother, who was a Sunday school teacher at the Presbyterian church he attended as a child.

He also paid tribute to Ann Allebach, a Mennonite pastor who was installed in Philadelphia in 1911. Without her, Guyton shared, the path would not have been paved for Richards. He noted how there was a 60-year difference between Allebach and Richards. He said it took far too long for the Mennonite church to officially recognize the gifts that women brought.

“Men have wanted the announcement of the resurrection without giving a title to the announcer,” Guyton lamented, referencing Mary Magdalene’s preaching of the resurrection.

He then thanked both Allebach and Richards for helping to also trailblaze a path for him to serve as the first Black executive director of MC USA.

There was a sense of joy and community in the congregation that morning. There were moments of laughter and powerful sacred moments reflecting on the ministries of Emma and Joe Richards. There was such a strong sense of community that the “joys and concerns” section of the service lasted for 30 minutes. Congregants and former Lombard Mennonite Church members shared memories of Emma Richards and how special the service was to them.

Afterward, the congregation and guests shared a potluck lunch. It was a time of lively discussion and warm memories. As usual with Mennonite potlucks, the food was plentiful and the laughter loud. The legacy Emma Richards leaves behind is a legacy of compassion, service and community. The gifts she gave to the church continue to show themselves to this day. Her legacy provides an inspiration to every woman who is called to ministry within MC USA.

Nate Perrin

Emerging writer + pastor of Christian Formation

Lombard Mennonite Church

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