From the Rev. Walter Richardson’s point of view, faith is "an active belief, not just something you say or repeat, but actually a lived experience."
It is steadfast faith that has led the popular senior pastor of Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Perrine to step down from that position after more than 26 years.
In a wide-ranging interview that touched on the difference between religion and spirituality, jazz and the beauty of meditation, Richardson, 61, told the South Florida Times that he always knew he'd retire while still young and fit enough to enjoy his life.
The church and community will celebrate Richardson and his contributions at a banquet on Saturday night, May 1.
"I always planned that whatever career I would be involved in, I would retire and not work all my life," Richardson said. “I know it's not customary for black ministers to retire. Our counterparts have been doing it for years. In many cases, our ministers could not retire because many of them did not have retirement plans that afforded them the opportunity to retire.”
Ollie Simmons has been a member of Sweet Home for 45 years and is “in tears,” about Richardson's retirement, she said.
Simmons, a retired teacher's assistant, added that she likes the new pastor (the Rev. Jeremy Upton,) but said she is having a hard time letting Richardson go.
Simmons, 78, participates in a daily 5 a.m. prayer call that Richardson used to lead, but on which he now only participates as a listener.
"I get a lot from listening to the prayers and testimonies,” she said. “It does a lot for me. It brightens my day."
When asked to share how she feels about Richardson stepping down, she breathed deeply and said, "To tell you the truth, after 26 years, I thought he would just be there for a while. I don't think 61 years old, is old.”
With a voice full of emotion, she said, “I miss him so very much."
Over the years, Richardson has led many efforts to uplift not only the church, but also the entire Perrine community.
He helped fight drugs and violence by leading marches after the shooting death of Perrine businessman Arthur Lee Lawrence. After Hurricane Andrew damaged Sweet Home in 1992, he led efforts to rebuild the church, and helped to build the first Habitat for Humanity house in Perrine.
He also led the effort to build a new sanctuary for Sweet Home, which opened last year to accommodate the growing membership of about 2,000.
Today, mindful that the words "retirement" and "black pastor" represent an oxymoron to some, Richardson said he and Sweet Home have worked out a retirement plan that will allow him to continue to be paid and receive benefits beyond his time in the pulpit.
He said that since he delivered his last sermon on Easter Sunday, local and national speaking engagements have cropped up, seemingly out of the blue.
"Believe it or not, almost mysteriously, God has just opened up so many opportunities for me to speak. I have to turn down engagements,” he said. “If I want to, I could actually be involved on a weekly basis, ad infinitum.”
The Baptist preacher, author and St. Thomas University adjunct professor has a keen sense of religion and spirituality, appearing to embrace the latter far more deeply than the former.
"Religion is a prescribed way of acting…Religion sets a pattern for revering or respecting God," he explained. "Spirituality goes a little deeper than that. It says it's not confined to a set of rules or regulations necessarily."
The deeply spiritual practice of meditation has been a mainstay in Richardson's life for the past two decades.
"It really settles me,” he said. “It really prepares me for the day. I took a course in spirituality and I got a chance to hear other practitioners from other faiths talk about their early-morning meditation life. And I said, 'If they could do it, I could do it too.'"
Of spirituality, Richardson said, "One can have an inner sense of closeness, and have a relationship without the confines of gadgets and gimmicks. I'm not saying that religion is confined to gimmicks or gadgets, but one can be religious and not be spiritual," said Richardson, who has been married for 41 years.
He has two children and ten grandchildren.
He is so impacted by his early-morning ritual of prayer and mediation that he wrote a book to help others embrace the practice.
Think on These Things, he said, is "something to inspire, something to affirm one's personhood, I wrote this book as a guide for people to help people to do what I've been able to do."
Richardson has served as a mentor to many ministers. Over the years, more than 51 associate pastors have served with him at Sweet Home, and at least 16 are now serving as senior pastors and chaplains throughout the country.
He has also counseled more than 200 couples, married more than 100 couples, performed more than 1,000 funerals, baptized more than 2,000, and preached more than 5,000 sermons.
From his first sermon, "Prayer Changes Things," to his last, "Trust the Transition," the jazz lover and avid golfer, who recently began writing a “Prayerful Living’’ column in the South Florida Times, said he has grown tremendously.
"I've grown in many ways. Educationally, I've grown in many ways."
Yet his most significant growth, he said, has come from "the experience of working with a wonderful community… and the people who made up the Sweet Home Church."
Photo: Rev. Dr. Walter Richardson
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Retirement Celebration for the Rev. Dr. Walter T. Richardson
WHEN: Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 5 p.m.
WHERE: Doral Country Club and Spa, 4400 N. W. 87th Ave., Doral.
COST: $55 for adults; $35 for children 12 and under.
Reserved Tables (seats 12) $1,000 – includes full page recognition in souvenir booklet
CONTACT: Arsimmer McCoy, 305-235-0679