Fri | Aug 18, 2017

A man of the people - Archbishop-elect to take on new role armed with vast experience

Published:Friday | May 6, 2016 | 5:00 AM
Archbishop-elect Kenneth Richards.
Archbishop-elect Kenneth Richards
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The Archbishop-elect of Kingston, Kenneth Richards, has been known to pop up at street dances in places like Hagley Park Road and Waterhouse in St Andrew, fully dressed in clerical garb.

"But you have to get there around one or two in the morning because, you know, the dance doesn't really get hot until then," he said, smiling.

Richards, who will be officially installed as Archbishop of Kingston in July, following the reassignment of Charles Dufour, has a reputation for being a hands-on kind of priest.

"I would go to the street dance to be among the people. I'd go home and sleep then wake up and go. Once I'm there, I would ask for the microphone and then ask who was having a birthday. I'd then pray for them. After a while, I started getting invited to street dances all the time. The police would come, and once they saw me there, they would leave," said Richards.

The soft-spoken, quick-to-smile priest sat with The Gleaner on Wednesday, reflecting on the journey that has brought him to a critical leadership role in the local Catholic Church.

Richards was born in Linstead, St Catherine, but grew up in Spanish Town. He is the oldest of seven children who, as youngsters, attended the Anglican Church near to their home on Martin Street.

"I was always close with my family. My parents would encourage us to attend church, even if they didn't go themselves," he said. When he was about 10 years old, he became the first in his family to convert to Catholicism. His mother and siblings would eventually convert as well.

He attended St Catherine High School and had ambitions to pursue a career vastly different from the path he eventually took. "Around the time of graduation, my mother asked me what I wanted to become. I always imagined doing something physical, so I told her perhaps a sideman on a bus or truck. Well, it was like slow motion when I saw her hand coming to clap me. I had to do a Matrix move to get out of the way," he said.

To his mother's great relief, Richards' plans would undergo a major overhaul. He had two friends with whom he said he did nearly everything. They wanted to become priests, and even though Richards was not convinced that was an ideal plan for him, he agreed to accompany them to Catholic youth meetings with the promise that they would go see a movie together afterwards. Before long, he was embedded and started finding comfort in the church's teachings.

"I had worked at a lab in Spanish Town for a while and needed to make a switch. I had some friends in the police force who told me to come and join the force. They made all the arrangements and I was to go meet them on a Monday morning to make it official," he said.

On the Saturday before he was supposed to do that, however, Dufour, the man he is now set to follow as archbishop of Kingston, asked him if he would be interested in joining a training programme that would end with him becoming a priest.

"I said, 'Well, I'm supposed to join the police force on Monday, but I accept'," Richards recalled with a chuckle.

After about six years of studying at different levels, he started working, first as an assistant priest, then as a priest in places like Harbour View, Waterhouse, and Hagley Park Road.

He said that once, while he was working in Harbour View, there was a major disturbance between residents and the police. "There was a roadblock and I went out there. There was tremendous tension and the people refused to budge. Eventually, the police came in with their armoured gear and said they were ready to clear the roadway at all costs. Something just came over me and I shouted, 'In the name of God, stop this foolishness!' The place went silent and I walked over to a rock that had been used as part of the roadblock and moved it. After that, the residents joined in and helped clear the road themselves," he said.

 

ministry of presence

 

The number of persons in Jamaica who identify as Catholics has been declining for decades. Richards said he is concerned about this and plans to put some energy behind engaging residents. "I think that as a church, we may be guilty of sitting back and allowing people to come to us. We have to be proactive and engage the people. I believe in a ministry of presence. That's why I used to ride my bicycle instead of driving a car in the communities I worked."

While engaging potential new members of the Church, however, Richards said it was important that the integrity of the Catholic Church's teachings and fundamental principles be maintained. "I think that we should not take it for granted that people understand the tenets of Catholicism. Sometimes people just don't have the information, and that is what we should change," he said.

When asked to share his views on whether the church might ever amend its stance on issues such as abortion, divorce, and gay marriage, the perception of which has changed among many persons over the years, Richards was firm. "That would be like asking if we will change the Bible," he said. "The Church has no authority to change the teachings of the Bible. Of course, the Church must engage with compassion and not doctrine. We must show empathy to all people, but even in doing so, we must be clear that our compassion should not be seen as licence for behaviour that is contrary to the teachings of the Bible."

Richards said he plans to spend a lot of time listening, observing, and analysing before making any major changes as archbishop. He said he intends to learn as much as possible from persons at different levels and to take some time to develop strategies that will serve the needs of all involved.

"This is not my church, it is our church. I plan to find unity in diversity as we work together to fulfil the teachings of Jesus Christ," he said.