In his new book, “Witness to Grace: A Testimony of Favor,” Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson reflects on the challenges and triumphs of being Black in America over the past 60 years. A pastor and advocate, Richardson seeks to inspire others with his message of hope, perseverance and grace.
Speaking with NewsOne, Richardson recently shared that “Witness to Grace” reflects his commitment to the beloved community.
“I’ve read about dreams being fulfilled and interacting with people who have overcome great obstacles to get to high achievement,” said Richardson. “The thing that drives me in writing the book is my obligation to share my story, and the lessons I’ve learned and how I was blessed to overcome all the obstacles and get to the end of the journey with some sense of achievement.”
Part of Richardson’s narrative exploration recounts his time in Philadelphia’s public school system.
“Essentially, I was socially promoted,” he said.
Passed along and told he was not college material, Richardson pointed to the grace and blessing in having mentors who saw his potential.
“And that was rather shattering to me because I really wanted to be a doctor,” he said.
Determined to at least try, Richardson enrolled in West Philadelphia Community College. “[But] I flunked out the first year, and really that was even more devastating,” recounted Richardson.
Richardson says his relationship with the church helped him overcome the disappointment and in the process accept his calling to ministry. His drive to be the best at whatever path he took led him to talk with his pastor about his experience with school.
“I told my pastor, who was my first counselor, that I flunked out of school [and] I didn’t want to be an unprepared pastor,” Richardson recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you try to go to Virginia Union. [It] is a school that has a tremendous record of preparing people for ministry.’”
Attending Virginia Union University, an HBCU, changed Richardson’s life for the better. The school granted him conditional acceptance because of deficiencies in reading comprehension. But Richardson says it also gave him the support and development to improve his skills, which led to furthering his education.
“From there my education evolved [and] I got the skills I needed,” he said. “I went on to Yale Divinity School and earned a doctorate degree.”
Still that same young man from Philadelphia, Richardson credited the support and grace he was shown at Virginia Union with setting him on a remarkable career trajectory.
“Thirty-five years later I was [named] Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University where I had conditional matriculation,” explained Richardson. “And every degree has my signature on it now.”
As a witness to grace, Richardson has held several major roles in national and international forums. He is the Senior Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, New York. In addition, he serves as chair of the board for both the National Action Network and the Conference of National Black Churches.
“When you can see life through, not just your failures, but the things that you have overcome, it sets you up for the experiences that come after that,” reflected Richardson.
With the compounded effect of the ongoing pandemic, Richardson said he recognizes the difficulties impacting many people and shaped his book as a guidepost in navigating the often challenging choice points put in one’s path. His reflections on dealing with racial hostility and growing up as a part of a marginalized community are still relevant to his experiences today.
Richardson called the current moment a “real dark time” but found some relief in leaning into his relationship with God and spirituality.
“Faith can give you the resolve to not give up,” he said. “I would tell people don’t conclude your outcomes by your current circumstances. Don’t conclude where you’re going, before you get there, continue to work and come to the destiny that is yours.”
Richardson’s conversation around developing faith and building into existing support networks to endure tough times has value to many beyond those who may share his specific religious affiliation. For this writer, as a nonreligious person of faith raising two Black children into adulthood, Richardson’s clarity of thought and grounding in faith was reaffirming.
Throughout “Witness to Grace,” Richardson exemplifies a commitment to equity and justice that reflects on the innate value of Black people as defined by Black people and not outside systems. He also stressed the need for positive affirmation in the lives of Black children and young people to overcome the daily dilemmas put in their path from growing up within inherently racist systems.
”I don’t think I can put into words how essential they are our progress,” said Richardson, citing the importance of Black institutions like HBCUs. “It’s not just having a Black face in the C suite of a corporation. It’s really having institutions who in their mandate, in their DNA, have a desire to affirm African Americans.”
Speaking about his first trip to Africa, Richardson said he remembers feeling lighter.
“Like this cloud was lifted up off of me,” he said. “I didn’t even know what it was, but it was the fact that subconsciously we as Black Americans carry the burden of racism in our lives. Sometimes unrealized.”
With intersecting crises and ongoing trauma, finding opportunities to release that burden is crucial to Black people not simply surviving in America, but thriving. And for Richardson, the Black church continues to play a role in creating opportunities for Black people to thrive.
“The Black church is not monolithic as we all know. When we talk about church, we’re talking about multiple expressions of faith,” Richardson explained. “And when it’s healthy, [the Black church] is about advancing the agenda of the full humanity of African American people.”
Richardson further called the church a “vital institution” for liberation.
“It’s our story of liberation,” he stated. “The Black church, because it’s theology that God loves us, the God who has made me valuable, is driven to use itself to advance the fulfillment of who we are.”
Liberation is a full-time endeavor that requires a Black centered commitment and investment to bring about actual progress. Richardson sees this as a function of the Black Church through community engagement, including in the civic arena. While they are nonpartisan nonprofits, churches can play an important role in voter turnout and outreach.
During the 2020 election cycle, the Conference of National Black Churches, representing the seven historically Black denominations, supported voter outreach efforts in several battleground states. Richardson says this work is crucial to advancing the progress of Black people and other people of color.
“I think all of our energy has to go in promoting progress and going forward,” he explained. “We can’t spend no time trying to catch [white people] up. We got to spend all our time, empowering each other, understanding that not only do Black Lives Matter but Black Votes Matter.”
Anoa Changa is a movement journalist and retired attorney based in Atlanta, Georgia. Follow Anoa on Instagram and Twitter @thewaywithanoa.
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