Salem Presbyterian Church
Thursday, June 22, 2017
Connecting, Supporting, Exploring Faith Together

Member Richard Clark

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Photo courtesy of Vickie Saewert.
Richard Clark was born in Salem and has lived in Washington County most of his life. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his family moved to Boynton Beach in Florida, where his father worked on a chicken farm for about a year before the family moved back to Washington County to live in Pekin. Even though Richard was very young when he and his parents lived in Florida, he remembers having a good experience there. He also told me though that his family was so poor at the time that his mother would fry up chicken feet for them to eat. When the family moved back to Pekin, they lived in the old Gill house that was torn down in 2010 to construct the Dollar General store. His family was the last to have the house to themselves; it was turned into an apartment building when they moved out in 1963.  Richard said “it was a very large house and spooky. Very spooky.”

Richard had been to various churches over the years before he and his wife Sharon found their church home at Salem Presbyterian. Richard started out as a member of the very conservative Church of Christ where he was baptized in 1975 at the age of 20. A cousin he was close to had become a member there a year earlier, and Richard was looking for a church to serve as a stabilizing force in his life. He had always had an interest in religion.

Richard met for Bible study on one Wednesday night. One of the young people actively involved in the Salem Church of Christ at the time was Scott Colglazier, who has since returned to a Disciples of Christ theology and is now quite well-known, and it was Scott who asked Richard one evening if he was ready to accept Jesus Christ. Richard responded with an emphatic “yes” and was baptized on the spot – full immersion – with only a handful of people present. Richard described it as being “just like they did it in the New Testament. No fanfare. You get saved and you’re baptized that same night.”

While Richard’s theology has moved away from that of the Church of Christ, he really appreciated that he received a good grounding in scripture there. He said he learned the books of the Bible and what each book was about. Richard told me, “A lot of people think if you don’t take the Bible literally it’s not worth anything but you can take the Bible symbolically, metaphorically, and get a really good understanding what the real meaning is behind the scripture.” He mentioned that as far back as the third century AD the great Christian theologian Origen believed that many things in the Bible cannot be interpreted literally and that you must go to the symbolic meaning to understand. Richard said that the people who wrote the Bible “didn’t look at history necessarily like we do. They were more interested in telling a story and the message behind the story was actually more important than a lot of the history.”

Richard and Sharon had been invited to attend Salem Presbyterian Church originally by Susie Lopp, who was a friend of Sharon’s family. They didn’t visit at that time but later, Richard and Rev. Sara Shields, who is Sharon’s cousin by marriage, had a conversation about theology at Delaney Park, and Sara mentioned Paul Tillich. Richard said that clicked with him and he thought Salem Presbyterian sounded like a pretty open-minded church. A year or two later, Richard and Sharon came to Salem Presbyterian on Easter Sunday in 2002 and have been attending ever since.

Richard said at the time he was going through some personal problems. He’d been hospitalized briefly for depression and really wanted to go back to church. He was looking for a church “close by, preferably, that was very open to different ideas, very inclusive, and I had no idea there was a church like Salem Presbyterian within miles of where I lived. I thought I might have to go miles out of town.”

In 2004 or 2005, when Richard was serving on the Session, Sara mentioned an opportunity to him that he was immediately interested in: the chance to study to become a Commissioned Lay Pastor (CLP). He had always wanted to attend a theological school but the cost had been prohibitive and here was a chance to experience something similar. He attended classes as part of the CLP program over two and a half years. They met for one weekend every two months at Pyoca and Richard describes it as one of the best experiences of his life. Excellent teachers came from the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the classes covered “Old Testament, New Testament, preaching, history of the church, Reformation history, things about the sacraments, and about everything you need to know about the Presbyterian faith.” About the time Richard was finishing his CLP studies he also returned to Indiana University Southeast after 30 years and earned a degree in Journalism.

Richard enjoys the worship service changes at Salem Presbyterian that Rev. Beth Walden-Fisher has brought and Beth’s sermons, especially the history she brings to them. He told me that most ministers in Washington County don’t wear vestments and he finds our church unique in that Beth does. He finds the wearing of vestments is “almost mystical” and it is something he really appreciates.
Richard went on to say he’s very glad to be a part of Salem Presbyterian Church.

Richard has experienced many special moments at Salem Presbyterian Church. When his father passed away in 2005, Richard was very touched that Salem Presbyterian immediately offered to have a dinner for the family. Richard said his family was really impressed and that they still talk about how great the Presbyterian cooking was. By far the best moment was when he married his son Uriah and his wife-to-be Ashley Potts in the sanctuary in April 2009. Richard said he was probably more nervous than the bride or groom, or than he had been any other time he’d ever preached, but that it came off really well. He said he told them they had to stay together because he was the one to marry them.

I asked Richard what he sees and dreams of for the future of Salem Presbyterian and he said he sees great potential in our faith community. “We need to step outside our comfort zone and embrace other people who normally wouldn’t be Presbyterians,” Richard said.  “This is essential if the Presbyterian Church USA is to survive.” In the larger Presbyterian faith community, Richard believes there must be big changes soon and that the PCUSA will need to adapt to the times, reduce some of its hierarchy, become more decentralized and make it easier for people to become involved. Richard told me that the largest group of people now are the unchurched and that we need to reach out to people who don’t fit the Presbyterian stereotype “because there is a hunger in the human soul for something greater than yourself, this yearning for what we lack as human beings that can only be filled by the grace of God through Jesus Christ.”

Richard said that many people attend or join a church because it’s viewed as the respectable thing to do but that it’s very important to challenge the status quo as Jesus Christ did and to understand what Jesus did in his own time.  “Jesus didn’t get crucified for doing charity,” Richard said.  “Jesus was crucified for living out a love that disrupted the social order.  And people are not crucified for helping poor people.  People are crucified for joining them.” Richard told me he feels that the whole idea of salvation, of being saved, is misunderstood, that “if you really go back to the meaning of the word ‘salvation,’ it means to be made whole, to heal. That’s what Jesus was about, to make us whole people, to heal us of our illnesses, physical or mental or psychological or social. It’s not a term talking about where you’re going to be after you die.”

Richard is so appreciative of the prayers and support from the members of the Salem Presbyterian faith community while his wife Sharon was in the hospital over the past six weeks. The day Sharon came home after 42 days away was the happiest day of his life. Richard said that Sharon’s being in the hospital “undoubtedly was the most trying period of my life, just as difficult as when Uriah was in Iraq. It’s been an experience that I never thought I’d have to go through. But it’s always easier to experience something like this when you have faith in God and in Christ as your savior. That makes it much, much easier, and I don’t know how I would have gotten through this if I hadn’t had a church family and this relationship with God.”

- excerpted from an interview by Trina Brown published in the December 2011 church newsletter, "The Stained Glass Window"