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    The AME's new man

    Bishop Adam J. Richardson Jr., a Tampa native, takes the helm in front of about 2,500 churchgoers and guests, some from as far as Africa.

    [Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
    Bishop Adam J. Richardson Jr. on Monday became the leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in a ceremony at the Tampa Convention Center.

    By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 25, 2002

    TAMPA -- Bishop Adam J. Richardson Jr., who chased pigeons and played pickup basketball on the playgrounds of Tampa, on Monday became the leader of the 2.5-million-member African Methodist Episcopal Church.

    About 2,500 churchgoers and guests, some from as far as Africa, showed up in tuxedos, clerical collars and sequined gowns to watch as Richardson was invested as president of the Bishops Council during a ceremony at the Tampa Convention Center.

    "He's like the pope of our church now," said Vernon I. Lowe, president of the church's council of presiding elders, who came from New York for the ceremony.

    Richardson, 54, said he was humbled to take on the one-year term and excited to do so in his hometown.

    His father, Adam J. Richardson Sr., was the pastor of St. Luke AME Church in the early 1950s. Charlie Walker Middle School in Tampa is named for his grandfather.

    "I was a boy here," Richardson said.

    One of 19 bishops, he currently serves areas in Africa. He has an office in Johannesburg, where he lives about half the year. He will continue his duties there while presiding over the bishops' council and members of the church worldwide.

    Monday's event kicked off the church's weeklong convention, which is expected to draw about 5,000 people to meetings and worship services at the convention center and the Marriott Waterside Hotel.

    As head of the AME church, Richardson carries a heavy load. His denomination was founded more than 200 years ago for black people who wanted to worship, but were shunned from white congregations.

    Today, some African-Americans are turning to integrated churches that are nondenominational. Still, Richardson said, the AME church has purpose and will continue to grow.

    "The sadness is that black people tend to migrate toward whiteness much quicker than whites to a black movement," Richardson said. "As long as there are issues of a political nature, liberation issues, there will be a need for our voice."

    The issues his church faces are social and political, including Florida's 2000 presidential voting debacle, Richardson said.

    One thrust of the church will be to educate members of their voting rights and encourage them to go to the polls during the upcoming election.

    Other issues include a disproportionate number of African-Americans in jails and high rates of HIV and AIDS among black people worldwide.

    "We must be open and honest with our parishioners (about the spread of AIDS)," said Richardson, who has seen up-close the effects of AIDS in South Africa.

    During the ceremony, outgoing president Theodore Larry Kirkland handed over to Richardson the "medallion of office." He likened it to the mantle worn by Elijah in the Old Testament.

    "It is useful only when it is hallowed with service," Kirkland said. "It is sacred only when it attaches a cause beyond itself."

    Band members of Richardson's alma mater, Florida A&M University, as well as the Boys' Choir of Tallahassee gathered for performances.

    Richardson sat alongside his wife, Connie, son Trey, a graduate student, and daughter Monique, a lawyer in Clearwater.

    Richardson served for nearly two decades at Bethel AME Church in Tallahassee before taking his post to the episcopacy in 1996.

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