By Denise Clay
ABOVE PHOTO: Bishop Richard F. Norris speaking at Bermuda’s St. Paul AME Church in 2010.
(Photo: Royal Gazette Online)
Two things have been constants in the life of A.M.E. Bishop Richard Franklin Morris: his faith, and the City of Brotherly Love.
But after spending the bulk of the last 50 years here in Philadelphia, a tenure that included a stint as pastor of the iconic Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, and eight years as the Bishop of the A.M.E.’s Philadelphia-based First District, Morris is stepping down from his office and will be leaving Philadelphia to take a new assignment in one of the church’s other 19 districts in the United States and around the world.
In this interview with the SUN, Bishop Norris talks about the First District, the legacy he leaves behind, and what he’ll miss most when he leaves his hometown.
SUN: Thank you for your time today Bishop. I’d like to start off by getting a little background on you. How long have you been a minister in the A.M.E. Church and where have you been other than Philadelphia?
BN: I’ve been a minister for a long time. I became a minister here in Philadelphia in 1957 and have also served in New York, New Jersey and on the Island of Bermuda. I’ve been the Bishop here for the last eight years. We have term limits and the Bishop may not stay any longer than that. We have an itinerant system that tries to place the best person for each church.
SUN: What exactly does it mean to be a Bishop in the A.M.E. Church?
BN: Bishops are like the superintendents of a group of churches. It’s our responsibility to evaluate churches, and monitor their success or lack thereof. We oversee the congregations and assign pastors to churches. The First District is made up of 330 churches.
SUN: I understand that you have deep ties to Philadelphia.
BN: I do. I was born in Atlanta, but I grew up here. I grew up as a member of St. Matthew’s Church in West Philadelphia. The interesting thing was in 1993, I was sent back there to pastor and I was there until I was elected Bishop in 2000. I was pastor to those I grew up with. It has been good being in Philadelphia.
SUN:What have been the best, and the most challenging things about your time as the Bishop for the First District?
BN: The best thing is that the church for the most part has continued to be vibrant. We’re doing well in terms of our leadership. The most challenging thing is that many of our churches are old and it’s a challenge to maintain older facilities.
I also think that what’s helped us is the maintenance of a stabilized economic heading for the district. The churches are economically sound. We’re able to do our work in ministerial education. We support people who are entering the ministry with scholarships to the Payne Theological Seminary quite a bit. We also give $100,000 a year over and above those scholarships.
SUN: What about the challenges that the congregations in your churches face? Do you think that the District is doing well in terms of helping with those?
BN: We try and make sure that we’re abreast of the issues going on in the city. We have feeding programs and do tutoring work with students. We also try to help with housing and the other economic challenges facing our community in this day and age.
SUN: Have you been told where you’re headed next?
BN: I don’t know yet. The church will assign me to another district. The Church has 20 districts. It could be any of the 20.
SUN:Since it appears that your next appointment won’t allow you to remain in Philadelphia, what will you miss most about the city? What do you think your legacy will be here?
BN: I guess what I’ll miss the most perhaps is the familiarity. I’ve spent most of my life in this community. I’ll have to adjust to a new place.
As for my legacy, it will be my contribution to the District’s history. I was privileged to be pastor at Mother Bethel for seven years and was blessed to be there during its bicentennial. I was able to lead the congregation in a $2.3 million restoration of the building. It worked out very, very well.
SUN: Well, thank you again for your time Bishop and good luck to you in your new position.
BN: Thank you. It was very nice to talk with you.