Rev. Ron Riley at his ordination Sunday at St. John's Lutheran. (Submitted photo)

In his sermon during the ordination service of Ron Riley last Sunday afternoon, Pastor Leonard Payton referred to the event as “a big day in the economy of God’s church, the life of St. John/Forest Park … and in the life of Ron Riley.”

Paul Lindblad, St. John’s director of liturgics, “pulled out all the stops” on the congregation’s 44-rank, 2,550-pipe Skinner Organ to make grand, festive music along with the church’s choirs and a wind ensemble. Twenty Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) clergy, vested with red stoles, joined LCMS Northern Illinois President Dan Gilbert who presided at the rite of ordination.

“For St. John, it’s a big thing,” said Norman Young, a member of the congregation for 40 years, “because we have not had an ordination here for at least 20 years.” Herman Holstein who became a St. John member in 1947 and has a sense of the history of the faith community, recalled that Riley was the first African American to join St. John and that seeing him now being ordained was significant. 

Riley explained that he is a “specific ministry pastor,” who, as the name implies, is a man ordained to one specific ministry, which, in his case, is the task of planting a new LCMS congregation in the Maywood/Broadview area.

Riley’s official title for now is assistant pastor, St. John Lutheran Church, so in many ways the faith community he gathers just west of the Desplaines River will have a strong connection with its “mother church” in Forest Park.

Retirement, four years ago, from his work as a Cook County Public Guardian is what freed him to enter the program at Concordia Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana — a program designed for older men (over 30 years old) who have a specific ministry in mind or one they are already doing but want to be equipped with more theological education. Riley said the seven men in his “cohort” took the same courses, as do the regularly enrolled seminarians though not as many. All courses were online, with a week-long residency on campus each summer.

Riley’s wife, Dale, said, “This has been a long time in coming. It’s been a while, but I see that all roads led to this right now.”

A long road

Roney (Ron) Riley, 65, did not grow up as a Lutheran. Few African Americans do. And few people of any color get ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament at his age.

Riley’s wife recalled that many years ago while the couple was attending Shiloh Baptist Church on Chicago’s West Side, the Rev. W.W. Taylor told her, “One day your husband is going to be a preacher.” Taylor’s prophecy would take almost 40 years to come true.

Pastor Riley grew up in the Jane Addams projects, attended Crane High School, studied for a while at what was then called Illinois Teachers College, got married, moved to Maywood in the mid-1970s, received a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in history from Loyola University. His dream for a long time was to be a teacher, and he did teach history part-time at Harold Washington College while working full time at the Public Guardian’s Office.

All that time, the call to become a preacher remained in the back of his mind. But he was married and raising a family. How do you take the time off, and how do you pay for the tuition when your kids are going to St. John School and then Walther High?

St. John School, really, was the door through which Riley entered the Lutheran Church. After moving to Maywood, friends and family told him his children would get a good education at St. John. Once his children started attending school, he decided to check out the church. He worshipped there fairly regularly but was not yet ready to join — until one Sunday when, as people were leaving the church, two little old white ladies approached him. One kissed him on one cheek and the other kissed him on the other cheek, and they said, “Welcome to St. John. We want to see you next week.”

“That’s how I joined,” he said with a smile. “It wasn’t the church’s theology. It was the personal welcome. I had found a church home.”

As the years passed, Riley found that doctrine, what the church teaches, became increasingly important to him. “I joined because of relationships,” he explained, “but obviously you don’t stay unless there’s some theological connection between you and your church, you and your pastor. That was, I think, the beginning for me seriously thinking about ministry, but again I was working full time with children in college.”

Asked why Maywood needs another congregation when it seems like there’s already a “church on every corner,” Riley replied, “I think the Lutheran religion has so much to offer, what our doctrine is. We don’t teach a ‘prosperity gospel.’ We teach true Christianity, light and salvation from God our Father through his son Jesus Christ. That’s what we teach. We’re offering confession, absolution, the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in communion. Other churches don’t believe that.”

Riley admitted to being a little anxious about starting a new church in his hometown. He said, “I don’t know how it will turn out. I just keep in prayer and hope that the Lord will find a way. I always have to remember that everything is on his time schedule and not on mine.”

He added, “The goal here is not to build a big church with 500 members. We’re in a post-church age. If you’re going to have a church today, it’s going to be a small church with 30-50 people in a small building, maybe a storefront, maybe my home. There’s nothing wrong with that. The people who will be coming there will be coming to hear the word of Jesus Christ. That’s what we’re offering.”