The Rev. Jean Richardson, progressive pastor and activist in the Presbyterian Church USA, was born in 1955 in western Pennsylvania. She was reared in a family in which education and courage were valued and service to the community was expected. As the only daughter and youngest child in the family, she recalls listening to the stories her father told her older brothers about his daring two-year expedition to the South Pole in 1939 with Admiral Byrd and subsequent expeditions to the North and South Poles while in the Navy.
Jean grew up in Beaver, Pennsylvania, a largely all-White, Republican, conservative community that was heavily populated with an array of Presbyterian Churches each formed from various histories of the denomination. In First Presbyterian Church she took to heart the Calvinist hymns of her youth and learned daily lessons from her mother that faith was always to be lived out in our actions. The church played an important role in providing opportunities for Jean to be in leadership and to be exposed to a larger world outside of western Pennsylvania during her youth.
While in high school, she attended a youth volunteer work opportunity with the Missouri Delta Ecumenical Ministry where she worked with migrant farm workers that changed her life. There she learned about class struggle and social apartheid which she did not know existed in this country. She returned the following two summers by herself to work with the same organization.
Jean attended Case Western Reserve University where she studied social work, graduating magna cum laude in 1977. After college she worked for the Cleveland area YWCA for 18 months coordinating summer camp programs for children from three different urban communities. There she also learned more about social injustice and oppression.
Jean recalls feeling attractions for women but had no basis little understanding of same-sex love. She found nothing in the library in Beaver, Pennsylvania about homosexuality that supported in any positive way her feelings. Eventually in 1977 she came to understand that she was lesbian. Reading Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? by Virginia Mollenkott and Letha Scanzoni was not only eye-opening, it became a life-line in the midst of hate from the church that she loved.
Jean had nurtured a call to ministry since her high school years, even though women pastors were rare at that time. An overachiever, she dreamed of seminary training, becoming the youngest moderator in the Presbyterian Church and serving on the national church staff. But those dreams were tempered by her understanding that she was lesbian. So she decided to go back into the closet and enroll in seminary as far from home as possible—on the West Coast.
Jean Richardson with Virginia Mollenkott
Jean arrived at San Francisco Theological Seminary in the fall of 1978, but there was no escape from the tumult in her life. Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were murdered at City Hall and the Peoples’ Temple tragedy played out. As fortune would have it Jean met Jane Spahr early in her time at SFTS and was privileged to “shadow” her as a student during her first year during the time Jane was coming out as lesbian pastor. Jean recalls two driving questions that haunted her through seminary. The first was to understand that following the words of Jesus could only mean to work for justice and radical change in the world. The second was related to personal integrity and honesty and whether one could lie about one’s core being for the sake of ordination.
Jean worked at Old First Church in San Francisco while she completed her seminary studies with honors. She received a pastoral fellowship from SFTS which she spent traveling and studying in Israel and Palestine, Russia and Eastern Europe. The trip ended with time at the World Council of Churches in Bossey, Switzerland.
Jean was ordained through her home church in Beaver, Pennsylvania. Ironically this congregation was one that later called for separating from the denominations over policies on homosexuality. Jean returned to pastoral leadership at Old First Church where she was rewarded for working long hours and sacrificing her personal needs. Perhaps because she herself felt a bit “homeless” Jean found a passion for working with the homeless and runaway youth in the city. Alongside her friends John Hurston she launched a grass roots efforts to link business, church and school leaders to create Polk Street Town Hall (now Larkin Street Youth Services). Diane Feinstein provided an initial grant of $27,000 to start the organization. This organization has now served tens of thousands of homeless youth in the Bay Area saving countless lives. Her co-founder, John was one of the first men to die of AIDS and responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis became an integral part of Jean’s ministry.
Jean Richardson with sons
In 1985, she left Old First to become pastor at Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church which she felt was a better match for her ministry. She encouraged the congregation to adopt a co-leadership model and invited Jeff Gaines to be co-pastor along with her. Jean worked part-time at SFTS where she work to create with faculty of the seminary the first feminist D. Min. program. While in San Francisco, Jean served as moderator of the San Francisco Presbytery. She adopted her first child in 1994. By all external measures, Jean was quite successful professionally, however, finally grew weary of being out in some aspects of her life and closeted in others along with struggling to live in an expensive city as a new mother on a modest income.
She applied to be Program Director of Ghost Ranch, a national conference center of the PCUSA in Abiquiu, New Mexico. She accepted that position with the stipulation that she could be openly lesbian. She worked there from 1995 through 2005, focusing on widening the table so that everyone would be welcome, including persons with limited physical abilities and intellectual disabilities. She found her time in New Mexico to be culturally enriching as she and her family lived as Anglos in a largely Hispanic culture. During this time Jean adopted a second child and spent wonderful times together at “the Ranch.” As her son Alek grew older and she began to learn firsthand about the many challenges children and persons living with disabilities face in our society, Jean’s eyes were opened to a whole new community oppressed in our society.
Jean felt drawn to return to the East Coast where she could find better education and support services for her family. In 2005, she accepted the position of Executive Director of the Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania, which had roots in the Iona Community of Scotland. Kirkridge was known for hosting retreats for LGBTQ+ persons, but Jean discovered they were not fully prepared for an open lesbian, living with a partner, as head of the staff.
Jean Richardson with Pat MulroyJean engaged in extensive conversation, education and sharing on LGBTQ issues with the board. This became an enriching time of growth for Kirkridge and strengthened its stance and program as a haven for LGBTQ+ persons. The board and constituency have also been expanded to include persons with intellectual and physical disabilities and of different faith traditions. In her role as Executive Director Jean led efforts to significantly increase Kirkridge’s financial base as well as to expand its program enrollment and revenue.
In 2022, Jean retired as Executive Director and moved—with her partner Pat—to a nearby home learning to embrace her role as elder within her life. Embracing the work of Parker Palmer, she continues her work as a retreat leader and Circle of Trust facilitator. She is also deeply involved in advocacy for services and support for young adults and adults living with disabilities working with professionals and local politicians to change PA policies that are outdated and outmoded.
More often than before retirement, you can find Jean on the river kayaking, camping in their tear drop trailer, visiting with long time friends or creating in her pottery studio at their home.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from an interview with Jean Richardson and autobiographical info she provided and was edited by Richardson.)
Biography Date: June 2023
“Rev. Dr. Jean Richardson | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed December 06, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/jean-richardson.