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Meet Rev. Kim Dawsey-Richardson of First Presbyterian Church of El Cajon

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rev. Kim Dawsey-Richardson.

Rev. Kim, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I am a third-generation La Mesan and grew up not far from the old Family Fun Center and Aquarius, a roller skating rink; the middle child of three girls. Despite being an angsty, insecure teen, I found real joy in student leadership and began to bravely pursue my passions, even switching from cheerleading to the boys’ varsity wrestling team in high school. I studied English and International Relations at UC Davis and spent several summers in West Africa serving alongside refugees from Liberia. After more travel and soul searching, I returned home to San Diego where I got my first job out of college in refugee resettlement, began attending seminary, and married an old friend, Jeremy, from high school. We were not high school sweethearts; I dated a few of his friends back when! But our paths kept crossing and at one point, we were writing letters and emails across the world when he was teaching English in Turkey and I was teaching English in Thailand, and I realized that I not only loved him, I genuinely liked him and wanted to do life with him. Now, with three kiddos—Elliot (14), Amos (12), and Avila (6)—two dogs (Jethro and Stella), and a 122 year-old-house in Normal Heights we’re not at all handy enough to maintain, we’re approaching 19 years of marriage. He’s still my favorite. Our newest adventure is my becoming the lead pastor at First Presbyterian Church of El Cajon. I had been there ten months when Covid-19 hit and suddenly, I was getting a crash course in live streaming and creating a YouTube channel. The whole family is involved and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Has it been a smooth road?
Not so much. My life has been all kinds of things—traumatic, beautiful, and full of surprises—but never smooth. Are things ever smooth for sensitive, big-hearted people? I always find more questions than answers. Life is messy, and relationships are certainly messy.

My relationship with the Church has been tangled, and way more complicated than my relationship with God. I have had a deep curiosity about faith throughout my life and ultimately pursued seminary because I had unanswered questions and was so taken with Jesus. The particular vein of Christianity in which I was raised was grounding in many ways but problematic and harmful in others. For one, gendered roles were highly traditional and women’s roles were particularly limited. I didn’t even realize women could be pastors until I was exposed to other Christian traditions. Additional questions rattled inside me and I began to wonder how the fixation on certitude and moralistic agendas not only cultivated fear but distorted Jesus’ teachings.

Still, and I know this isn’t everyone’s story, I have had some good men in my corner, opening doors as I discerned my vocation into ordained ministry. They were able to advocate for me in places I wasn’t allowed, as when I was asked to preach for the first time in Cote d’ Ivoire, West Africa, by Liberian pastor David Owah Boakai. I was still so afraid of doing wrong or being wrong in the eyes of God or others. He picked up on my fear, and teasingly said, “What do you need Kimberly? A man to cover you? Fine. I am a man over you and I am telling you to preach.” We still laugh about that.

I shifted denominational gears when I got a job in youth ministry at Fletcher Hills Presbyterian Church and ended up serving there almost 14 years in different roles, the last six as the associate pastor. These were rich years, but not at all smooth. I was learning how to live and lead in my own skin and not someone else’s, how to parent, how to preach, how to live out what I preached, how to love myself better, how to deal with all the crap that is uniquely mine and detach from all the crap that is not at all mine. I was also increasingly awakening to injustices that churches have often neglected or contributed to. Therapy and spiritual direction helped. Digging into the contemplative tradition and participating in wisdom circles expanded and centered me. Listening to the voices of people of color helped. Weightlifting helped. Solid gold friends and my sisters helped.

And then, the time came when I had to leave. I didn’t even know exactly what was next and left without a job lined up, but I felt deeply that if I was going to stay in ministry, I wanted to be the boss. I wanted to more fully express my leadership capabilities and lead in relational, vulnerable, collaborative, artful, and soulful ways. I spent a year leading retreats, and taking pulpit supply and teaching gigs, with lots of time playing with my kids and listening by the ocean. I hit YMCA bootcamps hard. I considered an invitation to pastor in New York, but I knew it wasn’t right. Then, the good people of First Pres. El Cajon began pursuing me. I felt resistant at first. The church was near my last pastorate and close to where I was raised. Too close. I wanted to serve in an urban, multicultural context. And you know what El Cajon is? One of the most beautiful, urban, eclectic, diverse communities we have in San Diego. Sometimes we need to get away from home and sometimes we’re called to return home, only to discover home has changed and we have changed. And we’re better for it.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the First Presbyterian Church of El Cajon story. Tell us more about the Church.
First Presbyterian Church of El Cajon (FPCEC) just celebrated 137 years. Two blocks from downtown El Cajon, this church was here before the city moved in around it. Our congregants have been referred to as “salt of the earth” folks, and it’s because they are good, true, loving people who genuinely show up for each other. They don’t necessarily agree politically or theologically, but they agree on Jesus’ love. We have church members who have seen this community through decades of change – one woman (our previous organist!) has been a member for 80 years. She joined when she was 13. We have wisdom and love enfolding and welcoming younger generations. Together, we’re figuring out how to share that love with our neighborhood in more tangible ways.

Our congregation has a history of reaching out to our neighbors experiencing homelessness and we support local organizations including the Bethlehem Food Pantry. We also have incredible church neighbors in Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church across the street, who we partner with for ministry events, the Welcome Ministry of El Cajon (including outdoor worship services in the park), and a community garden. I’m not only proud of these friendships that were formed before I arrived, I am proud of our congregation which knows how to hold on to the beautiful traditions of the past while courageously exploring new ways of living out our faith. Our people are hospitable, hardworking, fun, and gather often around food, or the table as we say, with a nod to how Jesus made friends, too… around a table. We are also the hub of local concerts, the Circle Players theatre group, and we have a resident poet. I could go on.

This year has been a time of new beginnings. We have AKA Head Start preschool moving in this Summer and we feel honored to host them and their great service to the most impoverished families in our community. We have a new committee (as Presbyterians, committees are sort of our thing) interviewing developers and meeting with city officials to explore what we might do with our parking lot – affordable housing? Community center? We have developed a new position, the Director of Youth and Urban Ministries, and are delighted to welcome Pearl Quick to the team for that role. She’s a biologist and farmer who has become a minister through her own unique journey. After recently graduating from Princeton, she’s moving almost 3,000 miles from New Jersey to join our team in August. We can’t wait!

Most importantly, we’re having honest conversations about the reckoning with race happening in our country. We are currently the host of a mural that was made by artists during the height of the protests in early June. The mural, promoting “Black Lives Matter” as well as Jesus’ words, “Love One Another as I Have Loved You,” was created by three men, Daniel Peters, Gee Cabral, and Dre. We met Peters and his business partner Tyshawn “Fade” Green recently to brainstorm ways to engage children and youth in art events for the community. So much good is flowing.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
The Church is in the midst of a major shakeup with daunting decline as it struggles to keep up with our ever-changing world. There are many books written about this and debates about why with spiritual to cultural to political explanations offered. Right now, during the pandemic, many Christians are discovering that the Church was never a building, it was always a people, a chosen family. Technology has allowed us to connect and worship in ways that are more relevant, increasing access for folks to participate or simply view, who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, previously. Still, physical human presence and touch can’t be replaced. As the pandemic disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable and marginalized among us, the Church will have an incredible opportunity to return more fully to Jesus’ self-giving, self-emptying, tangible love.

We have to change, and of course, change is hard and involves loss. The programs and methodology and systems that once worked no longer work. We need strategic, emotionally healthy, visionary leadership. While there is an obvious need to move forward with creativity and innovation, I believe there is also a need to return to the wisdom of our ancestors. The widespread acceptance and influence of Christendom is unlikely to return, and perhaps that will save the soul of the Church. The first followers of Christ were not in positions of power. Their faith and Christian practice was a subversive affront to the powers that be—the Roman Empire. Life, death, and resurrection wasn’t just the experience of their Savior, but the pattern of all things. Guided by scripture and prayer, the invitation remains to die to egoic self, to love God and neighbor, and affirm the image of God in every person. We are still called to make time to rest (rather than live in the frantic busyness and productivity of our culture), practice economic detachment, share resources, and continue gathering around the table of Christ where forgiveness and family are found over and over. I think our industry may just survive, even flourish, as we realign with Jesus’ values.

It is my hope that a more authentic, grassroots, organic, selfless Church will emerge. Perhaps we will use our land and buildings (some of the best real estate in every city across the country) for wider purposes beyond Sunday worship and church programs. Churches must recapture the vibrant call to get into good, necessary trouble as we advocate for the marginalized and the oppressed, enact justice, house strangers, bless the community in which we are planted, and sow peace and love always. We are to form around a Christocentric (not consumeristic) vision, dispense grace, and welcome all. Only then will we see new life breathed into the collective body that has in some ways been in the process of death. Life. Death. Resurrection. May it be so.

If you had to start over, what would you have done differently?
In life? I don’t know that I would have done anything differently. We learn so much through our struggles and failures and broken hearts and losses. I sometimes wish things were easier or that I was something more than I am, but if I could have done anything differently, it would only have been to know how beloved I am earlier in life, and to practice self-kindness. But even that, we must learn and grow into.

Regarding this church? I would have done nothing differently. These remarkable humans—my love for them keeps getting bigger and bigger. We’re in it together, and I wouldn’t be anywhere else. And we’re discovering how deeply God loves all of us—both within and beyond the church.

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Image Credit:
Heidi McKinley took all photos except two headshots.

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