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President Leslie Pollard Remembers the Ministry of Richard "Little Richard" Penniman
Posted By: Reggie Culpepper on May 21, 2020

When the young pastor with a freshly-minted Oakwood degree started his ministry in Los Angeles, California, in June of 1978, little did he know that he would meet one of the most unforgettable personalities that he would ever encounter.

On the corner of Western Avenue and Imperial Highway in Los Angeles, under the Big Gospel Tent at the Your Bible Speaks Crusade, orchestrated by Evangelists George and Martha Rainey, the young Oakwood graduate met Elder Rainey’s Associate Evangelist—Little Richard. I was that young Oakwood graduate and it was a summer I would never forget.

In the sweltering heat of the LA basin, we listened to Richard Wayne Penniman’s testimony about loving God, losing his way, getting up and trying again, and most importantly, calling men and women to repentance. In between, Richard sang gospel songs, made home visits, counseled the wayward, and used his celebrity as his unique tool for ministry.

In the last two weeks since Richard died, I’ve been interviewed by a number of news reporters, some of whom were barely one quarter of Richard's 87 years of age. To a person, each of them had heard of true foundational role that Richard played in the formation of the popular music of the 20th century. These 20- and early 30-somethings knew his legacy and they asked questions seeking personal insight. They seemed ecstatic that they were talking to someone who knew him personally.

One young woman asked, “What do you remember him for after so many years?” After I described where we met and the times we talked on and off across 40 years, I said to her, “I remember him, not so much for his stage performances, but for his kindness and generosity. I remember him giving money to people in need. I remember him giving clothes away. I remember him for never forgetting people that he loved. He remembered your families, who got sick, who was in the hospital, who had a car accident, etc.”

In listening to the interviews with his bandmates before today’s funeral, each of them fondly reminisced about his loyalty to friends after 20, 30 and 40 years. Many of them expressed gratefulness that Richard gave them, not just a job, but careers in music.

Today we bring Richard to his final resting place, and he has come full circle in coming back home to Oakwood. He completes his journey at Oakwood that began in 1958 under then President Dr. Garland Millet—by the way, whose daughter Debbe is working with our team in support of the Penniman family during the service today. Richard studied here for one year before going out on the evangelistic trail. Now he has circled and come all the way back home to Oakwood.

To the entire Penniman family, on behalf of Oakwood University, we thank you for entrusting Richard’s remains to Oakwood University Memorial Gardens Cemetery—where not far from here sits our historic slave cemetery. Richard now rests near the remains of our ancestors awaiting that promised reset that we call the resurrection.

And if you think that Richard was a star in this life, you just wait for the resurrection! At the final reset, Richard will receive a shining body, radiant with the glory of God, with music oozing from every pore. The Good News is that the reset that awaits Richard, also awaits us, if we are faithful.

In his last interview with on 3ABN Network, he said, “I just want to be saved,” with the same earnestness, the same yearning, with which he sang under Elder Rainey’s tent, and that he brought to his concerts. He had come full circle.

I encourage everyone to listen to Richard’s 3ABN interview, because like Samson, I believe that more good will be done in his death than was ever done in his very public life.
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