Rev. Richard Burnett reflects on 24 years of ministry and the city's racial equity problem

The recently retired rector of Trinity Episcopal sees three principal challenges facing Columbus: transportation, schools and racial injustice

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Rev. Richard Burnett, former rector at Trinity Episcopal Church, which became a "field hospital" during the racial justice uprisings in the spring and summer of 2020.

On May 30, after serving as rector of Downtown’s Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square for 24 years, Rev. Richard A. Burnett retired. He and his wife, Katharine, recently relocated to the town of Lenox in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. But before Burnett left Columbus, he had to make one last stop to fulfill a promise. 

Sometime after 13-year-old Ty’re King was shot and killed by Columbus Police in 2016, Burnett preached at Mount Olivet Baptist Church, a majority African American congregation then pastored by Rev. Charles Booth. In his sermon, Burnett pledged that together, the assemblies of Mount Olivet and Trinity Episcopal would make a pilgrimage to the spot where young King was gunned down, just off Broad Street near the former Douglas Alternative Elementary School in Olde Towne East.  

But in March of 2019, Booth died before Burnett could make good on his promise.  

“One of the last things I did before leaving Columbus was to drive over there and park at Douglas school and walk that block,” Burnett said in a recent video call. “The police issue and the leadership around the police issue, it is more than just a thorny problem. It is essential. Racial inequities and distrust, they’re real.” 

For nearly 25 years, Burnett and the Trinity congregation emphasized issues of equity and justice at the corner of Broad and Third streets. “Where we're located is unique," he said. "Trinity has to be something different than a suburban church with really bad parking. So what are we called to be and do?”

Burnett chose to focus on the people scripture refers to as “the least of these.” “It’s caring about people for whom life is not that easy, whose back is up against the wall," he said. 

Reflecting on his time in Columbus, Burnett sees Downtown, and the city as a whole, at a similar inflection point where it must also decide what it wants to emphasize moving forward. He likened Columbus’ stage of growth to that of a gangly teenager transitioning into adulthood.  

“No one can say Columbus' best days are behind her. … We came here and we were going to three-dollar baseball games at Cooper Stadium on the West Side. That was funky and fun, but what we've got now in that ballpark on Neil Avenue is entirely different,” Burnett said, also mentioning the Crew’s new Downtown stadium. “Now, sports arenas do not a proper, postmodern city make. People get confused about that. But I do think there's a sense of emerging into a vital young adulthood. … Who are you really going to be, and what do you want to do?” 

Burnett looks back on his days at Trinity with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, and he points to a turning point around 2004 when a decision by the city forced his congregation to confront Downtown’s homeless issue head-on. “The biggest change while I was at Trinity was the ultimate closing of the Open Shelter, which was located in Franklinton,” Burnett said, referring to the initiative of Kent Beittel, who became a thorn in the city’s side when he refused to move out of a city-owned building on the Scioto peninsula.  

Eventually, Beittel, who died last year, was forced out by the city, which razed the building to make way for further development. “That's what happens with young adulthood and the emergence of adolescence,” Burnett said. “People do wild stuff. They make rash decisions.” 

When the Open Shelter found itself without a home, two Downtown churches stepped up to help: Broad Street United Methodist Church and Trinity, which allowed Beittel to relocate the Open Shelter’s offices to the church’s third floor for more than three years.

“We hadn't intended to turn it into a day program for unhoused and under-housed individuals and families, but the Lord sometimes has different things in mind for us,” Burnett said, noting that those years were instructive for Trinity, providing a heightened awareness of the homelessness issue in Columbus through the “Open Shelter in Exile” ministry, which was often messy and sometimes ruffled feathers. “Getting in people's way is probably the best kind of evangelism that I can imagine.” 

The racial justice protests last summer, which Burnett described as a “second adolescence,” provided another watershed moment for Burnett and Trinity, especially after a fellow pastor called Burnett to ask if Trinity could host a gathering of local clergy who would then join in a march with the protesters. Burnett agreed, though he stayed back from the march due to physical ailments, as well as a desire for Trinity to be “a ministry of presence” amid the protests.  

At one point, a young street medic stopped by the church and asked Burnett if he could turn the garden in front of Trinity into a field hospital to treat injured protesters. “I thought to myself, ‘Why not?’ … That led to everybody in the world bringing big flats of water to us. We had eight-feet-high stacks of water outside the church,” Burnett said. “It was all coming out of trying to be responsive in a humane and, frankly, in a faithful way to the situation.” 

Burnett identified three principal challenges as Columbus matures into its new self: public transportation, city schools and racial injustice. “To the degree that white Downtown Columbus can't figure out [racial justice], you need to have a talking to with your young adult and say, ‘Remember who you really are,’” said Burnett, who urged citizens to make a pledge similar to the one he made to Rev. Booth. “I'd encourage people in Columbus to walk. Make a pilgrimage — maybe not the same pilgrimage as mine, but a pilgrimage that has to do with the best possible maturation, whether it’s affordable housing or the environment or new immigrants … or just trying to fall in love with this city anew. I would invite people to walk.”