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After son’s death, Wichita pastor follows call to speak against violence

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Early in 2008, Riccardo Harris – who will speak March 7 in Bethel College’s convocation – decided he needed to find some meaning in an otherwise “senseless” death in his family.

Jan. 5, 2008, Harris’ 19-year-old stepson, Robert Ridge, died after being shot by another teenager in a car that had pulled up at a Wichita stoplight next to the car in which Ridge was riding. The shooter didn’t know the victim but was reported to have said he “didn’t like the way [Ridge] was looking at” him.

Jan. 17 of this year, Harris’ cousin, Mark McCormick, communications director for the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita, was at Bethel to speak during the college’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration. As part of his address, which he titled “A Choice of Weapons,” McCormick related some of Harris’ experience.

More than a year after Robert’s death, Harris was given the chance to speak at the sentencing hearing for his son’s killer.

“Riccardo came face to face with the child who killed his child,” McCormick remembered. “He said he immediately began thinking of the similarities between Robert and this boy – both of them someone’s son, someone’s grandson. When the judge asked Riccardo if he had anything to say, he made a choice.

“How would you feel? What would you do? What would you say? Just last week, I saw someone ask for the maximum penalty for the killing of their loved one, and I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same.

“I know there’s a God,” McCormick continued, “because that’s the only way Riccardo could have stood there and said what he did. With tears in his eyes, he pleaded for leniency for that young man.”

Robert’s death, Harris has said, was “a call to action” for him. Since then, the pastor of Resurrection Community Church in Wichita has been regularly traveling around the country to talk about the cost of violence and the need for respect – especially with young men, many of whom he feels are being “lost” to violence.

After Dale Schrag, who chairs Bethel’s Convocation Committee, heard McCormick’s story about Harris, he knew he had to try and get Harris himself to speak at Bethel.

Harris will be on campus for the 11 a.m. convocation in Krehbiel Auditorium of the Fine Arts Center, which is open to the public, though priority seating and opportunities for asking questions will be given first to students.

“Most of us likely won’t experience exactly what Riccardo did that night [Robert was shot],” McCormick said at Bethel Jan. 17, “but we will have times when we are forced to choose … so let’s choose wisely. If Riccardo could do what he did, the rest of us have no excuse.”

“Robert’s life has to mean something,” Harris said. “We have to stop this mess, this violence, this killing each other.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is in the first tier in its category in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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