Rev. Richard Kozelka fought for civil rights

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 18, 2009 - 12:03 AM

The longtime Minneapolis pastor was also known for his challenging sermons at First Congregational Church.

The Rev. Richard Kozelka

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The Rev. Richard Kozelka will be remembered at First Congregational Church in Minneapolis as the second-longest-serving senior pastor in the church's history, but more significantly for transforming the church near the University of Minnesota into a congregation that welcomes people of all races, cultures and sexual orientations.

During his 17-year tenure from 1974 to 1991, he also encouraged members to participate in civil rights demonstrations and war protests, and challenged congregants with thought-provoking sermons, said church historian Anne Hage.

"He was a good leader," she said. "He kept the church going for a long time in a period when it was not easy to keep them going. He offered us new challenges and kept us together. He was a very good preacher."

Kozelka died of a brain tumor and complications from Parkinson's disease Sept. 6 at his home in Hammond, La. He was 83.

His time in Minneapolis was part of his 40-year career as a minister for the United Church of Christ. He received his master of divinity degree in 1951 from Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn., and started his career the same year in Cannon Falls, Minn. After a few years, he served a parish in Sparta, Wis., before he became senior pastor at Park Congregational Church in Denver. There he integrated the congregation, got involved in civil rights issues and encouraged church members to do the same, said his wife, Katherine Kolb.

He spent most of the 1960s in Denver and a few years in the early 1970s serving a congregation in Montclair, N.J., before he came to Minneapolis. Many students from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton and pastors from other United Church of Christ congregations came to hear him preach at First Congregational, where Hubert Humphrey, the 38th vice president, was a member, his wife said.

Kozelka, a graduate of the former University High School in Minneapolis' Prospect Park neighborhood, had set out to be a mathematician when he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, but instead earned bachelor's and master's degrees in philosophy, his wife said. After school, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.

In retirement he served for the summer of 1996 as an interim pastor in Rochester, Minn. He also volunteered for Meals on Wheels and at a hospital. He was a Minnesota Twins and Chicago Cubs fan. In 1999 he moved to Hammond, where Katherine is a professor of German and French at Southeastern Louisiana University. There Kozelka took classes in Portuguese, history and political science. He also enjoyed bike riding, Katherine said.

In addition to his wife, Kozelka is survived by three daughters, Sara Caraszi and Ami Gail Kozelka, both of Connecticut, and Barbara Kozelka Gordon of Colorado; a son, Richard E. Kozelka, of Maryland; a twin brother, Robert, of North Carolina, and two grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Jane Reeves.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. May 21 at First Congregational Church, 500 8th Av. SE., Minneapolis. A service also will be held today in Hammond, La.

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