Riley Nelson knew when he was 13 he would be a minister and dedicate his life to the church. He didn’t know how or when, but he knew the road his life would eventually travel.
The Richmond Hill Church of Christ minister was born and reared in Paducah, Kentucky, but has called Richmond Hill home for more than two decades.
Nelson left Kentucky in 1985, but Kentucky didn’t leave him. One glance around his office in the church on Ford Avenue and it’s hard to miss the Bluegrass State’s ongoing influence. Shelves show his affinity for the Wildcats, and he describes himself as a diehard Kentucky fan.
Nelson hasn’t always been a preacher. He got his working start as a professional house painter.
"You name it and I painted it," he said. "Nelson’s Decorating Service. I could do wallpaper, sheetrock and painting."
Painting for stress relief
Nelson said he continues to enjoy painting, although he is doing it less and less.
"If I was stressed out, I’d find a room to paint. I love painting," he said with a laugh.
The Church of Christ minister left Kentucky to attend the Memphis School of Preaching, a Church of Christ-affiliated higher learning institution, for two years.
"It’s a two-year course. It takes four years of work and squeezes it into two years," he said. "Most of the emphasis in the school is on academics. Then I went back and got a graduate degree that took three additional years. I also went to Southern Christian University, now called Amridge University. When I was taking the graduate courses, I would take the courses there."
Nelson said he started his preaching in Kentucky as a teenager.
"If a preacher was sick or out-of-town, they’d often call me. I decided when I was about 13 that I wanted to preach. I always believed that I wanted to," he said. "When I was painting houses, I went on vacation in 1984 and we were visiting with (my wife) Susie’s parents, who lived just south of Memphis. She told me that if I ever was going to start preaching, I should look at the Memphis School of Preaching.
Learning to mind a flock
"It was not an easy school. We’ve seen former Marines go to Memphis and they said it was one of the toughest schools they ever attended. You study the Bible, along with English and Greek. They teach you how to work with people. Hands-on is how that happens."
His first official preaching assignment was in Central Academy, Mississippi, with a congregation of 32 that grew to 70 during his tenure there.
"I’ve always enjoyed working with small town congregations. A congregation with 400 or 500 members is too large for me. I want to get to know my congregation."
Nelson said he could have stayed in Central Academy but heard about a vacancy in Richmond Hill. He and his family arrived here in 1991.
He says fewer and fewer people seem to be going into the ministry.
"I just looked around and if a church was looking for a minister, I would interview with them. You can stay at one church as long as you like," he said.
"I came to Richmond Hill, had an interview and have been here since."
Some 27 years later, Nelson said it’s unlikely he would ever take another preaching assignment.
"The way I feel about it, I’d like to die here," he said. "As long as I’m able to preach, I want to be here. After Kentucky, Georgia is the best place I’ve ever lived."
Nelson said the people living in Richmond Hill in 1991 when he arrived were very interested in trying to evangelize the community.
"We found the community to be very religious in nature. I can still see Richmond Hill as it was. When I go to the Crossroads, I can still see the oak trees. I see Miner’s over there and I miss that, somewhat," he recalled.
He said the growth that South Bryan is experiencing is good for the local churches, although, like many, he has concerns about the increased traffic and the problems that accompany increased population.
"I’d like to see our congregation grow to 150-200 people," Nelson said. "In the community, I’m a little concerned about the growth and traffic ... it’s hard to get to work at 8 a.m. every morning."
Nelson married his wife, Susie, in 1979 and they have two sons, Andrew, 33, also a minister, and Mark, 31, a policeman. They have one grandson, Jaxom.
"I do a lot of marriage counseling. I counsel them for 12 hours before I will marry them," he said. "If they won’t do the 12 hours, I won’t marry them. I tell them to take divorce out of their vocabulary. When I counsel them, I try to talk them out of getting married. I want them to be sure. I’ve had two couples decide not to get married."
He estimated he has counseled more than 100 couples with 98 or so making it through the 12-hour process.
Not bad odds.
Building model cars
Nelson said he has little down time but when he does, he likes to build models. His biggest classic car crush is a Plymouth Superbird, particularly an orange one with black trim.
"I’ve always wanted one. I was in high school when they built those. Those cars go for about $150,000 and up, depending on condition. You might find one in a barn for $50,000-$60,000. I love classic cars."
Nelson described himself as a lifetime Dodge and Mopar lover. A Plymouth Superbird model sits among other models he’s built but occupies a place of honor.
"I really like building car models. I built models as a kid and still like to, when I can find the chance. I like fishing, too, but I’ve only been maybe five times since I’ve been in Richmond Hill. I’m a workaholic. I will preach until I drop, health permitting," he said.
"All these models that you see here, I never paid more than $10-$15 for one. I just wouldn’t pay more for one. I guess that is my dad, A.B. Nelson, coming out in me," Nelson continued. "He came through the Depression and watched his pennies. I bought three models around Christmas time and the plan was come Jan. 1, to relax a bit and build those models. Some things happened and I didn’t get them built."
His father died in 1989, outliving his wife and Nelson’s mother, Johanner Ernestine Nelson, by 13 years.
"I also like to read. It used to be World War II novels. But I find that I’m so far behind in my reading, that I don’t have much time to read fiction. I do like to read ‘A Christmas Carol’ every Christmas."
He said if his life had taken a different path, he might have wound up as a counselor, working with people experiencing stress in their lives. Nelson described the ministry, along with counseling, as dealing and working with people.
He said he wouldn’t be where he is in life without significant influences from his parents and fellow ministers he’s worked with along the way.
"I had an uncle that I could go to. He would listen and tell me what to do," Nelson said. "My father-in-law was also an influence in my life. I became a Christian when I was 13. I wanted to preach but I was also a young person. Harold Wood helped me to keep to the path. He was an elder in my church.
"I’ve been blessed to have many good influences in my life. My wife has always been a great influence in my life."
Nelson said as he looks back on his life, he has few regrets, except, perhaps, not buying an orange Plymouth Superbird with black trim when he had the chance and could better afford it.