For Carl Kenney, Durham is his once and future home.
Now he’s going away, back to Missouri, to be close to his elderly parents.
“I don’t want to leave,” he said over coffee one recent morning. “I have to go. ... Especially (for) my father, he needs me to be present. But it’s not a decision I want to make.”
Kenney is a columnist for The Durham News and author of a blog called “REV-elution” ( bit.ly/84ngSF) and two published novels. He’s a Baptist minister who presided over the “wedding” of Durham and 2,000 of its citizens in 2011. He’s man about town who has established himself as a personage in the city’s cultural and political life since arriving as a Duke Divinity School student in 1989.
“I always thought he was a great Durham presence,” said John Valentine, co-owner of the Regulator Bookshop. Kenney, he said, has “a willingness to engage anybody who was around.”
Valentine remembered Kenney spending mornings at Bean Traders coffee house on Ninth Street: “I always saw him around a great many people … he would smile and laugh.
“His value was his smile.”
Kenney likes people; Durham’s people, he said, he loves.
“I love Durham’s diversity, I have this amazing collection of friends,” he said. “The beauty of relationships I’ve formed over the years is really hard to walk away from.”
‘Theology outside the box’
Kenney, 54, grew up in Columbia, Mo., and graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in broadcast journalism.
“I’ve always had a drive to write,” he said. “I’ve been writing since I can remember.” Kenney said his early influences were “the classic African-American writers – Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Countee Cullen, the Harlem Renaissance writers.
“Because of their activism, the way they used their words to make a larger statement. I’ve always been inspired by writing that is a real critique. ... (That) helped me understand black manhood and also how to process some of the crises I was going through as a man trying to figure things out in the ’70s.”
Among his crises was a drug habit, which he kicked with the aid of a high-school teacher who had assigned him to sit in a closet for an hour a day and write. Writing and public speaking led him into journalism and into the ministry – which he considers two aspects of the same calling. He said he began a Baptist ministry at 19; at 24, he was pastor to a church. At 28, married and with three children, he entered Duke Divinity School.
“The thing about Duke at that time, it was really committed to dialogue beyond denomination,” Kenney said. “It gave me a chance to really process theology outside the box.”
By the time he finished his Master of Divinity degree, Kenney had become a pastor again, at Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church in southeast Durham. Under his pastorate, the church grew – from about 100 to almost 2,000 members and its annual budget from less than $70,000 to almost $1 million.
“I can’t take credit for any of that,” Kenney said. “Orange Grove was an amazing church filled with really amazing leaders.” Orange Grove, he said, was closely connected into the community, particularly efforts to revitalize long-depressed Northeast Central Durham.
Kenney himself became closely connected, through Durham’s Congregations in Action – serving in turn as treasurer, vice president and treasurer and making himself known in Durham outside his congregation. He also became known as a newspaper columnist, and that, among other things, led him into conflict with some in his flock.
He describes it as “a perfect storm.”
Kenney, who had commuted to Princeton Theological Seminiary to work on a doctoral degree, hit a mid-life crisis. He went through two divorces, his calling became more advocacy for those on society’s margins.
Eno Publishers editor Elizabeth Woodman chose Kenney as one of the contributors to her book “27 Views of Durham.”
“The thing I really loved about his writing (was), he wrote about people we see all the time but we don’t really see them. ... He was such a strong voice for these people whose struggles the rest of us can’t even imagine.”
Kenney in his columns called out the black church for neglecting those on society’s margins, particularly gay people – and he wrote about it, offending some in the black community and some in the church, who maneuvered to have him fired in 2002.
“They saw me as a negative, because of my writing,” he said. “I understood that, in a way.” But he had also found that he needed to be transparent as a writer and a minister.
“I can’t live without being a person who tells the truth,” he said. “At the end of the day I have to do what God calls me to do.” Whether or not it offends black Baptists, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, the Durham People’s Alliance or anyone else.
“He was truly a wonderful voice for Durham,” Woodman said. “He certainly made us a better community.”
Kenney’s Orange Grove experience became a case study in the 2005 book “Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought” by Princeton professor Melissa Victoria Harris-Lacewell; and in Terrance Leonardo Wooten’s 2011 master’s thesis at Ohio State, “Towards a New Black Nation: Space, Place, Citizenship, and Imagination.” ( bit.ly/19X6PGr).
“As a black pastor who attempted to push the conversation of homophobia, Reverend Kenney registers as an anomaly within the discourse of sexuality and the black church,” Wooten wrote. “His anomalous characterization is furthered by the fact that he has since established a new church, Compassion Ministries of Durham, with the help of two hundred black men and women who understand and support his politics.”
Kenney said one of his life’s “most powerful moments” was going to a Gay Pride parade in Durham.
“I would never go, out of fear of being labeled,” he said. “But the day I went was liberating because I was able to say I care about these people and I don’t have to keep it to myself.”
Kenney has seen Durham change, and he likes the change. He likes the town’s hipster character, its support for local businesses, the farmers market and the artists and musicians, and the coffee houses where he likes to hang out and talk to people.
He’s going to miss that when he’s back in Missouri, he said, but he has to go.
“It’s a faith journey,” he said. “I just have a sense that it’s going to be a good thing for me.”
And, he said, he hopes it won’t be forever.
“My prayer is to come back to Durham,” he said. “The thing that’s driving me is a faith that eventually I will be able to come back home. Because this is home to me. I’m obligated to take care of my parents and hopefully some day I can come back.”
Valentine, for one, is confident he’ll make it.
“He’ll be back and he’ll have a smile on his face,” Valentine said, “but I’ll miss him on Ninth Street.”