|Br. Curt Kedley outside of a Missionary Baptist church|
in Bertie County, North Carolina.
That is the first word that Brother Curt Kedley uses to describe the areas where he has served as a consecrated Catholic religious brother with the Glenmary Home Missioners. This includes his many years in rural Georgia and several years in eastern North Carolina where he is currently serving.
He has seen brokenness in the festering, multi-generational poverty. He has seen it in the lack of opportunities to grow, nourish and support human persons to reach their full potential. He has found it in the significant racial divide between black and white that persists strongly to this day, especially in rural areas.
It is daunting to stand in the face of all that brokenness and discern what one person could possibly do in response.
In the early 80s, he was part of a group of Glenmary priests and brothers that set out to meet the community on its own terms through simple living, service and Christian witness. He assisted in Glenmary's mission parishes and was a presence in the community through social work and a bustling home repair ministry. Still, he was looking for something more.
The answer came to him at the Hancock County Fair in Georgia in 1982. He was one of the very few white people attending the fair among thousands of African-Americans. He did not know anyone--he was just mingling, meandering and getting to know the area. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was also discerning a direction for his ministry.
A woman came up to him and seemed to want to to know who he was, so they started talking. The conversation ended with an invitation: "You have got to come to our church," she told him.
"I'll be there tomorrow!" replied Curt.
He describes this as a "very spiritual encounter" and says he has never looked back from that moment. He found his direction: One significant way that he has felt compelled to reach out across all the brokenness he saw was through solidarity in worship.
A Ministry Quickly Evolves
That first church was Jones Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. He started visiting other churches, mostly African-American ones. This quickly evolved into a regular ministry.
Br. Curt felt that the best way to serve this ministry was to have a regular presence worshipping at these churches. Trust takes time, and there were so many barriers to overcome--He is Catholic; they are Evangelical Protestants. He is white; they are mostly black. He is from the North (originally Iowa); and this is the South. His own roots growing up in a small, rural town was one point of connection among many differences.
He would select a group of around a half-dozen, mostly African-American churches where he would worship. The small number of churches meant that he could be reasonably certain to make an appearance at least every 2-3 months, if not more often. He could become a part of the community.
The majority of the churches have been African Methodist Episcopal (AME), Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) and Missionary Baptist. This has been mostly a personal preference--he experimented with Pentecostal and other larger mega churches, but they just did not appeal to him as much as the smaller, more traditional country churches.
The rhythm of church life in rural black churches of the South can be vastly different from Catholic Churches up north. There is often no resident preacher. Services may be held only two Sundays each month with a preacher driving great distances to preside. One preacher Curt remembers fondly would drive 75-100 miles one-way in an old beat up car, and "he did not look like he had two nickels to rub together, but he came faithfully." A deacon or associate usually leads the congregation through the service with the preacher only speaking during the sermon.
Over the years, Curt has phased over 50 churches in and out of his rotation. Changes in church leadership, the closing down of a church or other factors would prompt a natural time to part ways. He also felt he had spread himself too thin in the early days of this ministry and had to scale back. Sometimes he fears the impact wears off when he becomes just a regular face in the congregation, and he feels it could be more beneficial to break new ground elsewhere. The difficulty is stopping--people ask why and are disappointed when he stops going. "'Why isn't he coming anymore?' I hear that question all the time," he says.
A Lesson Learned
Br. Curt Kedley is a man who knows his vocation well. He has the soul of a consecrated religious brother and knows this deep down in his marrow. He has never wanted to be a priest or lead a worship service but rather prefers to be among the people.
When he first visited these non-Catholic churches in Georgia, he naturally let people know that he was a Catholic, and when they would ask what he did for a living, he would tell them that he had a formal ministry with the Catholic Church. He avoided the term "brother," because that has different connotations in the black Protestant community, and instead he would say he is a "Catholic Church worker" or a "missionary laborer."
What he did not expect was that he would almost invariably be asked to co-lead the worship service, even though he was clear to avoid calling himself a "minister." Nevertheless, he was still seen as a person of the cloth and invited to participate in leading worship. "I was always given a role," he explains, and he would feel obliged to accept. It could be reading Scripture, praying over the people during the offering or at the end of the service or even preaching. He would sit up front with the other worship leaders. "I always felt real distant from the people. It was hard to connect with them," he says.
Despite his discomfort, he experienced some of the most touching moments "behind the scenes" at these churches. Usually about 20 minutes before a service, all the worship leaders would meet in the pastor's study to "chew the fat, talk about Scripture and pray. Sometimes there would be an anointing--I was always impressed by that," he recalls.
When his assignment with Glenmary had him relocate to North Carolina, he started up with a new group of churches, and he has been careful to omit mention of any formal ministry relationship. He is clear to tell them that he is Catholic, but now describes his role more like a lay person. This allows him to be a part of the general congregation, where he feels right at home.
Ministry of Presence: Incarnation
At first glance, the ministry appears relatively simple and straightforward—Br. Curt attends churches as a form of ecumenical outreach. However, that deceptive simplicity hides a deep spirituality of presence and solidarity.
Presence can mistakenly seem like a passive ministry. However, in order to be truly present, Curt has to be fully engaged and active with the individuals and community he serves—to know them, to walk with them and to suffer with them as they suffer. It is "full, conscious and active participation," to borrow a phrase from Vatican II. This phrase was originally coined to describe the role of the faithful in Catholic liturgy, but it also transcends that definition as good worship should naturally flow into a Christian's life
Jesus himself modeled solidarity by choosing to enter into the human condition through the Incarnation. He choose to share in our situation, including all of the suffering that can accompany earthly life.
The simple act of going to someone else's church is a way to imitate Christ. Presence says so much while saying so little. It is a way of saying—I want to enter your world and share in that with you. I want to be a part of your lives--the good and the bad.
The goal is not to fix it or change it but just to be there. It is a way of acknowledging that all people are children of the same God and all Christians are followers of the same Christ.
Glenmary priest Fr. Steve Pawelk shares this reflective litmus test which speaks to the real meaning of presence: "Am I doing too much and not being enough?"
Being present is a powerful witness--perhaps even more powerful than sending in a check of hard-earned money to support a charitable effort. It is a way of offering our very self and demonstrating--by example--that someone else is worthy of our time and attention.
This has been more than just an outreach ministry for Curt. He freely admits he goes to African-American Protestant churches to be nourished, as well--"no doubt about it," he says.
"It is always an honor to be there," he describes, "and I consider them to be kindred spirits. The black churches have an incredible sense of hospitality, and I have always felt welcome there. I can not say the same thing about white churches, including Catholic ones."
He asserts that breaking down the racial barrier is his primary motive, but the ecumenical connection is also important. Curt attributes a number of factors to misunderstandings between the Catholic and African-American communities. "It is a big stumbling block that Catholics do not have female deacons," he says. In addition, he cites that the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church and the "quieter" worship style are not well understood by the black community, in general.
Curt describes the overall lack of Catholic outreach to the African-American community as "sinful." Historically, Catholics have largely kept to themselves in their own Italian, Irish and Polish ethic communities, for example, and this has not helped the perception of Catholics by black Protestants. This has been especially true in rural areas where there is very little integration.
True to his humble nature, Curt is modest about the impact of this ministry. "I have never been able to measure it," he admits.
However, reports from folks who have worked, worshipped and lived with him tell an altogether different story. "I take him as a holy person . . . a Christian person who did a lot of good," said a resident of Hancock County, GA. Others have shared similar regards.
Still, the impact of a ministry of presence like this can be very difficult to calculate--it is truly an effort of faith. The ripples of goodwill and healing may be difficult to measure, but it is important to hope that they leave a lasting impression.
Bread For Your Journey
Glenmary has a long promoted a ministry of visiting other churches. Glenmary priest Fr. Frank Ruff attests that it is one of the most effective ways of overcoming misunderstandings and building ecumenical bridges. "It is an act of humility and vulnerability to go to another church for no other reason than to join them in praise of God," he says. He believes that visiting other churches is the best way to witness to our common brother and sisterhood as Christians, and it also initiates dialogue, fosters understanding and overcomes prejudice.
Br. Curt Kedley is a shining example of this kind of ministry. He certainly has made the ministry his own and has crafted it according to his unique temperament and vocation. Hopefully, there is something in his story that can inspire all of us. While his many years of regular outreach to dozens of churches may seem daunting to the average person, is there perhaps a small piece that we can each glean from his story and apply to our own ministry?
Perhaps we can cultivate a relationship with a single church that is different from our own and visit it from time to time? It is the kind of ministry that is both simple and profound and is truly accessible to each person.