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Issue 11-1

Remembering the Future:
Honoring the Life of Glen Kehrein


“Glen was a prince,” said my husband David Mains to friends with whom we had been discussing Glen’s death this past November. Perhaps this comment was due to the fact that we are of the age where our contemporaries and colleagues are beginning to die; perhaps David was flush with the reality of having lost someone we have always loved. I’ve actually never heard my husband use this phrase about someone else. He generally says, “He is (or was) a good man.” “She is (or was) a good woman.”

But the truth is: Glen Kehrein was a prince of a man. The founder and executive director of Circle Urban Ministries, Glen headed up a team of dreamers who saw so concisely what could be possible in the city of Chicago; it was almost as if they had visited the future and now were living among us with a haunting memory of how things should be.

One of Glen’s bios mentions that he had been profoundly affected when in 1968 he stood on the roof of Moody Bible Institute on LaSalle Street and watched the smoke billowing over the West Side of Chicago from the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I remember clearly that same moment. David and I had started Circle Church on the West Side just a year before, and I sat in our Lincoln Park apartment kitchen, with my head beneath the windows, the lights out, listening to the sniper fire from the Cabrini Projects just a mile away as the crows flew. I had never, in my protected fundamentalist church background, had a moment when I realized that people were so desperate or angry or filled with hatred they could turn guns on other humans.

Many of us came away from that shattering moment in history vowing to discover what it was we could do to help heal the fractured society that erupted before our eyes and within our ears. Glen Kehrein did find a way to do something about it. It took 37 years, and I can only imagine the inertia and resistance he and his wife, Lonnie, and their teams of colleagues overcame in order to transform a blighted, crime-filled neighborhood displaying all the symptoms of decline and neglect and red-lining and graft and greed.

But now, when you turn off the Eisenhower Expressway onto Central Avenue and drive some blocks north, suddenly, even the physical neighborhood—the buildings, the city streets—give testament to what redemption looks like. It is urban renewal with a spiritual life at its heart. The motto of Circle Urban Ministries, which Glen founded and led until his death, is “Transforming Chicago’s Westside through faith in action.” You can visit their Web site at www.CircleUrban.org.

My memories of Glen Kehrein sadly have most to do with the years he worked on our staff at Circle Church, which David planted across from the Westside Medical Center in a Teamsters union hall, as Community Outreach Director. We were all young then; the average age of our congregation (which rapidly grew from 27 to around 500) was 28 years. We were all unformed and forming ourselves around a life in Christ, idealists without a clue as to how entrenched evil and the Enemy’s work was all around us. Yet at the same time, we dared to dream, dared to try to make a difference, attempted to learn from our mistakes (which were many) and weren’t old enough yet to know what it was we didn’t know.

I remember Glen’s sidewise humor—it just slid in apropos to the circumstances. The staff (we met in that Teamsters union hall for ten years and never paid a day of rent, so our income underwrote personnel) would meet in our Oak Park home at 7:00 every Saturday morning. I remember listening to the laughter rising to the rafters from the dining room—it was a good and hearty and healthy sound. Glen is always a part of those memories.

Glen could call it when he saw it—and he often saw clearly. About Joel, our middle child, he exhorted me, “Do you know when you talk about Joel, you are only saying negative things?” He was right; I was slightly miffed—but then, it was Glen chiding me, and I always felt Glen’s loyalty, not like some other staff who seemed to always be second-guessing my emerging feminine consciousness—so I listened, agreed shamefacedly that he was right, changed my behavior and admired him all the more for speaking honestly.

When the kids, all four of them, crowded our upstairs bedrooms, it was Glen who rallied a crew, took the demolished barn-shed my father had salvaged, and built a room in the basement for our oldest son. There were sorry places in my heart that this practical kindness healed.

Then the years intervened. We left the pastorate at Circle Church; Glen went on to found Circle Urban Ministries. David and I were overwhelmed with broadcasting and televising and writing and speaking cross-country, and our lives parted. But we proudly watched as the memory of what could be grew in the Austin community, then the Central Avenue area of Chicago. We invited Glen and Raleigh Washington, the pastor of Rock of Our Salvation Church, which was at the heart of Circle Urban Ministries, to be on our broadcast/television shows and to talk about their book, Breaking Down Walls: A Model of Reconciliation in an Age of Racial Strife. Raleigh even served as a board member for our Mainstay Ministries.

We loved Glen and Lonnie at a distance. I ran unexpectedly into Glen two summers back at an immigration conference. While I was visiting my family in Phoenix, the announcement of the conference came via e-mail, and I was passionately interested. I had the time, so I dropped in. It was there I learned about the Christian Community Development Association, of which Glen had been a founding board-member. When Glen started Circle Urban Ministries, there were only three Christian Community Development groups in the country, one of which was John Perkins’ Voice of Calvary project in Mendenhall, Mississippi. Today there are now more than 300 CCDA outreaches across the country. (Imagine the multiplicity of that impact.)

This past summer, knowing that Glen was fighting cancer, David and I made the time to visit Circle Urban Ministries. I cannot tell you how moved we were by the physical manifestations of God’s work in this problematic community in Chicago. Because of 37 years of determined faithfulness, an outsider can see physical improvements. A clean community, with a variety of restored housing. Young moms dropping into the Moms’ Clinic, the rehabilitation of apartment houses, the charter school in the old Catholic nunnery, the community gardens, and on and on. This was a former slum that had un-slummed itself, thanks to the presence of Circle Urban Ministries. Glen and Lonnie introduced us to former prison inmates, who are now, transformed and rehabilitated, the custodians at the school and are strong, manly examples for youths attending classes. A performing-arts center is being restored in the auditorium, once riddled with asbestos problems. It will be the only performing arts center on the Westside of the city.

“We are waiting for a phone call from Glen’s doctor,” Lonnie whispered as we went to take lunch. Shadows had appeared on an MRI. And it was then that I saw the future, suspecting Glen’s cancer had metastasized.

So Glen has died. And one of those who holds the memory of what is, what can be, of what the future looks like, is no more. There are so few, so few with this capacity, so few of those who ask, “Why not?”

“Remember the future?” you may be thinking. How can this be? Well, God is beyond time, not bound by seconds, minutes, hours, weeks, months and years. Even physicists, probing the unknown, spinning out string theories, suspect that there are more dimensions than we have imagined, contradictory complementaries of existing levels we can hardly explain, let alone discover. Don’t we all need those who can see ahead and who can tell us what can be? Oh, unless they have charm (which Glen fortunately had), we call these people annoying visionaries, impractical spiritual entrepreneurs, importunate prophets.

And so I honor Glen Kehrein, and all those men and women with such a clear and demanding understanding of what can be that it is as though they have visited ahead and have come back, in some way, to tell us what it is they have seen. There can be a world where justice rules. We can mend broken cities and dysfunctional communities. The redemption Jesus offers can save souls and through His people even rehabilitate city blocks. Families can lift themselves out of poverty. Single moms can raise children who go to college. Prisoners can be set free. We do not have to settle for the ruinous, debilitating, humanity-destroying status quo.

People who remember the future all know, or soon learn, that the answers are not simple. Like Jane Jacobs writes in her brilliant and epigrammatic book The Rise and Fall of Great American Cities, city-renewal, city-planning, the “unslumming” of slums (her terminology) is one of great “organized complexities.” So when this happens, when what can be becomes what is, when it blazes a path for others, when it moves from intent to actuality, we need to bow our head and honor the lives salvaged, the sacrifices willingly offered, the tenacity to not give up despite discouragements, the weariness or the unending task of fundraising. We need to nod our heads toward those who dare to dream.

And so I honor Glen (and Lonnie, his wife, and his co-laborers whose names God knows). I bow my head. Indeed, he was a prince of a man.

“Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
 — Horatio, from Hamlet Act V, Scene II

Karen Mains

NOTICES

Due to the length of this Soulish Food, Hungry Souls will send out a separate list of “Notices” next week. We don’t want to tax your reading time!

Just remember that Karen is blogging the daily evidences of God’s work in her life. The titles for next week’s blogs (January 10-14) are “Write It Down,” “The Quadrantids: Falling Stars,” “Near-Misses,” “Free Food” and “Life in Christ.”

Karen’s blog can be found at http://blog.karenmains.com/blog/thoughts-by-karen-mains.


Reminder!

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Karen Mains

Karen Mains

“And so I honor Glen Kehrein, and all those men and women with such a clear and demanding understanding of what can be that it is as though they have visited ahead and have come back, in some way, to tell us what it is they have seen. There can be a world where justice rules. We can mend broken cities and dysfunctional communities.”
BOOK CORNER

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The Death and Life of Great American Cities
by Jane Jacobs


It wasn’t until I heard National Public Radio’s notices of Jane Jacobs’ death in 2006, and made a note to pick up her book, that I realized I had been quoting the author without knowing it. Anyone, now, who works in the inner city or who is interested in the decay, stagnation, restoration or prospering of cities knows the meaning of the phrase “eyes on the street.” This is used when city planners, through urban renewal, destroy existing neighborhoods for the sake of population control or with some mad concept of modernization in mind. Suddenly, crime statistics, which were supposed to be controlled, if not eliminated, plummet upward. This is partly because the “eyes on the street”—shopkeepers, aunts on the porches, grandmas watching the street from the first floor—are no longer in place. The human vacuum is irreversible.

Jane Jacobs published this book in 1961, and it is considered a seminal work, described by the New York Times as “perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning. … [It] can also be seen in a much larger context. It is first of all a work of literature; the descriptions of street life as a kind of ballet and the bitingly satiric account of traditional planning theory can still be ready for pleasure even by those who long ago absorbed and appropriated the book’s arguments.”

Her description of the daily “ballet” of Hudson Street in New York, where she lived, takes five pages to explicate in the book’s 50th Anniversary Edition. It is truthfully one of the marvels of modern social literature. This book became perhaps the most influential American text about the inner workings and failings of cities, inspiring generations of urban activists planners. By organizing local communities, she set a model for resisting the building of modern expressways across established neighborhoods, which eventually helped to end the powerful reign of power of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.

This is fascinating history (and reading) to any of us who have long puzzled over the death and life of our urban centers.

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Copyright 2006-2011 Mainstay Ministries. All rights reserved.

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