By Ashley Gadsden
NCCU Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE
Last Saturday, almost 2000 people gathered in downtown Durham as the Rev. Carl Kenney officiated their marriage to the Bull City at the Marry Durham ceremony. Kenney, who has near-celebrity status in the community, uses his own journey as well as his faith to inspire others.
A native of Columbia, Missouri, Kenney earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. While earning his degree, he had his first child and married at the age of 19. With the additional births of two more children, Kenney knew it was his responsibility to provide for his family and furthered his education to do that.
Kenney moved to North Carolina to attend Duke University where he earned his masters at the Divinity School. He was later named a Fellow in Pastoral Leadership Development at the Princeton Theological Seminary in 2005.
As a student, husband and father, he also maintained several jobs at once, whether it was advertising, announcing, news, radio or magazine work.
“It’s called making it work when you have kids and a dream,” said Kenney. He has been writing columns for years from time to time for the Raleigh News & Observer, the Durham Herald-Sun and the Independent Weekly. His regular blog posts can be found at REV-elution.
The seemingly straightforward path, however, has had roadblocks along the way – chief among them: drug addiction.
Kenney’s addiction began while hanging around older cousins. He recalls his smoking in the school parking lot during his senior year when he was supposed to be in class. He dropped out and eventually becoming a dealer himself.
Later, while working to provide for his family, taking 15-credit hours and ministering, Kenny struggled again with cocaine, heroin and speed addiction. Kenney describes his addiction as a “cry for help.”
When he was the minister at Orange Grove Baptist Church in Durham, the addiction almost came calling again.
While struggling to find himself and dealing with gossip circulating throughout the church in response to his personal life and writings for local newspapers, Kenney, found himself facing his battle with addiction again after leaving a church meeting one night.
As he approached the seller, the man asked him, “Are you the police?” and Kenney thought to himself, “No I’m the ‘Preacha Man’ from the church up the street who works to get people like you off the streets” and drove off.
Kenney wrote his first book “Preacha Man” in 2002 as a “therapeutic exercise”. He says that he had no intentions of publishing his writings at first. It sat on the shelf for two years before he picked it up again to finish it and publish it.
“I needed to process where I was in life,” said Kenney.
“Preacha Man” is a fictionalized account of Kenney’s early life, addictions, coming out of addiction and other obstacles he faced while finding himself.
Amazon describes “Preacha Man” as “a story of a man torn between the love of his life and his love for God.”
In 2008, Kenney wrote a second book, “Backslide,” the sequel to “Preacha Man.” “Backslide” tells the journey of a man and three women finding freedom through the trinity, and shows readers that preachers are humans too and make mistakes. They, too, “backslide” at times.
Kenney’s writings and sermons were studied by Princeton University Associate Professor Melissa Victoria Harris-Lacewell (now Harris-Perry) for her book “Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought.”
In the book, which won the 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association, Kenney is quoted saying “Many ministers hide behind a façade of strength, while deep down they struggle with their own vulnerability. People need to know that the person who preaches the Word is virtually going through the same issues day after day.”
“My books keep me clean,” Kenney stated in Harris-Lacewell’s book. “I was once lower than most of you have been, and God’s deliverance of me is my best evidence of his ability and willingness to deliver you.”
Kenney, who is twice divorced, was voted out of Orange Grove by members who disagreed with some of his positions and activism. Shortly after his departure from Orange Grove, he founded Compassion Ministries where he is currently ministering.
“If you ever attend one of his services, you’ll notice how informal but authentic he comes across during the service,” says member Brett Chambers. “There’s no pretense or phoniness in the room. The service is about life and the celebration of community.”
But, many know him best as a street preacher.
“He has been in Durham for a long time and has been an agent of change in Durham’s transformation over the past decade,” said Merywen Wigley, liaison to charity organizations for Marry Durham. “Just walk around town with him one day and see how many people stop to chat with him. He’s connected to everyone.”
Leigh Lester Holmes, CEO of Carolina Phoenix agrees. “Carl is a strong supporter of the arts and can often be found at local theaters and at spoken word performances,” said Holmes.
Chambers describes Kenney as a minister grounded in his community. “He doesn’t just believe and preach the ‘word’, he lives the word,” said Chambers. “He takes the word to the street. I call him a street-wise preacher, or a pedestrian preacher.”
Wigley says that Kenney was asked to officiate at the Marry Durham ceremony because he understood the organizing committee’s desire to celebrate diversity in terms of race and class and sexual orientation.
“We also know that he writes beautifully and trusted that he’d come up with touching analogies to describe Marry Durham and the love the people of Durham have for this community,” said Wigley.
Holmes, who also keeps up with Kenney’s blog describes it as thought-provoking. “Whether you agree or disagree with his prose, he never fails to tell his truth as he sees it,” said Holmes. “It’s refreshing.”
Kenney is currently writing his third book, “Rolling the Stones,” which is based on the lives of his grandfathers and the impact they had on him growing up and ultimately explain his first two books.
“I can’t stop writing. I can’t stop preaching,” said Kenney.