by Bruce Posten in The Reading Eagle

The greater public issue of giving children freedom of choice versus an institutional belief in mandatory worship services became intertwined last spring at Bethany Children’s Home near Womelsdorf.

The Rev. Kim Kendrick, 48, Bethany’s chaplain for more than two years, didn’t have a written invitation to the table for communion on the issue.

But, in a most significant Christian way, she became a guiding light for a resolution in the community.

Kendrick, who grew up in Philadelphia, is a black lesbian who experienced substance abuse and drug addiction and knows what it’s like to live on society’s margins.

She can relate to children with issues of truancy, anger, aggression, violence, self-abuse or drug and alcohol use.

“Yes, I’ve had some lumps and challenges in my life, but this is what I was called to do,” said Kendrick, who chose the ministry and landed at Bethany, which serves abandoned, abused or neglected kids.

“There is a difference between a calling and a career,” she said. “This (children’s ministry) is my life’s work. This is what I was put on Earth to do.”

Bethany, affiliated with the United Church of Christ, has had the mission since the 19th century to provide a safe place of nurturing, protection and supportive care to aid children in their growth and healing. It has nearly 400 acres of male- and female-designated cottages, open space and administrative and recreational facilities.

“I think Pastor Kim has a wonderful understanding of where kids come from and the ability to connect with them,” said Elaine Gilbert, Bethany vice president of programming.

“She has a charisma and chemistry of understanding, a way of making Biblical messages come alive, which helps her relate to youth,” she said. “She gets kids; therefore God gets kids. And to children who may feel that God hasn’t been there for them, her role is significant.”

How significant?

Last spring, Bethany was notified that its longtime mandatory weekly worship requirement for youth was counter to state education policy of allowing for freedom of choice.

“We were told the worship has to be voluntary, so we no longer made worship required on Monday evenings and set up some programs for alternative activities such a yoga, meditation and study groups,” Gilbert said. “Our numbers of kids fluctuate, but we have about 90 on campus now (ranging in age from 7 to 19).”

But even after that change, only about 10 percent of the residents opt out of church services. And that, said Kevin Snyder, CEO of Bethany Children’s Home, is a tribute to Kendrick.

“She has a God given ability to communicate with our youth who have experienced trauma and who have had to endure lives that no child should experience,” he said. “She preaches from the aisles, not a pulpit, walking right up to any youth who is being disrespectful and speaks directly to them.”

Leading worship

When the policy change was enacted, Kendrick continued leading her worship at 6 p.m. Monday evenings.

“I thought we were only going to have four kids show up in the pews,” Kendrick said, noting the campus church holds about 150. “But we had 50 kids. I had to stop, shout out and ask, ‘Everybody sure they are in the right place?’ ”

They apparently were.

Weekly attendance numbers have grown to about 70.

This past summer, Kendrick baptized 17 youth at the campus pool, which she guesses could be some kind of record.

“And I really do believe all of that is because of Kim,” Gilbert said.

At a time when mainstream church attendance is quickly eroding, Kendrick, with the help of other church volunteers – staff, houseparents and musicians – demonstrated that a spiritual worship site is a place to be, a choice for youth not always having the personal history of enjoying the best in life.

“Our worship is a time for gathering and sharing,” Kendrick said. “We celebrate together people’s joys and pray for their concerns.”

Plunging into a communal and participatory service, Kendrick doesn’t preach, so much as give a message while interacting with her young parishioners, immersing herself in the concerns of youth.

“The reason why Christ was here is that the word had to be made flesh,” she said. “We rarely saw Jesus within four walls or staying within the synagogue. Jesus put his faith into action; he was with the people. And I believe that’s where we need to be, even out with people who have no faith.

“People are looking for tangible ways to help others and better themselves. Where I think people have gotten tired of church is where there is a lot of talking aloud and saying nothing.”

Credits caring staff

Kendrick credits a caring staff at Bethany with the commitment to help young people change their lives. She certainly doesn’t characterize herself as a miracle worker alone, although others admire her character.

At any given time, the population breakdown at Bethany can change between having more males or females by a factor of about 10 youngsters, Gilbert said.

However, 2016 figures show a percentage ethnic breakdown of 38 percent white, 34 percent Latino, 21 percent black, 5 percent multiracial, 1 percent biracial and 1 percent other.

Kendrick said the campus not only reflects ethnic diversity, but also a variety of individual needs across a spectrum of ages.

“There are people who think this is a lock-down facility, but we have everything from independent living to supervised independent living to intensive residential coverage for those who may be flight risks,” she said.

Children are at Bethany because of family difficulties and the environment in which they grew up, Snyder said. Some have no family, others were living on the streets; some were abused, had parents in jail.

“I’ve learned to not assume anything in regard to what our youth know or have experienced,” Snyder said. “Some have never been out to dinner. One girl, at age 15, did not know what a baked potato was. We had siblings that had to steal food from a supermarket to eat.”

But they all have something in common, he said, they feel alone and unloved.

“In my opinion that’s why Pastor Kim’s role at Bethany is so important to our youth,” Snyder said.

“She teaches them that they are never alone and more importantly that they are loved regardless of the past.”

Kendrick views Bethany as a place for children where the goal is reunification with a family, and the time spent to achieve that end could be hours or years.

“It is a sanctuary of care for children until an adult comes along, or a youth becomes a self-sufficient adult,” Kendrick said.

Kendrick, a child raised as Catholic by a Baptist middle-class black family – “You got a discount on school tuition if you were Catholic,” she said – ultimately ran away from home.

Grandmother plays key role

She said her grandmother played a key role in saving her from herself when she turned to drugs. Kendrick also felt unloved and alienated because of her sexual orientation.

“I’ve been there and back, so you can’t fake sexual orientation or other aspects of your life when you are dealing with youth,” Kendrick said.

Being genuine, honest and direct about her own life has given Kendrick credibility with others.

But there was even a point she rejected God, feeling that he didn’t love her for who she was.

At her lowest point, she said she came to a realization that she was destroying her body and soul and, like many others, reached out to God in prayer and made a bargain to change if allowed to survive her own self-destructive habits.

For her, life did not end, even though she has witnessed much of the downside of it.

“When kids tell me about their experiences, about their addictions or where they got the money, I tell them Pastor Kendrick already knows,” she said. “I tell them I’ve been there. I tell them God was there, too. And that God never left. He loves you then and still loves you, because there is forgiveness and grace.

“I tell them we need to be hope dealers.”

So, they listen to her, a minister willing to deal, to deal with them on their journey.

And they are glad to seek spiritual sustenance and sit in the pews Monday evenings.