Chucking a manager's career to minister to Oliver's people

The Rev. Calvin Keene saw a problem.

The 55-year-old pastor of Memorial Baptist Church noticed that liquor stores were all too common in his Oliver neighborhood.


He saw that all too often, those liquor stores, or "cut-rates," attracted crime almost magnetically to the street corners that they inhabited. He saw that while there were multiple cut-rate establishments in Oliver, there wasn't a single grocery store.

So he and fellow ministers and community leaders from Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development bought a liquor store and its liquor license. And they destroyed the license.


Dealing with a liquor store isn't something a lot of ministers would include in their duties. But Keene believes his work takes him from the pulpit into the neighborhood he's lived in for most of his life.

Keene grew up in Oliver and graduated from the University of Maryland. He got a good job in the computer field. He moved out of Baltimore and drives a Mercedes-Benz.

Yet here he is, working as a pastor in the same church he went to as a child in Oliver, where vacant houses mar every single street. Unemployment and illegal drugs are rife.

In some ways, it's no surprise that Keene came back. He was raised to care about Oliver.

His mother, Rose Keene, instilled in him a sense of duty to his neighborhood through her membership in the Oliver Community Association, where she served as president for close to 20 years.

She also served as secretary of the East Side Democratic Organization, where many of the city's prominent politicians got their starts, including Clarence H. Du Burns, Baltimore's first black mayor; state Sens. Bob Douglass and Nathaniel McFadden; and Del. Hattie Harrison.

Rose Keene worked to bring a senior center and housing for seniors to the neighborhood, her son says. "That's where I got my inspiration to be involved in the community, because she taught all of us the responsibility to give back."

She took this active role in Oliver while raising her seven children and working for the Social Security Administration for 22 years.


Keene was born in Oliver in 1954, the youngest of the siblings. His father died when he was a toddler. He attended a segregated elementary school housed in portable buildings.

He said he believes he was fortunate to have been born during the civil rights movement. He took full advantage of the new opportunities available for blacks by attending Polytechnic Institute.

He would go on to attend the University of Maryland, College Park, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in psychology in 1978. He intended to become a psychiatrist.

But an interest in computers steered him toward Unisys Corp. in Columbia, and after college he started working as a program analyst there. He moved to Glen Burnie and, later, Gwynn Oak.

He didn't leave the community behind. He became a lay minister at Memorial Baptist, working with youth on the weekends.

Keene was promoted and became a customer service manager, which required him to travel a territory from Harrisburg, Pa., to Roanoke, Va., delivering programming and software installation services.


His church duties also grew. He began ministering to men in addition to youth, setting up peer networks for young men, young married men and young fathers.

In 1993, Keene became pastor of Memorial Baptist Church, and couldn't balance his job, where he spent 60 to 70 hours a week, with pastoral duties. He had to choose between a six-figure salary and being a pastor in the neighborhood he grew up in.

"My desire to work with people made it pretty easy choice for what I thought was going to be more fulfilling as a person," Keene said.

After taking time to work out his finances, Keene quit his job at Unisys in 1996 and took on full-time pastoral duties. He earned a master's degree from United Baptist College and Seminary in Baltimore in 1998. In 2000, he earned his doctorate in divinity from Eastern Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Va.

His ministry took him outside the church. Keene was one of six Oliver ministers who together raised $1.25 million from weekly church collections - which they combined with government funds and grants from nonprofits - to buy up vacant houses and replace them with new homes.

Rob English, a community organizer for BUILD since 1997, knew from his first impression of Keene that he was capable of such a task.


"I immediately had a sense that this was a pastor, this was a leader, this was a man that had a deep love for his neighborhood and had the vision and the talent to really make [Oliver's redevelopment] happen," English said.