Minister accepts familiar challenge Rev. Bernard Keels returns to city church where he started out


After eight years as a district supervisor of the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Bernard "Skip" Keels was in line for a plum assignment in a prestigious, "tall-steepled" church.

But instead, he is headed back to the church where he started his career nearly 20 years ago -- St. Mark's, in a distressed Northwest Baltimore neighborhood at Liberty Heights Avenue and Garrison Boulevard.

Keels isn't mad, hurt or disappointed. He's ecstatic.

"It's kind of unheard-of for people in those kinds of situations to want to return," said Keels, whose position is roughly equivalent to assistant bishop. "But my feeling is that the places where the greatest needs exist ought to be supplied by the people who have the greatest capacity to fill that need."

"I have friends around the country who think this is pretty bizarre," said Keels, who was a minister at St. Mark's from 1979 to 1985.

But once a member of the clergy completes a term on the bishop's Cabinet, he said, "where do they go? Do they go to just a cushy appointment where the church can run its own ministry? Or will they take all that skill, all those acquired resources, to places where people once empowered can change the very nature of things?"

The move is at the heart of what Bishop Felton Edwin May of the Baltimore-Washington Conference is calling "Holy Boldness."

"It is a special, strategic plan for the revival of the church and community by dealing with the needs of people with compassion and with justice," May said in defining Holy Boldness. "It is an attitude. And the attitude is, 'We believe in the Scriptures, we believe in the Gospels and we're going to act like it.' "

With that in mind, when May sought a pastor to fill the opening at St. Mark's, he realized the best candidate was sitting in an office down the hall. He expects a puzzled reaction to putting one of his best people in what is essentially an entry-level position.

"Well, my response is, why not?" said May. "We need the very best we can put in there if we really mean that we're going to reclaim that community. I needed the very best I could find, and Skip represents that."

Keels, 48, came from humble beginnings -- born in Birmingham, Ala., the heart of the segregated South, and raised by a single mother in New York who had to go on welfare to support her family.

"I was the same child as many of the children of Baltimore City," he said.

A turning point came in high school, when he got into a fight with a classmate who was calling a Jewish student anti-Semitic names. The Jewish student took him home to meet his father -- Charles Silberman, the journalist who wrote the classic education critique "Crisis in the Classroom."

A helping hand

Silberman took a keen interest in the bright, inquisitive young Keels and helped him enter Upward Bound, a federally funded program that provides remedial help for promising students from low-income families. That led to a transitional year at Yale University and, at Silberman's suggestion, an education at Haverford College. He later went on to Yale Divinity School.

Silberman and Keels ultimately grew apart and haven't spoken for years. But he is still grateful for the relationship. "I will always thank God for that man in my life," he said, "because without him there's no telling where I'd be."

Keels was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and served as a deacon. In 1979, he joined the United Methodist Church, and was ordained a minister and assigned to St. Mark's.

"I always believed that inclusivity was the only way God intended to live," he said. "And the United Methodist Church, for me, presented a church willing to struggle with inclusivity. We have ordained and baptized ministers of every ethnic and cultural expression.

"I also saw the United Methodist Church as in need of voices of those who come out of darkness, voices who would never forget" where they came from, he said.

During his first stint at St. Mark's, he started youth programs that included a Boy Scout troop. He increased its membership from about 30 when he got there to more than 250 when he left.

Challenging the media

He also led a group called the Black Media Coalition that challenged the hiring and programming practices of Baltimore television stations -- and was drawn into the media himself when an official at WBAL-TV challenged him.

"He said, 'Tell us what we're doing wrong. Do it with us,' " Keels recalled. "And I said, 'This is a good way to use media as an extension of the pulpit.' " So Keels did weekly features for the local news outlet for about eight years. He also had two radio shows, "Black Journey" on WBAL-AM and "Taking It to the Streets" on WIYY-FM.

In 1985, Keels was assigned to another church in Baltimore, and then one in Washington, before becoming district superintendent in 1992 for an area that includes churches in West Baltimore and parts of Baltimore, Howard and Carroll counties.

"It is remarkable now that a snotty-nosed kid from Alabama is a superintendent of 91 churches and 38,000 people," he said.

The new challenge he faces is rejuvenating a parish that had once been an elite congregation.

"When it was all white in the 1950s, this was a church where the annual conference ordination service was held. That's how powerful a place it was," Keels said. As the years passed, the neighborhood changed from white to black.

African-Americans who joined tended to be from the professional classes, and little was done to reach out to the neighborhood. "So rather than the church being a voice, an instrument of change, the church began to rally around and circle the wagons and say, 'Well, we'll just keep this little enclave unto ourselves, and every Sunday have a service for an hour and a half and go home,' " Keels said.

A wiser man

Programs that he started as pastor there have languished. But he says he returns to St. Mark's a wiser man.

"If I knew in 1979 what I know now, it would have been really different," he said. "Back then, it was on the raw enthusiasm of a 29-year-old kid who was just sort of like turned on to what he was doing but had no idea at all of the city."

Parishioners say they are glad he is coming back. "I think it'll be a great influence on the revitalization of the community," said Sabrina Edwards of Abingdon in Harford County, who has been a member of St. Mark's for more than a quarter-century.

Keels has big plans, including the possibility of starting a school in the sprawling church plant, which would be one of the first parochial schools in the conference -- and using the talents of retired educators who are members of the congregation.

"We're talking about doing economic development, we're talking about doing job training, we're talking about doing housing restoration," he said.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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