Kendrick Kemp: A Biography… Thus Far
- Theological and Biological Roots
In 1960 Jesse Kemp migrated from Jefferson County, Georgia to rural Rochester, New York. She applied for a job at a state hospital. After two years of gainful employment, working weekdays at the hospital, and weekends picking fruit on local farms, Jesse returned to Georgia to visit with family. When she left Georgia, Jesse had company: her brothers, their wives, and their children. Her youngest nephew, Kendrick, who was six months old at the time, refers to his aunt as the Harriet Tubman of the Kemps.
The Kemps lived in trailers and worked on farms until they could afford homes of their own. Eventually, all four brothers, like Jesse, found work and laid down roots in rural Rochester, NY. Kendrick’s father, Grady, was hired by Mobile Chemical, and worked the line in their Rochester-based factory. After years on the factory floor, Grady found respect, responsibility, authority and power within the church community of Mount Zion Baptist Church. First a deacon, then later its pastor, Grady was a passionate and powerful church leader. Like the relationship between John Grimes and Gabriel, the protagonist and his stepfather in James Baldwin’s semi-autographical novel Go Tell It On The Mountain, I, Kendrick had a contentious relationship with my own father, Grady. Maybe it is for this reason that I became conscious of my own behavior when my son, Kendrick, was born.
The first time I noticed my son observing my behavior was when he was two. He observed how I prayed—that I kneeled, that I lowered my head and closed my eyes, that I become silent and pensive. I also noticed him watching me when I interacted with people. He observed how I spoke with them, whether or not I was kind and respectful. He may not of had the words to articulate what he was doing, but I sensed his eyes watching me, figuring out how to engage the world by watching his father.
I was not close with my father. But, I was close with my mom. Grady was violent, and while I could not protect mom from his verbal abuse I was able to intervene when Grady became physically violent. More than anything, I wanted to escape.
My initial plan of escape was sports. I was not only athletic, but I loved to play. My games were football, basketball, and running track. On the Lyons High School football field I ran 979 yards in 7 games—a school record. In basketball, I was on the winning New York State Championship Team in 1980, and made second team All-American. When it came to track, I broke several high school records: the 400-meter dash, as well as the 880, and my relay team won county sectionals.
In yet another Baldwin text, The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American, Baldwin states plainly that he needed to leave America. He needed to escape. “I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem” (137), writes Baldwin. “I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even merely a Negro writer. I wanted to find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them” (137). Here, in wanting to find meaning other than degradation, humiliation, and subjugation in the specialness of his experience, Baldwin finds me.
Like Baldwin, I am American. Like Baldwin, I have been named according to the color of my skin. And, like Baldwin, I have spent a lifetime seeking ways in which the specialness of my experiences can connect me with other people. As a young athlete I understood that I was valuable to the rural Rochester town of Lyons, NY on the football field, the basketball court, the baseball diamond, and the starting line, but not in the classroom.
English was not the first language I learned. Rather, it was an unspoken language that is uniquely American. There was an unspoken sensibility, an awareness, which African Americans understood. Regardless of our contributions, regardless of how special we were, to our white counterparts (those with a controlling interest and power in our community) we were just niggers. Like Baldwin, “once I was able to accept my role—as distinguished, I must say, from my ‘place’… I was free from the illusion that I hated America” (138). Then, I had a stroke, and shortly thereafter, another.
As a result of being named by the color of my skin, and then being named because I suffered two strokes, I understand the power in not only believing, but also in finding, the specialness of my experiences. While there is no escape from the consequences of suffering two strokes outside of an existential experience, the strokes forced me to pause… to take a very long pause and examine myself. Like Baldwin calls for a self examination in order to “free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening” (142), my strokes served as an unintentional, an unplanned pause, for self and cultural examination. It is when we go through experiences that make us vulnerable, when we acknowledge and accept our own vulnerability, that we are able to see and nurture the vulnerability in others as well. For when we choose to be vulnerable we discover an identity that is all our own; an identity that we have not been branded with, yet leaves a mark nonetheless. It is an identity of strength that comes with healing.
- Keeping It In The Family
I am a pastor’s kid. My father and both of my grandfathers were Baptist preachers. My faith is inherited. It is my birthright. I was brought up believing what Reverend Chris Shelton of Broadway Presbyterian Church refers to as my “grandfather’s theology.” It is a theology that had been passed down from generation to generation, from Kemp to Kemp. It is simplistic. There were little, if any, opportunities to ask questions. But, I asked anyway, disregarding etiquette. I was trying to make sense of… of this God.
When I was 17 my best friend died. He was buried on January 5th. The date is easy to remember because it is my birthday. His name was Michael, but we all called him Gator. Why? I don’t know. Gator stole. He stole because he did not have enough, and stealing made him feel good. One evening he was running from the police after allegedly stealing from a local grocery store. He came across a barge that had not yet completely frozen over in the winter months. He fell through the ice and drowned. Gator’s untimely and unnecessary death was the first time that my faith was challenged. It was the first time that the questions I was asking needed answers.
I was 19 when I had my first stroke. It was a Sunday morning. Most of the family had left for church. My older brother and I were sleeping off a night of partying, which I did a lot in those days. After waking up I began to make my way downstairs for some breakfast when suddenly I could not feel my legs. I grabbed hold of the railing and called for my brother. He did not answer. I then continued down the stairs, gripping the railing. After a couple of steps I fell. The last thing I remember is my brother coming down the stairs. After two years of rehabilitation, I was walking on my own. I had regained my ability to speak. Then, I suffered a second stroke. Again, I had questions.
Most people learn to walk and talk only once. After the second stroke, for the third time in my young life I again faced the challenge of learning how to effectively and fluidly walk and talk. After the first stroke I was confined to a wheelchair. I was told that I would not walk or talk again. However, with determination, hard work, and my belief in God, I now walk and talk. I then used this newfound determination and work ethic to achieve my GED, a BA in Social Work from Syracuse University, and an MSW from Binghamton University. I am now studying theology at Union Theological Seminary. I am a student of some of the most profound scholars writing today. As a result of my experiences, I am a living example that marginalizing those with disabilities, those who are in need of an advocate, those whose voices that are not being considered, is a mistake. It is a mistake to the welfare of the person being marginalized, as well as the community they can serve.
Physical disabilities not only limit what a person is physically capable of, but physical disabilities often also increase a person’s dependence on others. Those who experience physical disabilities are not just physically dependent, but the burden – the feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment – weighs an emotional toll on the physically disabled as well. However, suffering with a disability can encourage a person to become more focused and determined to beat the odds against them. My story is just one that proves this example. At UTS, I work with peers that live with disabilities; each has overcome in order to serve.
The idea that we overcome in order to serve is radical. It is an idea synonymous with the Christian message of love. That we, who have been diagnosed and dismissed as broken, in spite of such classifications, still choose to serve. When I think about my peers, and their work, I am reminded of the power of the cross. However, many of the images of the Christ suffering on the cross do not do speak to the messiness of such suffering.
Death by crucifixion was messy. The physical breaking down of the human body is a messy endeavor. It is not neat, which is why, in His final moments, the Christ contradicts many classic images of physical perfection. His final physical moments were intended to represent brokenness, for brokenness is not diminishment, but, rather, the method by which we have been saved.
The Disabled God: A Theology of Disability
In The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Nancy L. Eiesland acknowledges that Jesus’ body was broken. It is this acknowledgement that defies a false legacy that allows for the dismissal of those whom Christ most paralleled, not only in his final moments, suffering on the cross, but also when he returned, in the flesh, on the day of His resurrection: “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). Jesus returned to His body when He returned to Earth. It was this body that visited the disciples. It was this body that He used to satisfy Thomas’ doubts: “Put your finger here and see my hand [said Jesus]. Reach out your hand and put it in my side” (John 20:27). It is this body that still serves as to the meaning and power of the resurrection. For in the resurrected Christ the disciples “saw not the suffering servant for whom the last and most important word was tragedy and sin, but the disabled God who embodied both impaired hands and feet and pierced side and the imago Dei” (99), writes Eiesland.
We need allies. Whether we are disabled are not, we need allies because we are all vulnerable, disabled or not. There are moments in all of our lives when we understand how it feels to be week and powerless, as well as strong and powerful. It is our charge to remember each feeling, and when we feel powerful to lift up those that do not, so that when we feel powerless there are others there to in turn lift us up.
People with challenges, people with disabilities, have to find ways to empower themselves by studying certain disciplines, personifying certain narratives within the biblical text. Identifying God as disabled helps those that do not self identify as disabled self identify with those that do. Jesus is relatable. Many self identify with Him. If he were to be identified as disabled, then all those that self identify with Jesus, can then also find a way to self identify with those marked as disabled. While the language of some of the gospel narratives can be problematic, the reason why Jesus came is not. He came to restore sight to the blind, to empower the crippled and paralyzed to walk, and to fill empty stomachs.
When a culture is obsessed with appearance, when the prototypes for acceptance is as close to flawless as possible, where does that leave those whom are physically, visibly flawed? Jesus’ resurrected body was flawed. It was this body that represents salvation for all of us. Therefore, honoring that which is flawless is synonymous with worshipping a false idol. Our Savior was disabled, as we all are. It is when we accept this reality that we then become free—free from subjugating others, as well as our selves.
Like Jacob wrestled with God, I too have been wrestling. I wrestle with the shame that I may not be a prototypical pastor and that I would shame a congregation because of my disabilities. I wrestle with a society that values greed. So much so that a boy felt it necessary to steal to feel complete. Jacob walked away with a limp. A limp is just one result of my wrestling bout. However, I continue to wrestle. After all, it is my birthright.