I remember the first time I visited Glen Kehrein and Circle Urban Ministries in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. My wife and I were newly married, visiting a church that was in the tradition in which Paula and I were raised (The Evangelical Free Church), but in a neighborhood I could only describe as being “from the movies”.
The church met in an old gym, barely restored to usefulness, in a larger complex (an old Catholic High School) that was still in utter disrepair. The community was marked by the “murder house” across the street. And there were all those black people! It would take 2 decades more for me to fully realize the context and philosophy of ministry at Circle: Gospel transformation in the heart of the American Urban context; redemption through “all those black folks”.
At the time, while I was not “against” such a community or racial context, I had a hero mentality about such work. How could I not? The first black person I can recall meeting was in 10th grade. I had no black friends whatsoever. I had a simple, deep, set of stereotypes of not only the racial context but the community. And I had no idea I had them.
By that time (about 1989 I think) Glen had long since walked through and beyond these kind of thoughts and beliefs. I know he had them too, once upon a time. Glen and I had much in common.
We were both from Northern Midwestern states (MN for me, WI for him). We both grew up in racial isolation, we both came to Chicago to attend Moody Bible Institute. And we both ultimately credit our wives first (we both have amazing wives!) and then our black communities, with primary agency of Jesus, in our own spiritual growths.
I got reacquainted with Glen and Lonni when I became the director of Sunshine in 2001. I was a young E.D., in way over my head, trying to figure out where/how to go. Glen told me that he “got his call” to start Circle while a student volunteer at Sunshine in the 60’s! I found in Glen a mentor who displayed patience, humility and wisdom. To this day, I don’t remember Glen being in a hurry during our conversations. This, to me, is one of the virtues of many black folks that Glen came to embody.
During the past 4 years I have come to know Glen much better than before through our time together at a weekly bible study. We found that we were “wired” similarly in so many ways. Our philosophy of ministry is much the same, our style of leadership (both strengths and weaknesses) was similar. His bookshelf is startlingly the same as mine. So often the authors, threads of history, approach to teaching and more were shared. He even had a motorcycle similar to mine (I confess his was a real Harley, mine is a wanna-be). . . We shared the deepest of perspectives on our communities, other ministries and ministers (for laughs, for jealousies, incredulities, and reverences).
I have never been someone who can understand people who “live above the fray”. I was so thankful to find Glen shared this. In the world of urban ministry leadership, it is all too tempting allow oneself to be held up as “hero” and to actually support these “myths”. He was courageous, visionary, faithful, passionate, and a prophetic voice for reconciliation. But he was not perfect, and not afraid to let it show. He was always learning about the world, calling for justice, embodying reconciliation and leaning on Jesus.
I was in Honduras a year ago when I learned that Glen was ill. It was tough to take. One thing that separates Glen and I is the level of suffering he endured during his life. Evidently his faith was much deeper than mine because as far as I can tell, Jesus allowed Glen to fill up the sufferings of Christ more than pretty much anyone else I know. Yet, thankfully, the source of his sustenance we also share. We share a faith in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ that is our defining identity. Jesus is our story.
I loved Glen deeply as did countless others. We miss him immensely and mourn his passing. . . but we will also celebrate him and his legacy. . . and, if God is gracious, we will embody him in some way.