When your life’s passion has been working for social justice from the South Bronx to South Africa, retirement is a relative term.
If you visited the carnival in downtown Bristol at the beginning of the month, you may have seen a tall, energetic septuagenarian cleaning out the prize shelf at the basketball game. Ball after ball, nothing but net. If you missed the show, perhaps you saw him walking down Church Street, a large plastic bag of loot over his shoulder, destined for the 14 grandchildren he and his wife Anne share between the six children in their blended family.
This gentleman is Mike Kendall, the Ven. Michael Kendall, former Archdeacon for Mission of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, a relative newcomer to Bristol. And he has figured out exactly how to sink a basketball into the rigged, oblong hoop at the carnival. Any carnie who thinks he’s found an easy mark in Kendall has another think coming.
Bristolians seem to be split into two camps when it comes to newcomers: one camp complains about people who move here from from places like New York (pejoratively referring to them as “New Yorkers”) presumably because the influx of people from an exotic land 250 miles to the west (a land which, in fact, most of the rest of America thinks Rhode Island is part of) will change the character of the town. The other camp doesn’t.
Kendall spent most of his career in western Connecticut and New York; and not just any part of New York — Manhattan — the New York. In his career he has rubbed elbows with heads of state and African royalty; Nelson Mandela and the Archbishop of Canterbury. He traveled to Egypt on the invitation of Hosni Mubarak. New York City mayors Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani and Bloomberg consider him a friend. You don’t get much New Yorkier than that.
But New York’s loss is truly Bristol’s win.
Kendall grew up an only child of loving parents in Ohio; his father was a physician with a solid Anglican background and his mother was a teacher with Quaker roots. Both of his parents were committed to altruism, non-violence, and alleviating poverty and suffering. He went to Earlham College, a Quaker school, and became involved with the Civil Rights Movement, ultimately deciding to go to seminary rather than medical school.
Following his ordination, Kendall’s first assignment was to form an urban ministry in Stamford, Connecticut. Assignments followed in Waterbury, then Scarsdale, New York. Along the way, he started programs for inner-city youth, launched day-care centers, homeless shelters, and Connecticut’s first halfway house for alcoholic women. In 1984 he was named Archdeacon of New York City.
“The mission of the Diocese of New York has been to establish and maintain an effective church presence in poor communities,” says Kendall. “That was my mission, and in 1984, and I believe still, the South Bronx was the poorest congressional district in the country. Landlords were fleeing the community and trashing their buildings.” It went beyond neglect — buildings that weren’t overrun and turned into drug dens were deliberately burned for insurance money. The burning of the South Bronx, said Kendall, made the neighborhood “look like post-war Dresden.”
Taking a page from the playbook of the late Saul Alinsky, considered to be the founder of modern American community organizing, Kendall collaborated with other religious and secular leaders to build housing developments, provide shelter and food for the homeless, and establish ministries in hispanic and Asian immigrant communities. Alinsky emphasized the importance of organizing people to help themselves, not to rally around a charismatic leader. “The key to community organizing is to organize thousands of people before you try to do anything,” says Kendall.
Being a church leader certainly helped, particularly when leaders of the different faith communities would come together on an issue and ask for action from political leaders. “These meetings would always start out the same way,” Kendall says. “They would tell us how their mother always took them to church or synagogue, we’d say ‘yeah yeah, okay — this is what we want’.”
“The city was able to establish drug-free zones around Yankee home games, so we explained how they could do it at the schools — just declare the schools ‘Yankee Zones’,” Mike said. As for the burned-out buildings, once the owners took their insurance money, the property reverted back to the city. There was roughly one abandoned, city-owned property for each homeless person in the city.” A group of us met with Mayor Ed Koch and told him we wanted some land to build single family homes. Mayor Koch wanted to know how much money we had for the project and one of the bishops, I don’t recall who, told him we had $20 million. We got the go-ahead, left the meeting and someone asked about that $20 million, and the bishop just said, ‘I lied’.”
And so Nehemiah housing was born (and they did secure financing), and today it contains more that 1,000 single-family and duplex residences — owned, not rented, by the residents. “Once the housing piece was in place, the South Bronx turned around,” said Kendall.
Kendall’s relationship with power brokers saw him traveling in rarefied circles, but it was always in keeping with his mission. “My relationships with people in positions of political power often happened as I pushed and went after something I wanted to achieve. I have always had this agenda.”
One very memorable encounter happened not in the halls of power but in the aisle of a D.C. to New York shuttle flight. With the assistance of two strategically-timed drink service carts, Kendall took the opportunity to give then-governor of New York George Pataki a piece of his mind. Pataki was in the process of enacting a policy that would cut poor New Yorkers off from the federal food stamp program, and Kendall felt very strongly that was the wrong way to go. According to a March 1997 New York Times Sunday Magazine profile of Pataki, that encounter with an unnamed “New York clergyman” stayed with him for days, ultimately leading to him changing course and approving the food stamp program.
“A relationship with a person in power can be one of two things,” Kendall says. “You can stand in awe or you can speak up.”
In 1994, Kendall was named Archdeacon for Mission for the Diocese of New York, which brought his skills to the global stage, forming partnerships with religious communities in Africa, Asia, South and Central America, even working to establish relationships with church groups in Russia, and most unlikely of all, China. A supporter of Mandela’s presidential candidacy, he waited anxiously with all of South Africa for a presumed bloodbath following Mandela’s inevitable win. It never happened. “I asked why,” Kendall said, “and was told ‘we prayed.’ The whole nation prayed the whole day, in their own way, and there was peace.”
These days, when Kendall isn’t gaming the game at the carnival (“I love the carnival, it’s such a slice of America”) he can be found fishing off the Church Street pier, boogie-boarding on Second Beach with Anne, or visiting with grandchildren in their cozy home, which sits in the shadow of St. Michael’s Church.
Mike and Anne first passed through Bristol years ago, traveling between their annual anniversary trip to Block Island and their daughter’s home in Uxbridge. “Anne wanted a garden, I wanted to be able to go fishing. This is perfect.” Hardly retired in the traditional sense of the word, Kendall is involved with the East Bay arm of Habitat for Humanity and is one of the leaders and celebrants of the Church Beyond the Walls, a interfaith congregation of about 100 mostly homeless people that holds services in Providence’s Burnside Park at 2 p.m. every Saturday, year-round. It’s a commitment that, knowing Kendall, will soon grow. “We (he and the other leaders of the open-air church) are asking ourselves what our role is, exactly, and what our next steps should be.”
For now, however, this urban ministry legend, as one biographer has referred to him, is enjoying another summer in Bristol, scaring fish and entertaining grandchildren. “This,” he says, “is exactly where I want to be.”