by Patrick B. McGuigan
Steve Kern is candid when an inquisitive reporter asks how a theologically traditional Southern Baptist preacher wound up running an inner-city church with notable ethnic diversity among members and those served.
He recalls, “I originally didn’t want to come here.” After comfortable years at a Boise, Idaho church, Kern was, in the mid-1990s, looking for a chance to come home, hopefully at a “First Baptist-type” church in Oklahoma or the region.
In the course of looking through 120 possible jobs, he soon learned that most congregations were looking for a man in his mid-thirties, not a middle-aged minister. As he and his wife, Sally, prayed to find a fresh start in God’s Providence, they came across Olivet Baptist, 1201 N.W. 10 Street, on Oklahoma City’s near west side.
In the end, that was the only congregation that extended him an invitation to become pastor.
Initially, that was “a humbling type of thing.” After reflection, with Sally’s support, he accepted the job. In an interview with The City Sentinel, Rev. Kern said that of his 32 years as an ordained minister, “these have been the best 16 years of my life.”
Every day brings new issues, and that’s fine with him: “This work requires compassion and practical ministry, if you’re going to be genuine in your expression of Christianity.”
A series of “cottage prayer ministry” meetings were held in the homes of Olivet Baptist members. He consulted Southern Baptist pastors in other states who were experienced in working with socioeconomic circumstances like Olivet’s.
Soon, his mind turned to the practical reality of verses in Scripture, such as the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25 and the ancient Book of Isaiah, Chapter 58. Rows of boarded up houses in that part of town, and daunting issues facing people in his new congregation, persuaded him anew that the Gospel compelled him both to lead in faith, and address physical needs of his neighbors.
Much of his story is shared in his book, “Judgment’s Greatest Question,” where events in his personal life are recounted, unfolding in parallel with reflections on those and other Biblical challenges.
He discerned, in every day life, the roots of the moment described in Matthew, when Jesus sits on the throne of judgment and is challenged by those He is about to send away.
They ask him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25: 44-46, New American Standard)
Soon after taking reins at Olivet, Kern got to know Mayor Kirk Humphreys, who was encouraging Christian ministers to bring personal care to the fastest growing group in American poverty – women with children.
The church began to address the daily realities of women with “no money, no houses, no resources.” Kern wanted to make Olivet into a “model of what we should have been doing all along.” He believes churches, rather than governments, should be the first to hear the cries of the poor.
As the social ministries got rolling, Kern and his members found numerous women living on the streets, in homeless shelters or even in their cars. Over many years, the 501 c 3 Heart and Hand ministry, now headquartered at 1308 N.W. 9 Street, has assisted hundreds of women with medical needs, employment training and shelter.
Heart and Hand will hold its annual banquet at Home Homestead, on October 4 at 6 p.m.
What began with a single family unit has grown to include 11 houses today. The homes, located in the economically challenged area around Olivet, were obtained through direct donations from owners or through Foundation support.
The ministry encourages women to form a relationship with God, “and acknowledge Him as the one who will give a sense of self-worth and help them to progress in their life to reach their full potential.”
The many who have not completed high school are required to earn a GED (general equivalency degree) or find employment. Those who secure jobs are required to save 50 percent of their earnings, “so they will have money to get them started when they move out of our homes.”
Heart and Hand also operates a thrift store on the far west side of town, at N.W. 23 and Council Road, selling low-cost items of all sorts. Proceeds from the operation, where most workers are volunteers, assist the home ministry.
Olivet operates a respected community clinic, in collaboration with physicians from Integris, serving impoverished people from all over the city, including many from the surrounding neighborhood.
In recent years, Olivet has worked to assist both women and men transitioning out of incarceration. Kern says a valued assistant is a minister from Kenya who works directly with men.
Other ministries based in the church include Bible studies, and programs aimed at youth, including a day camp that runs in week-long sessions every summer, attracting 60 to 70 kids.
Sundays and Wednesdays are busy days at the Church, with formal services and a wide range of other activities.
For more information about Olivet Baptist or Heart & Hand Ministries, telephone 235-4696 or email Pastor Kern’s assistant, [email protected]