Rev. Kenneth R. Kemp of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church leads the crowd in prayer. Photo by Scott Ball.
Dr. Kenneth Kemp, senior pastor at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

On Sunday, Dr. Kenneth Kemp took his place at the pulpit and read a Bible story about Abraham, his wife Sarah, and Sarah’s Egyptian servant Hagar, who gave birth to a son fathered by Abraham.

When Kemp finished reading the passage, he told his congregation, “I would ask that you pray with me and pray for me for just a moment, as the Holy Spirit shall lead the discussion in this theme, ‘Say her name.’”

Kemp was referring to recent Black Lives Matter protests where demonstrators shout, “Say her name! Breonna Taylor!” to remember a 26-year-old woman shot and killed by police officers after they entered her apartment without warning in March. Following the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, people in San Antonio and around the nation have been protesting police brutality.

Kemp serves as the senior pastor for the historically black Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, which celebrated its 85th anniversary on June 7. In addition to his church leadership, Kemp works full time as a pulmonologist. Between those two roles, he often works anywhere from 60 to 80 hours a week. 

Though current events inspire his sermons, his congregation has always spoken openly about police brutality and social inequality, Kemp said.

“It’s new for some other people, but it’s not new for us,” he told the Rivard Report. “I pastor an African American church. My constant message is about freedom and justice and equality and enfranchisement of African American people. My message has been accentuated because of what has been going on, but the core of it hasn’t changed, because I always talk about this.”

Kemp also spoke out following the 2016 death of Antronie Scott, a 36-year-old black man shot by a San Antonio police officer who opened fire after mistaking a cell phone in Scott’s hand for a gun.

While the topic of racial justice isn’t new at Antioch Missionary Baptist, the recent high-profile deaths of Floyd and Taylor prompted other churches and their leaders to speak about racism. Ed Newton, a white pastor who heads Community Bible Church, joined other faith leaders at Travis Park earlier in June to call for equality.

“The church of Jesus Christ here in San Antonio has the opportunity to lift their voice on behalf of a God who loves us. … Our phrase has been this, ‘We will rise,’” he said. “The church has a voice in equality, we have a voice in justice, and we have been a part of this ongoing work.”

Pastor Les Hollon of Trinity Baptist Church urged his congregation on June 7 to “put skin in the game” to promote equality – especially racial equality. Hollon, who is white, said in an interview that, though he regards the church as apolitical when it comes to speaking about candidates and parties, the church should not stay silent on issues like racial injustice.

“When we talk about specific situations, people have ‘listen’ filters and may hear through the filter of Democratic or Republican,” he said. “I’m recognizing people have filters, but I’m not speaking as a member of a political party. We’re to live heavenly lives on earth, and our earthen lives will reflect heavenly call. When we’re not treating people equal, that’s a spiritual issue.”

His ministry has always been focused on racial reconciliation, Hollon said.

“In terms of Black Lives Matter specifically, the reason why that’s important is because there’s been a social practice in America that hasn’t guaranteed that black lives matter,” Hollon said. “Someone of a black skin color has experiences in our society that too frequently that skin color makes a difference where they are ‘less than’ whites. To make it really clear, absolutely, black lives matter.”

Trinity Baptist Church Pastor Les Hollon Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

At San Fernando Cathedral on June 14, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller said the coronavirus pandemic, the faltering economy, and protests over the violations of civil and human rights have been overwhelming realities for people. 

“There is so much need to reform and change in order to build more equality and more understanding of peoples,” he said. “We are a multicultural country, so there are people of all kinds of backgrounds and roots. … We need to understand each other better. And though there has been growth on that, [there is] still a long way [to go].” 

Though Catholic leaders acknowledge the problem of racism, they don’t tend to speak as plainly about the issue as Kemp does in his sermons, noted James Ball, an associate professor of Catholic moral theology and Christian ethics at St. Mary’s University.

“People like priests have a responsibility to be more specific, so they can help educate the Catholics in the pew on what’s going on in the world and their Christian responsibility to respond to that,” Ball said.

“I think the message coming from priests and bishops can say a lot more – encouraging people to be involved in social movements, political protest, and be about the hard fight to fight racism in our society. The church on one level has very strong teachings against racism. But they have difficulty articulating specific things to Catholics at Mass, and that’s what they need to work on.”

Kemp said that though churches and other places of worship have typically been a refuge for the oppressed, the way that each place addresses racism varies.

“Some churches don’t talk about it as much,” he said. “You go to a predominantly Anglo church, you’re not going to hear much about it. That’s just the way it is. But if you go to a church that’s predominantly African American … you’re going to hear about these issues on a regular basis. Some other churches you’ll probably never hear it, or you’ll hear it in subdued ways.”

Protestors file in-between the pews of New Point Baptist Church. Photo by Scott Ball.
Protesters file between the pews of New Point Baptist Church following the death of Marquise Jones in 2016 during a town hall with the San Antonio Police Department. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Amid nationwide protests, more churches recognized they need to address police brutality and racism, Kemp said. And Ball noted churches in general seem to be more accepting of the Black Lives Matter movement as well.

“From what I’ve read, I think there is a trend among white Christians to be more supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement and more supportive of movements of anti-racism than in the past,” Ball said. “So I think there may be significant moves taking place among a number of Christian churches that may tip the balance in mainstream America, toward the need for fundamental change in society.”

Kemp said non-black friends have called him for guidance since Floyd’s death. He said that while he is happy to help, people have to make an effort to read and learn on their own.

“It is the responsibility of the enfranchised to figure out what they must do to treat, in an equitable and humane way, those people who have been disenfranchised,” Kemp said. “You gotta do your own work. … What are you going to do from here to make things better?”

In his sermon on Sunday, Kemp explained that Sarah refused to address Hagar by her name, which inspired his sermon theme of “Say Her Name.” Instead, Sarah called Hagar “maid” in the King James translation.

“I say to Sarah, with all due respect, and to America today, with all due respect: Say her name,” he said. “Say her name because she has an identity. … You had better call her name.”

He told his congregation the police had “no defensible reason” to enter Taylor’s apartment without knocking and then shoot her. He entreated listeners to say Taylor’s name. 

“She was not a nameless, inanimate object with no identity,” Kemp said. “She was not a de-identified target for your bullets. She was a living, breathing, beautiful black woman. You better call her name. Say her name, because she has identity. Say her name because she has value.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.