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On a sunny afternoon in the early summer of 1946, a red-headed 5-year-old played with his brothers and sister in the yard of a big white farm house, high on a hill in the mountains of east Tennessee. While their mother worked inside, cleaning and ironing for the farm owner’s wife, the children were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, American GI’s storming the beach at Normandy, and sometimes even both at once.

Photo by John Gardiner

 Bishop Kenneth L. Carder in the classroom at Duke.

But that day the farm owner—who provided a two-room house and a share of the crops in exchange for their family’s
labor—staggered around the corner of the house, drunk again.

The 5-year-old froze, face flushing scarlet as he remembered being caught that morning on the roof of a farm shed. “Get
down from there, you little red-headed brat!” the man had yelled.

Now, lurching into the yard, the man stopped, his eyes zeroing in on the boy and widening in recognition.

“You’re the one who was on top of my building,” he sputtered. “I’ll teach you to respect me and my property.” The man
grabbed and carried him to the corner of the house, where a rain barrel stood, near overflowing.

“I’m going to drown you!” he said. Hearing the children’s cries, their mama and the man’s wife raced outside into the yard
and saw the boy suspended by his ankles in mid-air. Terrified, mouth open, he was unable to make a sound.

Sixty years later, the red is gone as is most of the hair, but Kenneth L. Carder remembers that moment as if it just happened.

Like Augustine’s tale of the stolen pears, it’s a story from his youth, the first of two stories, actually, that were pivotal moments in his spiritual journey. As the one from Hippo could have told you, bishops can grow from the rockiest of soil.

“I tell that story because the only other place I felt that same sense of terror was in church,” says Carder, whose earliest years were spent attending a fundamentalist, “hell fire and damnation,” independent Baptist church. “That’s what we were told every week—that the end of the world would happen any second, and that God held you sus-pended over the abyss, like I was held over that rain bar-rel, and would destroy you at any moment.”

Although the drunken farm owner, after a brief standoff with his wife, released the boy unharmed, it was another five years before Carder escaped his fundamentalist church. After his family moved into a small house in a nearby community, Carder, then 10, persuaded his parents to let him go to the nearby Methodist church. That first Sunday, he walked alone to the church and was directed to the big room where children’s Sunday School met.

He knew the teacher, Mrs. Mahoney, by reputation. She had a disabled child, a daughter with mental retarda-tion who lived at home and was rarely seen. He walked slowly to the door, not knowing what to expect.

“Well, we got us a visitor today,” Mrs. Mahoney said. “Come on in.” And then she hugged him. It was some-thing he had never experienced before in church.

Her lesson that day was the parable of the good shep-herd who goes out in search of the one lost sheep. As she taught, she occasionally pointed on the wall to a faded lithograph of the good shepherd with a lamb draped around his shoulders. “Now he’s picked that lamb up, and he’s going to carry it back and put it in the fold with the rest of the sheep,” Mrs. Mahoney explained.

“My parents and grandparents loved me greatly,” Carder says. “But until then I had never made the connection that God was like family. To me, God was like that landlord who held me over the barrel. For the first time, I saw that God is the one who loves, welcomes and seeks to protect, rather than the one who is out to destroy and punish. That morning, I was the lost lamb and Mrs. Mahoney became the Good Shepherd. I didn’t miss a Sunday after that.”

Ever since, Carder has worked for the God he met that first Sunday with Mrs. Mahoney, and against the other. 

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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Winter 2004 Volume 3 Number 2 Duke Divinity School