On Nov. 12, Glen Kehrein, executive director and founder of Circle Urban Ministries, succumbed to the ravages of colon cancer after a year-long battle. He was 63 years old.
Kehrein leaves behind his wife Lonni, three living children, Tara-Dawn, Chelsey, Cy, as well as two grandchildren, Sean-David and Jessica. Kehrein’s son Nathan died in 2010.
Kehrein greatly impacted the lives of an incalculable number of West Side residents with his commitment to community outreach and social justice.
He was born and raised on a farm in Wisconsin, where his exposure to people of color was largely nonexistent.
Perhaps inspired by his deep Christian family, Kehrein attended Moody Bible Institute. The school would play a key role in exposing him to some of the more troubling elements of racial unrest in the 1960s. As part of the mentoring program at the institute, he worked with children from some of the inner cities throughout Chicago and was deeply disheartened by the level of social inequality that he’d never seen in Wisconsin.
According to Kehrein in the 1993 Gold Medallion Award winning book titled: Breaking Down Walls, a Model of Reconciliation in an Age of Racial Strife, which he co-authored, Kehrein felt that he needed to become involved in the problem of discrimination, he argued: “Either my faith made sense and would help me live out a faith-driven ethic that dealt with things like injustice and poverty and racism, or it was … just a joke. I cried out, ‘O God, what do I do?'”
Shortly after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the race based riot that followed, Kehrein realized exactly what he was going to do.
“[The assassination of Dr. King] was certainly the most life changing event for Glen,” said Lonni, his wife of 41 years. “It occurred at a time when he was still grappling with these two distinct worlds: The world of his childhood where there was no exposure to the realities of racial injustice and the world of his African-American friends and associates in Chicago, which had experienced segregation.”
Shortly thereafter, Kehrein attended Wheaton College where he received his BA in Sociology.
In 1972, he and his wife moved to the Austin community.
Kehrein founded the faith-based organization Circle Community Center in 1974. The center began with a three-pronged approach by opening a youth mentoring center, family counseling services and medical clinic.
Shirley Jackson, who worked with Kehrein since 1989, and is currently executive director of Circle Urban Ministries, says that he had a deep understanding for the plight of people of color.
“His heart really beat for racial reconciliation. He didn’t just talk about it he lived it,” Jackson said. “When a lot of white families were becoming concerned about the changing racial make-up of Austin and chose to leave, Glen and his family remained in Austin. I think he sensed that the more we flee from one another, the less likely it was that we could have that conversation that will finally put an end to racial injustice in the country.”
In 1984, the center moved to its current location at 118 N. Central and changed its name to the Circle Urban Ministries. Since that point the organization has been behind many important initiatives, including opening a new school Ð Circle Rock Preparatory School, which later became Circle Rock Charter School through Catalyst Schools Ð worked with ShoreBank to help rehab properties in Austin for affordable housing and started LIFT performing arts program which inspires youth to explore their aptitude for the arts.
Lonni says that one goal left unfulfilled by Glen prior to his passing was to see a performing arts center built in Austin.
“This was a goal of his over the last several decades of his life,” she said. “We are very much working to see that his dream is fulfilled.”
According to Jackson, there has been no official announcement about who will be Kehrein’s successor at Circle and it is unlikely that the Board of Directors will make such a decision until May at the earliest.