BALTIMORE – The Rev. Calvin Keene saw a problem.
The 55-year-old pastor of Memorial Baptist Church noticed that liquor stores were all too common in his neighborhood, Oliver.
He saw that all too often, those liquor stores, or “cut-rates,” attracted crime almost magnetically to the street corners that they inhabited. He saw that while there were multiple cut-rate establishments in Oliver, there wasn’t a single grocery store.
So, he and fellow ministers and community leaders from Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development bought a liquor store and its liquor license. And they tore the license up.
Dealing with a liquor store isn’t something a lot of ministers would include in their duties. But Keene believes his work takes him from the pulpit into the neighborhood he’s lived in for most of his life.
Keene grew up in Oliver and graduated from the University of Maryland. He got a good job in the computer field. He moved out of Baltimore and drives a Mercedes-Benz.
Yet here he is, working as a pastor in the same church he went to as a child in Oliver.
It isn’t exactly a bustling neighborhood. Vacant houses mar every single street. Unemployment is rife and the drug trade has been here for decades.
In some ways, it’s no surprise that Keene came back. He was raised to care about Oliver.
His mother, Rose Keene, instilled in him a sense of duty to his neighborhood through her membership in Oliver Community Association, where she served as president for close to 20 years.
She also served as the secretary of the East Side Democratic Organization, where many of the city’s prominent politicians got their starts, people including Clarence H. Du Burns, Baltimore’s first black mayor; State Sens. Bob Douglass and Nathaniel McFadden and Delegate Hattie Harrison.
Rose Keene worked to bring a senior center and housing for seniors to the neighborhood, her son says. “That’s where I got my inspiration to be involved in the community, because she taught all of us the responsibility to give back.”
She took this active role in Oliver while raising seven children as a single mother and working for the Social Security Administration for 22 years.
Her neighborhood work gave the family a measure of recognition.
“Everyone knew everyone,” Keene said. “There wasn’t a place where people didn’t know my mother or my siblings and who I was.”
Keene was born in Oliver in 1954, the youngest of seven children. His father died when he was a toddler. He attended a segregated elementary school housed in portable buildings.
He said he believes he was fortunate to have been born during the civil-rights movement. He took full advantage of the new opportunities available for blacks by attending high school at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, one of the most competitive public schools in Baltimore.
He would go on to attend the University of Maryland, College Park, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in psychology in 1978. He intended to become a psychiatrist.
But an interest in computers steered him toward Unisys Corp. in Columbia and right after he college he started working as a program analyst there. He moved to Glen Burnie.
He didn’t leave the community behind. He became a lay minister at Memorial Baptist, working with youth on the weekends.
It was something that he could easily juggle with his job, until his work schedule grew as he moved up the ranks.
After five years, Keene was promoted and became a customer service manager, a position that required him to travel in a territory spanning from Harrisburg, Pa., to Roanoke, Va., delivering programming and software installation services.
His duties at church were also growing. He began ministering to men in addition to youth, setting up peer networks for young men, young married men and young fathers.
In 1993, Keene became pastor of Memorial Baptist Church, and couldn’t balance his job, where he spent 60 to 70 hours a week, with pastoral duties.
He had to choose between a six-figure salary and being a pastor in the neighborhood he grew up in. It didn’t require a lot of thought.
“My desire to work with people made it pretty easy choice for what I thought was going to be more fulfilling as a person,” Keene said.
After taking time to work out his finances, Keene quit his job at Unisys in 1996 and took on full-time pastoral duties.
He earned a master’s degree from United Baptist College and Seminary in Baltimore in 1998. In 2000, he earned his doctorate in divinity from Eastern Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Va.
His ministry took him outside the church. Keene was one of six Oliver ministers who together raised $1.25 million from weekly church collections — which they combined with government funds and grants from non-profits — to buy up vacant houses and replace them with new homes.
Rob English, a community organizer for BUILD since 1997 knew from his first impression of Keene that he was capable of such a task.
“I immediately had a sense that this was a pastor, this was a leader, this was a man that had a deep love for his neighborhood and had the vision and the talent to really make (Oliver’s redevelopment) happen,” English said.
Today, Keene lives in Gwynn Oak with his wife, Vanessa, and two children: a son, James, 21, and a daughter, Jasmine, 20. Despite living outside of the neighborhood, Keene’ reputation and ties to the neighborhood have many convinced that he has the community’s interests in mind.
“Some people talk about community work as grassroots,” English said. “To call Rev. Keene a grassroots person is really an insult because grass has shallow roots and Rev. Keene has deep roots.”