VOL. 131 | NO. 126 | Friday, June 24, 2016
The Tipping Point
Born in the Projects, Norman Fights for Social Justice
JOHN KLYCE MINERVINI | Special to The Daily News
Keith Norman makes a habit of rising before the sun – and no wonder. As vice president of government affairs at Baptist Memorial Health Care and president of the Memphis branch of the NAACP, he’s got a lot on his plate. But if you want to see him in his element, stop by First Baptist Church on Broad, Sunday morning at 7:45 a.m.
“When fear comes around you, when intimidation comes to grip at your heart, you know what you’re gonna say?” Norman booms, as an electric pipe organ trills in the background. “You’re gonna say, ‘Not today, fear, because I’ve got a record with my God.’”
In the pews, the people lift their hands and shout, “Amen.” In addition to his other roles, Norman is the senior pastor at First Baptist; today he’s preaching a sermon called “Overcoming the Fear Factor.”
It’s a lesson he has earned the right to teach.
“I saw a lot of death when I was a kid,” remembers Norman, who grew up in a South Memphis public housing project. “I lost two brothers to homicide. I lost several close friends as well.”
“Growing up as a black man in Memphis in the 1970s and ’80s, there wasn’t a whole lot of hope,” he reflects. “There wasn’t the same level of black leadership – black politicians and entrepreneurs – that you see today.”
Over the years, Norman has found hope through a combination of hard work and dedicated service. Buoyed by his Christian faith and a pair of loving grandparents, he began working to support his family at the age of 13. He worked his way through Carver High School and Morehouse College before taking up a career in hotel management.
“At the age of 20, I was being exposed to multimillion-dollar balance sheets,” he recalls. “I didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out to be crucial training for my future work.”
A lifelong Baptist, Norman got the call to ministry at age 30. A few years later, he was named senior pastor of First Baptist on Broad. At the time, it was a crumbling institution with 75 regular members. Today, it is a thriving community of 4,500 that has anchored the rebirth of Binghampton neighborhood. During his 16-year tenure, Norman hasn’t just increased membership by a factor of 60; he has also raised $8.7 million to plan and execute a five-phase expansion, including a new athletic center and a sanctuary.
To explain these successes, Norman credits an outreach strategy that he calls “intentionally urban.” For example, First Baptist offers affordable summer camps so that young parents will have a safe place to drop their kids when they go to work. The church leads workshops for those who have had contact with the criminal justice system, the focus of which is healing and the restoration of legal rights.
Every Sunday, Norman leads an altar call for young black men, urging them to forsake gang membership and find honest work with the help of the church.
“You act tough during the day, you act like you don’t care,” Norman intones as the choir sings behind him. “But you do care. You come at night, and you say, ‘Dear God, please take me out of it. Please make me free.’”
At Baptist Memorial Health Care, Norman maintains working relationships with every level of government. He is also tasked with explaining public health issues to medical professionals, the media and Memphians at large. The day we spoke, he was on his way to a meeting of the Shelby County Commission; he hoped to work with commissioners to figure out how not to cut public benefits.
“I have a wonderful opportunity to help policymakers understand how their decisions will affect the poorest person in the community,” Norman explains. “They’re thinking, ‘This will save the government money.’ What they don’t know is, it will cost old Ms. Jones $150 per month, and she can’t afford it.”
Norman says Baptist’s work with the under-resourced jives well with his commitment to social justice. As an example, he cites Operation Outreach, a mobile clinic that provides medical care to more than 3,500 individuals experiencing homelessness each year. Baptist also established a clinic at the Office of Re-Entry, which supports Memphians who are re-entering society after being incarcerated. Many experience health problems, and they are almost universally uninsured.
“Health care should be delivered with discretion and dignity,” Norman asserts. “Baptist doesn’t wave a flag about it; we just do the work.”
Back at church, Norman has reached the climax of his sermon. By varying his volume and cadence, he has brought his congregation to rapt attention.
It’s all the more impressive when you consider how he spent the previous night. At 10:48 p.m., he got a call from the Memphis Police Department informing him that Officer Verdell Smith had been struck by a car and killed. (In addition to his other roles, Norman is the unofficial chaplain of the MPD, work for which he is not paid.) He joined Smith’s family at Regional One Hospital and stayed with them until 3:00 a.m. – and somehow still managed to preach the 7:45 a.m. service at church.
“Let’s coexist,” he urges, banging on the pulpit. “Let’s bring all people to the table as they see themselves in the eyes of the creator. People are valuable. They are worth honoring and worth keeping. It’s not our job to say whether they belong. They belong.”
Keith Norman is a graduate of New Memphis’s Leadership Development Intensive. Learn more at newmemphis.org.