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HEARTS OF THE CITY

Man On a Mission

Religion: From skid row to remote villages, Jack Kerr dispenses love and hope wherever he goes.

November 27, 1996|K. CONNIE KANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On that best portion of a good man's life,

His little, nameless, unremembered acts

Of kindness and love.

--William Wordsworth, "Tintern Abbey"

Retired USC public administration professor Jack Kerr is a big man with a saintly heart.

A mechanical engineer by training, but a preacher by avocation, he dispenses love and hope wherever he goes.

Zipping in and out of Los Angeles traffic in his '88 Plymouth Horizon, Kerr, 74, delivers food to the poor, visits the sick and tutors students in subjects ranging from California history to communications law. A tennis player who twice led USC to Pacific Coast Conference championships, he'll even throw in service and ground stroke lessons for good measure.

"Jack Kerr is a man for all seasons and for all the right reasons," said U.S. Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie, former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood where Kerr is chairman of the board. "He is equally at ease with people at his tennis club or with a troubled youth off the street and every kind of person in between."

Although his doctorate is in public administration, not theology, Kerr has delivered more sermons than most ministers do in a lifetime.

One favorite venue is the Union Rescue Mission on skid row, where for 35 years he has reached out to broken people.

"It doesn't matter what you've done," Kerr tells a bedraggled audience. "Today could be a wonderful new start for you."

From the streets of Los Angeles to villages in Ecuador and Malawi, Kerr has served with dignity and humility.

In Malawi last June, he weighed babies, took blood pressure, gave vitamins to patients, repaired plumbing and helped provide electricity to hospitals.

"He is truly a saint," said Howell Tumlin, an administrator for missionary hospitals who traveled to the East African nation with Kerr.

When Kerr encounters someone with a problem, the "gentle giant," as one student describes him, wraps his big arms around the person and says, "Let's pray about it now," seeking divine intervention--even if they are at a busy Hollywood intersection.

His prescription of love and prayer apparently works wonders.

One Sunday morning not long ago, a young man with a rigid face walked into Kerr's Bible class. The visitor resisted outreach of everyone there, but for some reason, kept coming back.

*

Then, on a subsequent Sunday, the visitor approached Kerr, who was wearing a new blue corduroy coat his wife had given him, and said: "I'd do anything to have a jacket like that."

"Here," Kerr said, removing the jacket and handing it to him.

Flabbergasted, the man accepted the coat and walked away.

In the weeks that followed, class members say they witnessed a "miracle." The young man was opening himself not only to Kerr but to them as well.

"Jack's love did it," said Trudy Dumont, a class member who experienced a transformation of her own after she met Kerr.

It was the winter of 1993 and Dumont, who had left her job producing sitcoms, was depressed.

"I was in the pits when I walked into Jack's class," said Dumont, 37, a Fuller Theological Seminary student.

Within weeks, Kerr had persuaded Dumont, who quit college 10 years earlier, to go back to school.

But just when she was getting used to studying again, she became ill. The Kerrs took Dumont into their Downey home, and nursed her for a month. Kerr, meanwhile, tutored her by her bedside.

In May, Dumont graduated from Syracuse University and Jack and Anna Kerr were there to rejoice with her.

"I came to Sunday school and found a coach," she said. "Jack has done this for so many people."

Kerr, who grew up in Long Beach and Hollywood, became a volunteer missionary after witnessing Dr. Donald Dilworth treat Indians in remote villages of Ecuador in 1956. When Kerr returned to Los Angeles, he and his wife visited a hundred churches and showed pictures of Dilworth at work.

Although the Kerrs never asked for money, people sent checks--enough to build a 20-bed hospital in the Ecuadorean town of Colta.

Soon afterward, Kerr began ministering to prison inmates and skid row denizens.

Over the summer, Kerr went on an "electrical crusade" with other volunteers to wire Presbyterian hospitals in Embangweni and Livingstonia.

*

Milton Brock, a friend of 30 years, tried to dissuade him. "I was concerned," said Brock, 81. "When you get older, your immunity isn't what it used to be."

Kerr completed the mission and returned home with good memories and painful rashes.

With legs covered in ointment, Kerr resumed his full-time schedule of "sweet little missions," as actress Stephanie Edwards put it. A prodigious poet, he even managed to write a 115-page Embangweni Journal in verse.

Now that the rashes are gone, the irrepressible professor has added yet another course to his teaching.

A secretary at Hollywood Presbyterian has a gentleman friend who loves ballroom dancing. And so Kerr is providing her lessons during her lunch hour.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Beat

Today's centerpiece focuses on the Union Rescue Mission, a Christian organization that for more than a century has served the destitute in Los Angeles. For more information about its programs, call (213) 347-6300.

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