Alumni Profile


Handing out tickets to a new life

By Steve Tuttle       Photography by Forrest Croce

he 75 pupils at Union Independent School may come from Durham’s most blighted urban neighborhood but each morning they arrive eager to learn, and cute as buttons in their blue and yellow school uniforms. A tall man in a stylish suit often is there to greet them outside this new $10 million school, laughing and calling kids by name. He is the Rev. Ken Hammond, the man who transformed the church across the street into a ministerial powerhouse, then challenged it to build this academically rich private school and open it, tuition-free, to the most deserving kids from the neighborhood.

Welcoming kids to school in the morning, and overseeing youth programs offered by his church, is what Ken Hammond ’73 ’83 ’85 considers the most important part of his day job. In the dark of night he’s known to slip around Durham as part of his other youth ministry, one he’s uncomfortable talking about until he’s reminded that this work is what landed him on the front page of USA Today.

He meets cops, social workers and distraught parents who bring him teenagers, usually boys caught up in gangs whose lives are in imminent danger. As a local conductor on a modern day Underground Railroad, Hammond secretly relocates them to another state.

In the pulpit on Sunday morning and the street corner at midnight, Ken Hammond is the man with a ticket to a new life.
 Union Independent School
Ken Hammond and James H. Johnson Jr. in Union Independent School
Photo courtesy UNC Chapel Hill News Services

“I believe that it is our job to prepare the next generation of leaders and I believe that we have a responsibility to ensure that they have a moral and ethical compass.”

Rev. Ken Hammond

In the USA Today story, Hammond says he was pushed to this extreme measure after preaching the funerals of six kids in two years. He became connected with two other ministers in Durham and like-minded clergymen in Providence, R.I., Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Va., who work together to rescue boys as young as 13 from gangs. He has relocated kids to new homes as far away as Ohio, often reaching into a church discretionary fund to give them a few hundred dollars to make a clean start.

“Sometimes, there is just too much danger to keep them here,” he says with sad resignation. But he knows his congregation can save some, a conviction realized in the brick and steel of the 49,000-square-foot school across the street.

“I have given much focus to youth ministry for a number of reasons,” he muses. “First, youth today are confronted with many more severe challenges than youth of previous generations without the necessary support systems that used to be available. As a result, the church has had to give greater attention and resources to youth to ensure that they don’t become a ‘lost generation.’”

Opening the elementary school took a lot of prayer and so many fundraisers over the past eight years at the 5,100-member church that folks lost count. But it also required financial savvy, knowledge of real estate and an academic’s understanding of education policy. More than anything else, it required a skill Hammond most definitely has—leadership, the ability to articulate a vision and motivate followers to achieve that dream. He also had an extensive network of friends and professional contacts he could persuade to pitch in for a worthy cause.

Hammond knew people like James H. Johnson Jr., the William R. Kenan Jr. distinguished professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC Chapel Hill. Johnson, a member at Union Baptist, designed an operating model for the school that covers the typical elementary school course of study and extras such as nutrition education, character development, entrepreneurship, global awareness and economic literacy.

He knew people like Troy K. Weaver, a New Yorker who came to Duke University to become a pediatrician but instead became a teacher after volunteering in the local public schools and seeing the enormous needs. Weaver became Union Independent’s headmaster, bringing an academic résumé that includes experience as a teacher and administrator at the prestigious Cary Academy, Durham Nativity School and Triangle Day School. Weaver structured a school day that runs from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., with extra tutoring and enrichment programs. One of his goals is to have pupils bilingual by the eighth grade.

A servant leader

“I believe that it is our job to prepare the next generation of leaders and I believe that we have a responsibility to ensure that they have a moral and ethical compass,” Hammond says. Plus, he says with an easy smile, “working with youth keeps you young.”

Union Baptist, which has operated a large preschool for years, sponsors all the usual scouting and club programs, but you see its real focus in its other youth programs. One is JUMP, for Jesus Understands My Purpose, a mentoring program for girls 10-12, who later more into Sisters of Promise, a support group for girls 14-18. Reaching the Unreachables is a group of youth and adult leaders who venture into the worst parts of town to connect with troubled teens. ACE Tutoring provides academic enrichment and tutoring in reading, math and other core courses; ACE tutors help high school seniors prepare for the SAT and elementary kids for end-of-grade tests.

The full list of church ministries runs four pages and covers every age group. The Economic Ministry group offers classes in financial literacy. Parish Nursing supports health-related groups, runs blood drives and promotes careers in health care. The Food Service Ministry annually prepares and delivers thousands of meals. The Ministry of Congregational Care and Counseling provides licensed psychologists and social workers to counsel congregants experiencing a crisis. Often, the church takes care of the mind and body at the same time: During a symbolic “Walk to Jerusalem” at Easter, congregants logged 12,938 miles of contemplative exercise.

Hammond and his wife, Evelyn Patrick Hammond, an instructional technology teacher in Orange County schools who earned a master of art education degree at East Carolina in 1993, are so dedicated to the work of Union Baptist that there is a church ministry focused just on them. The Pastor’s Aide Ministry makes sure the Hammonds have the support and resources they need to do such a big job.

After 19 years leading 113-year-old Union Baptist into so many ministries, what is Hammond most proud of? That the membership has more than tripled? That the congregation met its commitment to open Union Independent School? Is it that the church budget has grown by more than $2 million, or that the church now is regarded as a major part of life, leadership and politics in Durham? No.

It’s that the church’s many youth programs have produced 17 young men and women who are following Hammond into the ministry and following his example by becoming servant leaders.

“I see my role as that of a servant attempting to model the kind on behaviors I’d like to see in our congregation. I am quite comfortable in empowering others but also recognize when I must step to the forefront. I consider a good leader as one who listens, is empathic, persuasive, builds community, and is caring.”

Hammond directs a full-time church staff of nine, plus 13 part-time employees. Managing such an enterprise really is a snap, he says, because everyone is focused on the same goal: saving the lost, healing the sick, and—above all—loving and supporting kids. “We’ve had two staff meetings in this millennium,” he says with a smile. That must be why his golf game remains in decent shape.

Ken HammondA pioneer in integration

The youngest of five children of a Baptist minister who pastured churches in Pitt, Martin and Washington counties for 42 years, Hammond enrolled at East Carolina because it was close to home. His four older brothers and sisters had left home for N.C. Central and N.C. A&T and were grown by the time he went to college. Living at home made it a little easier attending East Carolina then because the few African-American students enrolled at the time were experiencing stiff resistance as the school struggled, peacefully, to fully integrate. Actually, the environment then was a little worse than the record indicates, says Hammond, who turns 59 in July.

“When I enrolled in 1969, the school said there were 61 black students here but I knew every one of them and all I could count was 45,” he recalls. Early on, Hammond took a course from professor Albert Conley, the man who Hammond now says was, after his father, the most influential person in his life. The older, white professor took the young black student under his wing. “He was my mentor. He found out I enjoyed public speaking, and he went out and bought equipment for me to use to practice.”

Thoughtful and introspective, Hammond (at right, from the 1975 yearbook) was active in the SOULS student organization and was among a handful of black students who established the Eta Nu chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, ECU’s first black fraternity. He was the first African-American elected senior class president. He was the student public defender who represented student newspaper editor Bob Thonen ’77 when he was kicked out of school for publishing a letter to the editor critical of Leo Jenkins.

After completing his bachelor’s in history, Hammond was asked by Rudy Alexander, then the associate dean of student activities, to take a job leading student center activities. Hammond accepted and continued working on campus, either full- or part-time, until 1991. He began ministerial work in 1974, pastoring Mount Shiloh Baptist in Williamston and Cedar Grove Baptist in Greenville. For years he also was a part-time student, earning a master’s in education and a certificate in advanced study. To those ECU degrees he added a doctor of divinity from Shaw University, where he later taught.

Hammond became senior pastor at Union Baptist in 1992. Gospel Today magazine named him one of America’s Most Beloved Pastors in 2001. He was named an Outstanding Alumni of ECU in 2008. He’s a past president of the Shaw Theological Alumni Association and on the board of the Divinity School there. He is a director of the Greater Durham YMCA, Habitat for Humanity, the Durham County Hospital Corporation, New Vision Community Development and the Joyland Foundation. He serves on advisory boards for the Durham Scholars Program and the Durham Housing Authority. He is a director of Duke University Health System. For the past six years Hammond has led total immersion training programs for American pastors to partner them with local pastors in Guyana, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Italy.

He and his wife are the parents of a son, Brandon, who is sales manager for a Raleigh company, and a daughter, Kennetta Hammond Perry, who is an ECU history professor.

“I look back on my days at ECU as the catalyst for what I do here,” he says. But he can’t give much time to reflection. The new school across the street needs a $35 million endowment. And he might get a midnight call to meet a young man on a dark corner, to hand him a ticket to a new life.