By Caleb Hennington
Digital Content Editor
Baker Kurrus has always been interested in helping others through leadership. As the lay leader of Asbury United Methodist Church in Little Rock, his main goal is to lead others in the congregation in what it means to be a servant of Jesus Christ and to keep the church together by building bridges between people.
His leadership prowess and heart for teaching are also what ultimately led him to serve 14 months as the superintendent of the Little Rock School District. Although the district has gone through a number of hardships in the past few years, many residents of Little Rock, including Kurrus, believe that all hope is not lost; there’s still time to fix the problems.
So, it came as no surprise to many who know Kurrus that he chose to run for the open position of Little Rock mayor in the November election. Little Rock’s current mayor, Mark Stodola, is stepping down after more than 10 years in the position, and a new crop of leaders from all walks of life have chosen to enter the race and offer up to the city what they think are the best plans for improving not only the education system but the livelihood of neighborhoods around the city as well.
Kurrus was gracious enough to allow the Arkansas United Methodist to sit down with him at his campaign headquarters for an interview covering not only his bid for the mayoral position but his journey with faith and what it means to be a United Methodist member, as well.
Editor’s Note: The Arkansas United Methodist: Living Our Faith — and by extension, the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church — does not endorse Baker Kurrus for mayor of the city of Little Rock. The magazine, as well as the Conference office, exists as an unbiased entity in the realm of local, state and national politics.
Caleb Hennington: So, from what I’ve read about you, you’re a lifelong Methodist. Can you tell me a little about that?
Baker Kurrus: Well, I didn’t really go to church much as a kid, so “lifelong Methodist” would be an exaggeration. I was baptized when I was 13 in a Methodist Church — First Methodist Church in Hot Springs — and since that time I’ve drifted in and out of the church. Until 1982. And then after I was married in 1982, I’ve been in a church almost every Sunday and it’s been very important to me. So, my real walk with Christ started, I think, in a really deliberate way maybe when I was in my teens. But since then, I’ve always been a Methodist. I’ve never been a member of anything other than a Methodist Church.
Hennington: What made you come back to attending full time?
Kurrus: I met a woman in Dallas, that I’m now married to, in late 1979. Her name is Ginny. And I remember one day we had been out on a Saturday, and I said “I would love to see you tomorrow” and she asked me to go to church with her. And I wanted to see her (laughs). I’m not saying I necessarily wanted to go to church but I wanted to see her. And so we went to the church that she was a member of. Even though she had only been in Dallas a matter of months, she had already joined a Presbyterian Church, which was her denomination growing up. And I thought that was interesting. Then I went to the service, and I enjoyed it. And I thought it was likewise interesting when they passed the plate around and she put a check in there. I mean, all of those things added up. I already knew it, but I knew right then and there that this is a much different woman than many people I’ve known as a young man. We married in ‘82, and long before we got married we discussed the fact that we wanted to have a church family. We wanted to raise our kids with a church home. And that we wanted our kids to grow up in a youth group at church, which was very influential in my wife’s life. And then, of course, I fell in love with it. It’s become a part of who I am.
Hennington: Did you ever consider going into ministry at any point or was that never the plan?
Kurrus: You know, I’ve given talks from the pulpit. I wouldn’t describe them as sermons. Some of them are on the web. If people wanted to hear me speak about things, they could go to our Asbury United Methodist Church website. But that was never my calling in that strict sense. But I have been called to serve. I think that’s different than being called to ministry. And then the other thing is that, you know, I wasn’t forced to do anything as a human being. I mean I never was. But on the other hand, I had some practical considerations that kept me from the ministry. I mean, I went to law school. I didn’t go on a trip for a year after I got out. I didn’t take a sabbatical after I went to college. I had to work. I had things I wanted to accomplish and things I wanted to do, and all of them required that I get busy and get to work. So, I never had that contemplative time. And I know many people who are ministers don’t. But I never heard that call.
Hennington: Right. Well, I know you are a lay leader in your church.
Kurrus: Yes, I am the lay leader at Asbury.
Hennington: How did that come about? And what do you do in that role?
Kurrus: Well, you know I love my church. And it’s a vital part of who I am and who my family has become; my church is my family. So, since I’ve been in the church I’ve held I guess about every position you can hold. And every committee you can be on. From back when we had administrative board chairs of large administrative boards to finance chairs to the chair of the Staff Parish Relations Committee. And lay leader. Lay leader is an interesting position. You’re called to sit as a member of certain committees and you’re also called as a person who knows the church and understands the church. I’ve been involved in decisions we’ve made as a church because I have a working knowledge of almost every person in our church. As a practical matter, what it (lay leader) has meant at our church is that I’ve been a facilitator; a servant who has helped with everything from personnel decisions to interfacing with trustees to working with music programs. Everything is done to try to build bridges in the church to keep us all together. That’s what lay leaders do.
Hennington: Regarding your candidacy for Little Rock mayor, how do you see your experience as a lay leader translate into your experience you could bring to the mayor position?
Kurrus: I’m heavily influenced by the best executive I’ve ever heard of or met; his name is Jesus Christ, a servant leader. And if you look at his life on Earth and his ministry, it was founded on a very serious form of servant leadership — a very humble form of servant leadership — where he never was judgmental. Well, I shouldn’t say he never was judgmental; that’s not quite true. He turned over a few tables when he felt like he needed to do that. But by and large, he was kind, understanding and forgiving. Willing to undertake any task. He wanted to serve others rather than himself and felt a call to sacrificial service when that was necessary. And I think that’s really the model that suits me best. Because, whatever you do, it has to come naturally to some extent. And I want to serve the city for the same reasons. I love this town. That doesn’t qualify me uniquely to be the mayor. But I think it’s an essential qualification. And I’ve got a lot of experience in a leadership model that’s worked in the past.
Hennington: I know from reading on your website you are a part of a prison band. Can you tell me a little bit about how that works and how you get involved in it?
Kurrus: Yeah, that’s been one of the great blessings of my life. That happened back when traditional church services were transitioning in some areas to what we called “blue jeans” service; what’s now become known as contemporary worship. I was asked to play the guitar in one of those services at our church really early on when this type of service was just becoming something that was reaching new people. And I said “yes!” So. I stood up in front of the church and played a guitar song. I remember it was a John Denver song. I played a little harmonica at some point in it and after that, a guy came up to me named Ray Phillips, and he said “Look I play guitar in the same style that you do. Maybe next time we can play together.” So, Ray and I got together and before long we had a whole band. We brought in other people into this band and began to play at the contemporary service in our church, and it was so much fun. But, actually, I was called in a different direction because at that point there were lots and lots of people who wanted to play in these contemporary worship bands and we had lots of musical talent in our church. And a friend of ours named Joe Wilkerson, who is a Methodist minister, was involved in a prison ministry. And he and some other guys in the band decided that maybe we ought to go to prison and play. Well, then it was really clear that if we went with Joe once a month people would come to the service. And so we sat around one night and talked and said if we can do this, and if we could bring one single person to Jesus Christ who otherwise wouldn’t have come, would it be worth it? The answer was a resounding “yes.” Seriously, if you could just bring one single person to Christ, it would be worth it. And so we said, “yes, let’s do this!” So, we’ve been doing it ever since. Since 2002. And it is great fun and very rewarding. And you do see people who come to Christ through this ministry. I think we’re called by Matthew 25 to visit those in prison, to visit the sick and feed the hungry. I think if we — and I certainly don’t do all I could — but if we could live by some of those wise admonitions, we would all be better off.
Hennington: I’m sure you’re aware right now that the United Methodist Church is going through a lot of debate over A Way Forward. Are you familiar with what that is?
Kurrus: I am.
Hennington: So, at General Conference in February the delegates are going to vote on three different plans that could rewrite portions of the Book of Discipline: the traditionalist plan, the one church plan, and the connectional plan. I’m not going to ask you what your thoughts are on these plans, but what kind of advice would you have toward the people that are going to be voting? What do you think they need to consider before they have to make such an important vote in February?
Kurrus: Well, you can ask me whatever you want to ask me because I think a lot of good people have spent a great deal of time in these deliberations, and they’re sincere in their views and I understand that. But I wouldn’t approach it in the same way. I think this idea of “we’re going to vote” is divisive, and that’s not what Christ called us to be. So, this is not my original idea, this is really my wife’s idea; she gets the credit. She asked what if we took a vote and we said “we’re going to vote on whether we’re going to love one another” and just simply asked, “will we love one another?” And if the answer to that is “yes,” then let’s go back to work. There’s so much work to be done, and there’s so little time for long meetings. And I’m not going to judge anybody. I’ve got gay friends that I love. And God made them just like he made me. But the main thing is we’re not called to be judgmental, and we’re not called to be divided. We are United Methodists. And now we’re going to say “but we’re not going to be united, we’re going to divide ourselves along these lines” in order to satisfy some need that we must have. And people sincerely have it. I just don’t understand it. I think if the vote were simply, “Shall we love one another and love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul and love our neighbor as ourselves?” I would vote “yes.” That’s the only vote I want to take.
Hennington: So, you would say your advice for those that are having to make that decision is just to consider what’s in their heart?
Kurrus: Well, I guess the answer is yes. I love everybody in my church, and I guess there are diverse views in our own church, but I’m not going to dwell on that. I’m not going to sit around and wonder what we’re called to be or what we’re called to do or judge anyone else based on who they love and how they love. I’m just glad people love one another. I think if we’re compassionate, and focus on the things that are common in humanity, wouldn’t we be better off? I still don’t understand why we have to vote to divide ourselves. I don’t understand that. And I know I’ve read what I can about it, but I’m not going to spend my life dividing a marvelous church. I think I would prefer if the people in that building locked their arms and said “We’re going to vote to love one another,” and then let the people in the churches work it all out. And that’s essentially what a lot of this is about: leaving it to local churches, which is a great idea, but I think it’s overly formalistic and I think it ignores some basic teachings of Christianity that I’m never going to give up on. I’ll never be satisfied if we have a divided Methodist Church which calls itself united. That’s simply a contradiction in terms that are not satisfactory to me, but I’m not judging anybody that wants to do that. I’ve got to be true to that principle as well.
Hennington: Well, let’s move away from Methodist politics and get into normal politics. So, you’ve had a lot of experience in the Little Rock School Board. That’s kind of one of your main issues that you’ve been campaigning on. You were a superintendent of schools for the Little Rock School District. Your kids all attended public schools. I believe you and your wife also attended public schools.
Kurrus: Yes, I did until I went to law school. I went to a private school.
Hennington: Right now, a big issue with the city of Little Rock is whether to maintain control over the school district or return it to local control. As mayor, what would be your plan for fixing some of those problems with the Little Rock School District?
Kurrus: First and foremost, I believe in local control, as you know. I was elected three times to the school board. So, that meant a lot to me. And we did a lot of hard work in our school board, and local representation was important. So, I believe in that, for certain, and the sooner we get that back the better. We’ve got big decisions coming up right now that need to be made by the community, not by the people who really aren’t represented fully in the community. I think the notion that somehow schools can be fixed and then neighborhoods get better or dramatically change is rooted in fact; that is true. You want quality education everywhere and nice buildings that are well-constructed and well-maintained. But the key to successful schools is having successful communities. Most people think of schools as leading indicators of community health; meaning to say we’re going to build a new school and it will improve the neighborhood. It certainly won’t hurt the neighborhood, but the best way to improve a school is to fix that neighborhood and have stable families. Have kids who aren’t moving all the time. One of the biggest impediments to real academic gain is mobility. If you have a student who has an unstable home life — if that kid goes from one school to another and then to another all in a matter of one school year — the interventions in the dedicated efforts of these marvelous people that educate our kids are largely ineffective. And so if you want to fix schools, then think about fixing neighborhoods. That doesn’t mean they are full of upper-income people; that’s not the point. You have to ask, “How can we build stability into our local economy and give people an opportunity to have a safe environment in which to live and work and thereby raise children in that stable environment?” That will translate into higher school performance. A mayor can impact those things. And that’s what I’ll do.
Hennington: Speaking on revitalizing some of those neighborhoods, a big debate is south of I-630 and how to revitalize that part of town. What can be done to bring people into that part of town that want to stay and raise their families and go to the schools there? What are some of your ideas for improving areas like that? Not just 630 but there’s, you know, scattered areas throughout Little Rock that need help.
Kurrus: I’ve written a lengthy piece on neighborhood revitalization which focuses on that area. And, although you’re right that people talk a lot about that, I’m the first person in this race — and maybe the only one — who’s been there and talked to the people who live there and really focused on revitalization. For years, people have complained about it and talked a lot about it, but nobody’s done anything. In the meantime, things have gotten dramatically worse in that part of town. It’s easy to blame that interstate highway, but it’s there and it’s there to stay. It’s ridiculous now to sit back and talk at length about what we can’t do and how bad things are. I want to go positive and figure out how to revitalize neighborhoods in that part of town. I’ve talked to people who are literally doing that. They are taking older homes that have great potential and revitalizing those homes and either renting them or selling them. And that has happened a lot. And so rather than me thinking in terms of what I would do, I’ve talked to the people who know how to do it and I want to empower them and support them and collaborate with them and focus with them on how to make neighborhoods function in a much better way. And it’s doable. It won’t happen overnight, but you can change neighborhoods when you focus on connectivity and you focus on neighbor-to-neighbor interaction. There are so many wonderful people who live south of 630 who must be outraged — and I’ve talked to many who are — when they hear their neighborhood maligned over and over again. And these are people who’ve lived in that area for 50 years who take great care of what they own.
Hennington: And they have great pride in their neighborhoods.
Kurrus: They do. They take pride in their neighborhoods. I’ve talked to these people. Riding this bicycle is not some kind of a publicity stunt. It’s the same thing that community police officers do. If you want to get acquainted with people, don’t windshield this thing. Don’t drive by in your SUV. Either walk or bicycle. Get out and talk. Put your boots on the ground where the issues are and meet the people who are there who have great ideas about how to make things better. And that’s what I’ve been doing and that’s what I’ll continue to do as mayor. I won’t be a mayor that sits in a corner office eatin’ a box lunch. I’m not into that. I’ll do some of that, you have to. But primarily I will be on my feet: collaborating, communicating and facilitating, because the mayor can’t be Mr. Fix-It. They can’t be the Wizard of Oz. But you can be a person who shows that you care, shows that you know, and then shows that you’re willing to take bold action with a bias toward action. Don’t just talk about it; let’s do something. And that’s what we can do south of 630. Think of it in terms of a quilt that’s got some tears in it, but it’s got some wonderful pieces as well. Well, you find a solid ground and you build from there. You intentionally look at the number of lots that are vacant and how to motivate people to build there. You incentivize that. And then you begin to get a sense of a place where young people, like you, who would say “this is a neat area.” It’s got big trees and wonderful parks. There are all sorts of pocket parks scattered about and it has easy access to downtown and to SoMa. It’s hip. It’s happening. We can do this. But it takes vision and leadership and hard work, and that’s where I’m going to try to plug in.
Hennington: Let’s talk about your bike riding since you brought it up and you said that it’s not just a publicity stunt. What have you learned from going on your bike rides? What have you observed?
Kurrus: This morning, for example, I observed a heavy mist and I got really wet (laughs). But that’s my quiet time. Even riding downtown. But I’ll give you an example. Yesterday morning, I was on my bicycle before the sun rose. I saw the sun come up on the banks of the Little Maumelle River. I was looking East over Two Rivers Park. I watched geese fly in. Deer wandering all over the place. And I counted my blessings. And I think that’s important to do. It’s important for people in leadership positions to have that kind of quiet time. To just stop. Be still and listen. And I do a lot of that on a bicycle. You know, I don’t get down on my knees as some people do, but when I pray I want to be in a quiet place with quiet time. But that’s why I ride my bike.
Hennington: Lastly, let’s just say come November you are not the winner of the mayoral race. You know, maybe Frank Scott Jr., Warwick Sabin, Vincent Tolliver or Glen Schwartz is the winner. What kind of advice would you give to the winner if you happen to not win it? And what is your hope for the future of Little Rock under someone else’s leadership?
Kurrus: Well, I don’t know how to answer that. So, if you’re asking me what I would say to anyone who is the mayor, then I’ll say the same thing I’ve told those other men; I’ll support whoever the mayor is. I mean, that doesn’t mean I’ll support everything they do. But I wish them well and want to contribute any way I can to the health and success of our city whether I’m the mayor or whether I’m not. I’ve been doing that for 40 years. Nothing’s going to change. This is my home. This is where I’ve raised my family. All three of my kids were baptized at Asbury United Methodist Church. My two daughters were married there. I’ve got grandkids now. I love this town, and I’ll support whoever the mayor is just like I did at the school district with superintendents that got elected over my “no” vote. I was in that superintendent’s office at 8:30 a.m. the very next day, and we had a candid conversation about my feelings but then I said to that person “I will support you. You are the superintendent and I want to work with you and I will be as helpful to use I can for the best interest of these students that we are called to serve.” I’ll do the same thing for the city. I always will.