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God’s Minstrel: Remembering Fran McKendree

Photo courtesy: Richard Schori [Consecration ceremony for Russell Kendrick]

Written and compiled by the Rev. Albert Kennington and Elizabeth Hunter Kennington

Fran McKendree, beloved singer and songwriter who led numerous youth gatherings, retreats, and conferences in our Diocese and throughout the Episcopal Church died June 10, 2021, in his home in Hendersonville, North Carolina, of cancer. A celebration of his life and ministry is planned for Saturday, September 11, 2021, at 2 p.m. at Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina.

When I heard him sing, I was hooked, pipe organ and hymnal man that I am. I had already been warmed by his smiling personality, and I was embraced by the gentle power of his music. After a couple of his songs, I thought, “This man is a genuine minstrel - a wandering musician with his stringed instrument and his story to tell in the songs he sang – a story of love and peace and justice. He sang the love of Jesus.

Trinity Church, Mobile, was host to a diocesan youth event in November, 2006. Fran McKendree came to lead it. As rector, my role was to welcome him and all of the teen agers and youth leaders from around the diocese who came for the weekend. I was there when he arrived and joined others in helping him unload his equipment and get it hooked up. All day long, youth leaders arranged chairs and tables and made registration arrangements and coordinated with local families who provided overnight hospitality. When his sound equipment was hooked up, Fran checked it out to make sure it was ready for the evening program. When he tuned his guitar, strummed it, and started singing. I was hooked.

Fran was minstrel to many beyond counting. His music will go on for long. For this remembrance of him, I welcome the loving thoughts of friends and neighbors, all with ties to our Diocese, who have shared their remembrances.

Avery Hall Beuerman lives in New Orleans. She grew up in All Saint’s Church, Mobile, and worked as director of youth ministries there. She also spent much time at Kanuga.

When you're young, you are so impressionable. Everyone you meet can change your life in some way. I was lucky growing up to have many of those people in my life, but as I look back, one person who made an incredible difference and impact on my life was our dear friend Fran McKendree. As a middle/highschool teen, I found Fran to be engaging, funny and his music touched my soul. Whether at Camp Beckwith for a Diocesan Youth Event, or seeing him in concert at a church or at Kanuga, his presence was captivating.
During some of the hard teen years, Fran was such a hero and role model who just understood the world so well and encouraged me to find my voice. As an adult, he continued to be a friend and inspired me to share light with those around me. Then, I just think of how kind and humble Fran was out of the "spotlight." I have such fond memories of drinking coffee, visiting, planning thematic programming and music, as well as just catching up on life. As our world became more divided and unsettling, he would speak and write so beautifully about our call as people of God!
Fran saw the world, the beauty and the hurt, and gave us all a way to feel like all good was not lost--and that love would always win. I absolutely believe Fran thought that as the "storms are passing over" and as we ask God to "Come by here My Lord" all will be well. My hope and the challenge to all of us, now that our brother in Christ has joined those gone before him, is that we carry on this legacy by making his voice and music more than just a memory—that we live our lives as Christ did, sharing in the hope of more justice, deeper faith and profound love for one another.

The Five O’Clock Musicians is a Birmingham band of professional musicians, doctors, lawyers, and business folks by day which provided music for the 5:00 pm Sunday service in the Cathedral Church of the Advent 2000-2014. The band played for Cursillo events and at Kanuga Conference Center. Band members unanimously agreed that they wanted their tribute to Fran to be only in the name of the band.

Fran was always there for us as a friend, a counselor, a worship leader, and an incredible musician. Without even trying, he had a knack for placing us at ease, focusing on the positive, and living in the moment—all for the glory of Jesus. We considered ourselves Fran’s “local” band in Birmingham, and we always welcomed his fellowship and any opportunity to back him musically for church services, Kanuga renewal conferences, and even his dear Mother’s funeral.
Fran produced our third album with a grace and skill uniquely his. What an uplifting experience it was! The music and message of that project placed his discipleship at the center, and we were all better for it. Saying that we miss Fran barely scratches the surface, for we have lost a brother far too early with much left to say and many roads left to travel. “A light I am to you who seek.”

Lyndy Donaldson lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She grew up in Trinity Church, Mobile, and was active in youth ministry there.

I remember Fran from Winterwoods and when he came to Trinity. He brought his kalimba to Trinity, which made an impression on me, and now I have one. His presence was easy and calming, his voice like liquid. I didn't know him as well as others, but the memories I have are sweet.

Raea Hicks lives in Pensacola. She was active in Camp Beckwith and in Winterwoods.

Seeing him play music was a formative experience during my teenage years. His lyrics were full of uplifting, fun-loving sound bytes. But what stuck with me from the time I heard it was the lyric, “‘Yes’ means yes and ‘No’ means no, however I dress, wherever I go.” As a teenager, I was surprised that a middle-aged man wrote that song and that we were singing it in the church fellowship hall (this was when he came to visit Christ Church, Pensacola, in the late nineties). He wanted us to sing along, and he made sure that we heard and understood. He really cared.

Lee Graham lives in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He grew up in St. Luke’s Church, Mobile, and served as youth minister at St. Paul’s Church, Daphne.

Fran McKendree was one of the most gentle and loving people I've ever known. Most of the time I spent with Fran was in the 90's and early 2000's, when Christian music concerts came with laser lights and fog machines. The message was bold and loud. Being the loudest one in the room was the only way to be heard, right? Fran was soft spoken, but his message was loud and clear. Fran was a voice for peace, justice, and equality. His music shared his faith with any and everyone who would listen. He had genuine care and compassion for everyone he met. Every memory I have with him is a happy one. Listening to his music always brings a smile to my face. I am so grateful for the time I spent with and around him. To me, Fran McKendree was and is love.

Elizabeth Hunter Kennington lives in Daphne, Alabama. She grew up in Trinity Church, Mobile, where she was a youth advisor. She worked with the youth commission of our Diocese and served as youth minister in St. Stephen’s Church, Brewton, and the Church of the Mediator, Meridian, Mississippi.

I met Fran in the late summer of 1996 at a conference at Kanuga for adults who work with youth. We became instant friends. Not long after, I received a call asking if I was interested in hosting him in concert that fall. This call came the day after my dad had been diagnosed with cancer. Preparing for Fran’s visit and the concert was the thing that led me through Dad’s diagnosis, surgery, and recovery. Fran became the light I needed.
Through the years there were more concerts, conferences, and youth events and countless other times when his words and music were the light I needed to guide me through whatever I was going through at the time. He could make me laugh with “Cat and Dog Diaries”, break my heart with “Maria Diaz”, wrap me in comfort with “The Velvet and the Steel” or drive me to rise in “Time Like These”. I was one of the lucky ones in a crowd of admirers that had the opportunity to call him my friend. Quiet times around a bonfire, dinner with friends, talks about life and the church and politics and all the things that connect us and make us human – these are the seasons for which I am forever grateful.
There are people in this world that simply make it a better place, and it’s difficult to accept that he is no longer here. But how blessed we are that his voice, his gentle spirit, and his one-of-a-kind love remains very much alive.

Hannah Kendrick Oakes lives in Birmingham. She grew up in St. Paul’s Church, Newman, Georgia, and St. Stephen’s Church, Birmingham. She served as youth minister in Christ Church, Tuscaloosa, and worked with Camp Sawyerville in the Diocese of Alabama.

I wanted to start this off with the story of how I met Fran McKendree…but when I thought about it I realized that I met him at such a young age that I don’t have a recollection of our meeting. Fran had always just been there. As a child I remember him singing at our church and making everyone laugh from his goofy songs about cats and dogs. As a teenager I remember him being a big part of my Camp McDowell and Sawyerville Day Camp experience. As a college student on my quest to become a music therapist I remember him cheering me on every time we ran into each other. As a young adult I remember singing with him at my dad’s consecration, and as a bride I remember him singing my husband and I through our wedding ceremony.
Fran has been a huge mentor of mine at every step in my life thus far. When I started to fall in love with music as a teenager, Fran’s constant invitation to play with him at every church/camp function truly gave me a gift of confidence to become a leader among my peers and to later pursue a career in music therapy. I cannot express how thankful I am for having had Fran McKendree as a mentor and friend throughout my life. I will cherish my memories with him forever!

The Reverend Anne Horne Bridgers lives in Arden, North Carolina, and is Interim Rector of St. Philip’s Church in Bernard, North Carolina. She served congregations in Florida, Pennsylvania, and California after beginning her ordained ministry in Trinity Church, Mobile.

Come, let us sing to the Lord;

let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation. (Psalm 95:1)

Of course, I was honored when asked to share a bit of my experience with Fran McKendree. I, among so many others, have been blessed time and time again by his ready smile and his remarkable ability to gather a gymnasium sized room full of people of all ages and have them sing, in unison no less, their own smiles filling the space as much as the music.
The smiles, his, theirs and my own reveal an earlier musician’s invitation: “Come, let us sing to the Lord.” And sing we did as Fran’s passion and infectious love for all God’s people created space safe enough for everyone to shout with joy to the Rock of our salvation.

The Right Reverend Russell Kendrick, Bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, enjoyed a long friendship with Fran.

As I read the reflections in this tribute, a symphony of memories sounded in my soul. And as I thought about the impact of Fran’s life on my own, a thought began to fill my heart. Fran gave us much. He gave us lyrics and poems that told us stories of the beauty and grace of God. He gave us tunes that moved us to laughter and tears. Fran was comfortable in his own skin, and he made us feel comfortable too. He made us so comfortable that even we stodgy Episcopalians would get up out of our pews and chairs in order to join Fran in a dance or sing a song with abandon.
Fran was always awake and aware to what was going on beyond the spotlight and stage. I recall at one concert a young boy not more than five began to walk towards Fran in the middle of a very poignant song. Fran stopped. While still quietly strumming his guitar, Fran knelt down, greeted the boy, and began to sing a different song. Suddenly, about 20 other children began to join in, and the entire room of some 100 people erupted in joy and delight.
Fran gave us friendship. He had this incredible knack to treat each and all as his best friend. Every person I know who knew Fran speaks of him not just as artist or performer but as friend. He had a way of being genuinely present to each person. He always had time to give to a heartfelt conversation.
So here is the thought that fills my heart. Jesus spoke much about the kingdom of God. He told us parables about that kingdom; he showed us miracles that pointed to that kingdom; and on Easter Jesus opened the way into that kingdom. One day Jesus said this, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. And Jesus took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” (Mark 10:15,16)
On another occasion Jesus gave us a prayer about the kingdom, “…thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” I believe that was Fran’s greatest gift to us. By way of his music, through the truth of his words, in the way he lived his life, Fran gave us a glimpse into the kingdom of God right now. He showed us what heaven looks like and sounds like, right here on earth. Fran helped the kingdom come.
I lament that the stage where Fran swayed and sang is empty. I lament the silence. But I am deeply grateful for the gift of friendship, and the glimpse of heaven that he so freely gave. Don’t you just know that he has the angels and archangels dancing in the clouds!

`O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servant Fran and all who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

-- adapted from The Book of Common Prayer, page 819


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