The year was 1996 and the Rev. David Kennedy was a 43-year-old preacher with a voice he didn’t mind using if he thought something was wrong.
So when The Redneck Shop opened in downtown Laurens, he did just that: He let people know he objected and he drew the ire of the man who owned the shop.
That man — John Howard — had given the deed to a man named Michael Burden. Burden wanted to leave the Ku Klux Klan at his wife’s urging — it was either her or the Klan.
So Burden made a choice — his wife and two small children — and that didn’t sit very well with Howard. So he kicked him out of the basement of The Redneck Shop.
Enter Kennedy and a fateful day when his and Burden’s paths crossed in a way that would change their lives.
Burden knew who Kennedy was, from him protesting in front of the old Echo Theater to the times Kennedy would actually go inside The Redneck Shop.
But Burden also knew Kennedy for more dangerous reasons: Burden had been tasked with assassinating Kennedy and had the chance to do so on a couple of occasions but chose not to.
So when Kennedy walked past Burden that day and Burden asked Kennedy for help, Kennedy, now 65, says he didn’t hesitate to help.
“It was the right thing to do. He needed me. And a stranger thing is I wanted to be great so I needed him,” Kennedy said. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The greatest among you will be to serve’ so I wanted to serve because I wanted to be the greatest.”
Kennedy, whose own church was destroyed by fire during the turmoil surrounding The Redneck Shop, now pastors at New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church in what used to be a gun shop off U.S. 76 in Laurens.
He and his wife Janice have been married for 42 years. The Promised Land native said it’s been an adventure being married to Kennedy.
“But he is a good man. That’s how God made him,” she said.
When asked if her husband would do the same thing — help Michael Burden and protest over The Redneck Shop — she was quick to answer yes.
“That’s how God made him. He would have done the same thing exactly, no doubt in my mind,” she said. “(There’s) nothing that God and we couldn’t handle together, with him guiding us.”
Kennedy said he knows he was where he needed to be that day Michael Burden asked him for help. He and Burden remain friends to this day. And, because Burden sold Kennedy the deed to the building that housed The Redneck Shop for $1,000, Kennedy owns it, free and clear.
They are also the subject of a movie titled “Burden,” starring Forrest Whitaker as Kennedy and Garrett Hedlund as Burden.
Kennedy said that even now, 22 years later, he has no regrets about helping Burden and his family.
“For me to live as Christ that is my meaning and to suffer is nothing but gain. People look at other people and it is easy to condemn and it is easy to strike down but the task of Burden was on me to represent the kingdom,” he said. “If we live in this world, whether we like it or not, our destiny depends on how well we love on each other. Anybody can hate but it takes a lot of courage to love.”