The Rev. Barry Kidwell of First-Centenary United Methodist Church is usually easy to spot in a crowd as the middle-aged man with long hair.
Still wearing it the way he wore it when he was in high school in the mid-to-late 1970s when long hair was popular, he said he still feels most true to himself when he styles his hair that way.
“When I became a preacher, I had some people who told me I needed to cut it off,” he recalled with a chuckle during a recent interview.
“I cut it off and I said this isn’t me. I said that you have to be yourself. So I never cut it off again.”
Another aspect of his life and persona with a long length of reach, and one that is also a true example of who he is, deals with his involvement in missions. That has ranged from helping some lower-income residents in an adjoining county as a young minister, to a popular meal program for the needy in North Chattanooga about a decade ago, to another recent mission trip to Romania to aid the gypsy people.
“Every church I’ve ever been in, we’ve always started missions,” he said of his philosophy and inner call.
As Mr. Kidwell, the director of the Mustard Tree Ministries and minister of outreach at First-Centenary, looked back on his pastoral career, he said it started when he was only 21.
Spending his early years in New Orleans, where he became an LSU football fan for life, he moved to Cleveland, Tn., after his father, the late Jack Kidwell, a YMCA administrator, became a girls basketball and freshman football coach at Cleveland High.
That became a place where a seed was planted for later ministry. Mr. Kidwell said one classmate at Cleveland later had to serve time in a penitentiary, and Mr. Kidwell ended up writing him once a month. He did not hear back from him initially, but when he got out of prison, the man called Mr. Kidwell to thank him.
After graduating from Cleveland in 1977, he eventually accepted a call into ministry after initially trying to avoid the inner nudge. He later began serving as minister of three churches in Meigs County for 10 years and did dairy farm work as he continued his schooling and began attending Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
While doing the hard manual work, he realized that many low-income people who worked alongside him providing nourishment for other people were not able to provide the basic sustenance for themselves. They were not lazy, he said, but they simply did not make a whole lot of money from their work.
That encouraged him to start a food pantry mission through his churches in the Goodfield Circuit.
“I worked on a dairy farm with people who still lived on dirt floors and didn’t have running water,” he recalled of the eye-opening moment when he saw the needs of people who lived in trailer parks not far from where he had grown up.
When he later began serving as minister of outreach at St. John United Methodist near the intersection of Highways 58 and 153, the church started doing mission work in the Harriet Tubman housing project and with the homeless.
After he was appointed to Forrest Avenue UMC in 2004, he also began running a meal-related ministry there. The church eventually closed in 2010, and the property in the trendy area was quickly bought up and a new residential complex was built where the historic church building was razed.
However, the meal program and other aspects of his Mustard Tree Ministries continued under Mr. Kidwell with the support of the Holston Conference. Eventually, his mission outreach work came under the umbrella of First-Centenary UMC.
That ministry includes a Sunday night service and meal for the needy, using the leased Hartnell Farm in Hixson, and securing some land on the former Light House UMC acreage off Highway 58 for a community of tiny homes.
Mr. Kidwell, who can often be found doing ministry with his and longtime wife Diana’s autistic son, Zak, first became involved in Romania while he was at Forrest Avenue UMC. And it was a result of a situation that can only be described as a God moment.
“I was just praying and asking God to send me to a people who needed somebody to come along beside them and minister to a group of people that nobody else cared about,” he said.
Unknown to Mr .Kidwell, a Signal Mountain man, Dennis Miller, had helped get a ministry started in Romania, but his group had lost a lead person and he was praying as well to find someone else.
“The same day we were both praying, he was driving by Forrest Avenue and felt led to come by and talk to me about doing that. I said to him, ‘You wouldn’t believe what I was just praying about.’ ”
That was in 2009, and he decided to begin doing some mission work in Romania, working in coordination with that group for a period.
“I didn’t have a clue where Romania was,” Mr. Kidwell laughed of his initial thoughts when he agreed to begin trying to do mission work there. “I knew it was in Eastern Europe.”
Early on while taking trips there, he began to wonder why there was no United Methodist church in Romania. Through the then-Holston Conference bishop, the Rev. James Swanson, and a UMC bishop assigned to that region of the world, he met at a mission conference in Texas a pastor looking to plant a Methodist church in Romania.
Mr. Kidwell learned the amount needed, and in another God moment, it worked out perfectly for him to get involved. “I had to the penny the exact money we needed to purchase a church,” he said.
Mr. Kidwell also found out there was a wide-open opportunity to serve the gypsy community there.
In recent years he has been working through his position with First-Centenary UMC to do the mission work there. During a recent eight-day trip late this spring, his group was able to break ground in Comcesti on a community center/church there.
They also took a financial contribution to the community of Salcia so that some people there can continue building a community center/church. His group is also trying to do various levels of outreach in three other villages.
“We are able to support the pastors’ salaries and we’re able to support evangelism outreach,” he said. “There is a soccer program to reach kids. We also provide meals and bus tickets.”
He calls these people living in the villages a forgotten people, and said a lot go through tough situations in part because the government charges families to treat children in hospitals.
“A lot of gypsies can’t afford to do that and they can’t afford children and they (the children) end up in orphanages.”
He also said many gypsy people have to end up surviving simply by trying to find food in garbage dumps. Many also try to be resourceful simply by using the local resources.
“They will also go into the forests and cut wood and sell wood for firewood,” he said, adding that is technically illegal. “Most Romanians heat their homes with firewood still.”
He said the gypsies have traditionally possessed the stereotype of being robbers and other crime offenders in cities due to their economic challenges.
However, he said many of the people his group has ministered to seem hungry for the word of God, with one group recently worshiping in the rain without worry.
And reaching out to them and seeing some of them be able to gain a better footing economically has been rewarding, too, he added.
For example, he said that one young man named Samuel comes from a family that lives in a one-room home, but he has become interested in school and is now able to attend high school. That is usually unheard of for someone from a family like that, he added.
“For them to be able to get an education and then go on, it will change their families’ whole world.”
It has changed Mr. Kidwell’s as well.
“It really does make your heart go ‘wow,’ ” he said of the work.