Kearney is associate pastor for the Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church in Warrenton and also serves as a faith and health facilitator for the United Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church Association. He has partnered with researchers at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP) on several projects focused on connecting sustainable agriculture and health in recent years, but has been building his expertise in the area since 1981.
“When I first had a calling from God, I had visions and dreams of working with groups of people in churches about taking care of their bodies,” said Kearney. “I believe that was God’s calling to me – to be charged with taking care of the whole person, soul and body.”
Since then, Kearney has worked as a personal trainer and group exercise instructor. He worked at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center for 10 years and started a personal training program there. He was part of the Life for Life wellness program that served more than 20,000 Duke employees and provided incentives for positive health changes.
“I could see these programs empowering people to be more in control of their health and environment,” said Kearney. “Somehow I knew that this was just a place God had put me to learn and I would bring it back to our faith community.”
Kearney returned to his hometown of Warrenton and helped Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church connect with health researchers at Duke for a successful 5-year project. His current work with UNC HPDP researchers focuses on reestablishing interest in farming among the youth at his church with hopes of inspiring them to consider farming as a career in order to improve the health of the community.
The Harvest of Hope project includes youth and other church members in creating a church garden. The Faith, Farming and the Future (F3) project works with four churches in rural Warren County to form youth action teams to identify critical challenges and opportunities in the local food and agriculture system. Business leaders and youth empowerment experts will coach these teams to develop innovative solutions to improve healthy food access and physical activity through entrepreneurial efforts.
Kearney also serves as a community expert for the Community Leadership and Reciprocal Development to Advance Community-Engaged Research project. The project helps to establish research partnerships between community members and academic researchers using community-based participatory research.
Kearney will begin meeting with other fellows through conference calls on April 6 and will meet regularly with the group for the next year. The program will bring all the fellows together for a meeting in Oakland, California in November. During the fellowship, Kearney and others will work to fight hunger and poverty by rebuilding local food economies. Fellows will review food, farming and developmental issues in their community and develop a faith and food justice work plan, as well as a personal agrarian food justice theology.
“This fellowship offers a national perspective and it will help me really define my theological perspective,” said Kearney.