In a city with a Jewish population of just over 1 percent, a rabbi’s departure might not attract a lot of attention. But Marc Kline leaves a legacy far beyond his own Lexington faith community.
“I never thought I would leave Lexington,” he said. “I had planned on retiring here. Man plans and God laughs.”
Kline, 53, grew up in Las Vegas, graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans and earned a law degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The “recovering lawyer” later studied at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati to be a rabbi and ministered eight years in Florence, S.C., before moving here.
In Lexington, Kline’s congregation grew. His children grew up. When his wife, Cindy, died in 2008, he felt the community’s love — including the tough love of friends who urged him to get in shape. Kline met Lori Bernard and remarried in 2010.
“I have experienced so many more blessings than challenges here,” he said.
Kline will be remembered in Lexington for his tireless work to bridge gaps of religion, race and culture. He chaired the city’s Human Rights Commission, served on civic organization boards and taught pastoral care to Christian ministerial students at Lexington Theological Seminary.
Kline opened his pulpit to other religious leaders, and they opened theirs to him.
The first time Kline invited a local Muslim imam to speak at the Temple, he recalled, “there were people who didn’t show up believing that he would come strapped with bombs to his chest. All he did was simply thank the congregation for the opportunity to share the Sabbath. What an eye-opening experience!”
“When Mark Johnson (senior minister at Central Baptist Church) shows up at Temple now,” he added, “it’s not ‘The Baptist minister is here,’ it’s ‘Oh, Mark’s here again.”
Kline has become close friends with several leaders from other religions and races.
He meets weekly with a group of Protestant clergy friends to discuss the Bible from different perspectives.
“We have expanded each other’s conversation,” he said. “And we’ve been able to create a lot of conversations that our town just hasn’t had.”
Kline said they share similar concerns, from secularization to fundamentalism.
“We’ve got a fundamentalism in one part of this community that seems to want to believe that it’s the only voice,” Kline said. “I believe in faith first. I think religious denominations give us frameworks through which we can practice faith. But I refuse to accept that there are different Gods in the world. And I refuse to accept that God likes some of us more than others.”
As Kline prepares to leave Lexington, I asked him to reflect on the city: its strengths, weaknesses and challenges.
“There are two Lexingtons, at least,” he said. “One is a very conservative, very old school. The other Lexington is one of the most progressive cities in America. And the two co-exist, sometimes with more tension, sometimes with none. This community has grown a lot in 11 years, but still there’s a racial divide and a cultural divide.
“I’m finding that there are more and more people, because they are transplants here, who are not vested in the old Lexington,” he added. “At the same time, there’s some rebellion from old Lexington because they feel their city is being taken from them. It plays out at Temple. It plays out in churches. It plays out in politics, certainly.
“In all of that struggle, everyone will say, ‘I’m working for a better Lexington,’ and I believe everyone means it,” he said.
In his extensive organizational consulting work, Kline said he talks a lot about change — how change is inevitable, and choosing to embrace it or not is often the choice between organizational life and death.
“As the world continues to change, we’re not looking at a homogenous Lexington or Kentucky anymore,” he said. “You have people coming in with different religious experiences, cultural experiences, social norms. The population is diversifying, which is creating all sorts of different conversations.”
The key to a successful city, Kline said, is strong relationships.
“We have an obligation as we move forward in this global world to get to know each other, to find out what makes each other tick,” he said. “Because so many of the things that divide us are completely artificial. We don’t see that we really are all the same.”