Who is Kennie Riffey?
If you were to pass Kennie Riffey on the street, she might not strike you as a woman who was an international project manager who has visited over 65 countries. You might not know her international travel strongly influenced her desire to do home renovations and construction work.
When asked what she does for a living, Kennie responds like this:
“I’m one of the few female licensed general contractors in Tennessee. I bring people onsite, and I teach them construction and general employment skills. I am willing to give people second chances who have been in jail and drug and alcohol rehab programs. I will give them a job where other people would not hire them and teach them things like showing up on time and being consistent.”
She even says, “That’s it. That’s what I do.”
That sounds simple enough. She helps people. However, when asked how she got involved in construction, she responds like this: “Now, that is a much longer story.”
Long it is. Yet it is a story of following God, laughing off failure, and refusing to be discouraged.
Years ago, Kennie traveled 52 weeks out the year. Often, she was only in her Baltimore apartment long enough to exchange clothes before catching her next flight. She had no college degree, but she capitalized on every opportunity given to her, which resulted in her success in her job.
In 2002 her company was bought out, and she was let go. Kennie found herself in an identity crisis.
“My identity was gone,” says Kennie, “and it really flipped me out. I kind of sat around my apartment, like, oh my gosh, what do I do?’”
Her answer came one day when she was standing on her front stoop looking out over her neighborhood.
“I looked across the street, and there was Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church with a big blue star on top of it,” says Kennie. “And I said, ‘The only thing in your world, Kennie, that never changed was God. You need to go back to church. You need to quit focusing on yourself and focus on other people.’”
Back to Church
Kennie grew up in a Baptist church where she says the core message was “you’re going to die and go to hell, so you need to get saved.” For those who were already saved, there was little encouragement for growth. So, after hearing that same message over and over, at the age of 17, Kennie left church entirely.
Over 20 years later, at the age of 42, Kennie found herself compelled to go back.
“I was way, way, way too caught up in my disaster,” she says, “and the only way to solve it was to get God involved. So that’s what I did.”
Mary Star of the Sea was only one of the uncountable Catholic churches Kennie habitually passed when she turned left out of her neighborhood on her daily walks. One day, however, she decided to go a different direction.
“I turned right out of my apartment, and I found this church that I thought was Catholic,” says Kennie. “It had this beautiful giant sanctuary with big ornate ceilings. But it was Baptist!”
It was called Riverside Baptist Church, and it was right in the middle of the city. Every Sunday morning, they hosted a mission breakfast, which was open to the neighborhood, and especially the homeless. Kennie started helping with their breakfasts and perused the city for other service opportunities.
I Am Not Blessed
Every day on her wanderings, she wondered about her next steps and tried to discern where God was taking her. Everything she accomplished in the first half of her life resulted because someone gave her an opportunity; she worked hard, and was then given another opportunity.
“I’m not gonna say I was blessed because I don’t like the way we use it,” says Kennie. “We say, ‘God blessed him with a new car,’ and the implication of that is: If I didn’t get a new car, God did not bless me. So I’m not gonna say I was blessed. I’m gonna say: God gave me a brain and expects me to use it.”
This motto became Kennie’s mission in life and was integral in her decision to go back to school. She wanted to give others that same opportunity for success, and she knew formal education could give her the necessary tools. She enrolled at Anne Arundel Community College and studied Sociology under Carl Snowden.
“Carl Snowden turned me on to social justice,” Kennie says. “He introduced me to issues of racism and prejudice, and so from that moment forward, you know, I wanted to solve all the problems of the world.”
Social Justice Meets Construction
Kennie took classes that aligned with her mission (God gave me a brain and expects me to use it), and she brainstormed how she could give opportunities to Baltimore’s impoverished and underprivileged. At the time she knew three things:
1) She wanted to do on-the-job training, because she felt it an efficient learning atmosphere.
2) In Baltimore there was an abundance of vacant homes, some being sold for as little as a dollar.
3) She had interviewed numerous women in Baltimore’s battered women’s shelter, who had concerns about being home with their children after school.
How could she combine all three components? Construction!
Even though Kennie had never done construction before (she didn’t even change her own lightbulbs), she went for it. She decided to start a training program teaching women to renovate houses in downtown Baltimore. She would buy houses, employee women, teach them construction job skills, and then the women could live in the houses or rent them for income.
“Well, then I moved,” Kennie laughs. “So, I didn’t do anything with that, but I thought it was a really fabulous idea, and I thought for sure it was the way to do things.”
Trial and Error
Once again, the new company she worked for was being bought out, and her apartment lease was expiring. So, she left her apartment and went on her first solitary trip around the world. On her journey she saw children playing in sewage and encountered complete poverty. In 2005 she moved to Knoxville as a changed person.
“If you go with a purpose of seeing how people live, you can’t come back unchanged,” says Kennie. “I visited East Knoxville, which is very impoverished and desolate looking. So I bought a house there, bought all the tools and thought, ‘Ok I’m gonna start this training program.”
Still, she had no construction experience, so Kennie hired a master carpenter named Mike, and started an eight-week journey renovating this house with four other women. The project wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be.
“When you work with people from disadvantaged groups and apply professional business techniques, you’re not going to be successful,” she says. “I assumed everybody knew what time to show up. I assumed everybody knew how to work, and they didn’t.”
Kennie had been so sure of her idea, but she was soon forced to stop the program. She then enrolled in the University of Tennessee’s Scholars Program, completed an independent study in Economic and Community Development, and took an MBA class in hopes of learning how to incent minimum wage workers.
A New Direction
After her second trip around the world in 2010, she came back to Knoxville, bought a house through the Community Development office in Knoxville, and this time over 30 people including ex-offenders and youth from runaway shelters went through her program.
Then, the housing market crashed, Kennie was never able to sell the house, she was running out of money, and she was forced again to put the program on hold. Like so many times in her past, she faced with going a new direction.
Still, she wanted to work with people in need and impact her community. So, she became a general contractor remodeling and renovating houses as a business, but she continued hiring people who needed second chances. Since she lost her job back in 2002, Kennie has been dedicated to the needs of other people. This desire for community service is one she was glad to find within the walls of First Baptist.
In the City, For the City
When Kennie first came to Knoxville, she wanted to attend an inner-city Baptist church focused on community service. That’s what Riverside had been for her. She couldn’t be part of a congregation only focused on getting saved or going to hell.
“I’ve seen too much to believe that’s God’s real message,” says Kennie. “I feel like my mission on earth is to live out my Christianity, and First Baptist has been a place that’s very much in line with my mission through things like Family Promise, Habitat Builds, mission trips, and Bridges Out of Poverty.”
Kennie is a great reminder that God gave us brains to use for Kingdom work, and God is our identity regardless of our where we go or what we do. We just have to trust in God, shake off failure, and keep moving forward.
If you, like Kennie, are interested in community and Kingdom work, First Baptist can connect you through church programs and local organizations. We have a place to serve for every passion. Contact Arthur Clayton, our Minister of Congregational Mission, today to get involved. We would love to serve with you.